Battle of Somme Sixty Thousand British Casualties Day One

 

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“A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).” photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The Royal Irish Rifles was a regular British Army regiment recruited primarily in the northern Irish counties and one of the eight regular British regiments raised and stationed in Ireland before the partition of the country. The regiment was stationed in Belfast.

These men have obviously finished taking rations to the front line trenches since few are carrying anything and they would not be so relaxed if they were close to the front line. Usually the ration parties went up at night. A communication’s trench would be exactly that: a trench running perpendicular to the main trench. No trenches were dug in a straight line. They were all dug in a zig-zag pattern so that if the Germans overran a trench, they couldn’t shoot every soldier in the trench.

First day of the Battle of the Somme British troops go over the top. Many were hit as they climbed out of their trenches.

The first day of the Somme has become a symbol of military incompetence. Both British and French artillery had pounded the German trenches for days but this only gave the Germans notice that an attack was being prepared. German engineers had created very deep and fortified dugouts for their infantry which Allied artillery shells did not penetrate.

British troops leaping a trench on first day of the Battle of the Somme. If the first wave captured a trench the second wave then took their turn. They leapt over the captured trench and endeavored to capture the next one.

When young British subalterns stood up and blew their whistles to signal their men to go over the top, many never made it very far from the trenches since they were shot down by German machine gun fire as soon as they exposed themselves.  Numbers of men were killed as they were climbing up out of their trenches and fell back in, on top of the other men waiting to climb the ladder.

20,000 British soldiers were outright killed on that first day. 40,000 were wounded.

Incredibly, sixty percent of all officers in the attacking formations were killed.

Most of these were young men, 19, 20,21, who went first as officers are supposed to do. Thus exposed, the young officers were mowed down.

(Source: BBC)

The First World War never should have happened and need never happened. But events got out of control, politicians maneuvered for their own personal advantage, various states made impossible demands on each other. As in World War Two, it was the Germans who fanned the flames and launched the Great War for which they paid dearly. But so did everyone else.

The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July 1916 until sputtering to and end in November of 1916. Many of the men who went over the top were young conscripts. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.

War is often incredibly foolish and causes more problems than it solves. World War One was the most tragic event of the 20th Century since it set in motion forces which turned the century into the bloodiest in history.

 

 

Crowding Disaster Kills Thousands of French at Agincourt

Above is YouTube vid of Kenneth Branagh’s magnificent, spine-tingling giving the famous “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….” speech to his men just before the battle.  Branagh, a brilliant actor played Henry V (King Harry to his men) and directed the film as well.
Henry-V-Branagh (1)
Kenneth Branagh as Henry V learns the French have withdrawn from the battlefield leaving him the victor. The King led his army in person.
Long before the countries of Europe existed more or less as we know them, huge parts of Europe and places around the world belong to various ruling dynasties. Through inheritance. marriage and clever dynastic moves, the Kings of England had come to rule a good portion of what today is modern France including the area of Normandy. In fact, Henry V controlled so much of France after the Battle of Agincourt that he became Regent of that country.
To maintain their rule the parts of France which belonged to the Royal House of the Plantagenets, the English had to keep fighting in France to maintain their rule.  The English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415 — Saint Crispin’s day is one of the great battles of history.

English long bowman at the ready

Personally led by King Henry V himself, the English beat the hell out of the French, largely due to the bravery of the English long bowmen and the incredible force of their arrows which could actually penetrate the armored suits of the French knights. At least that is the theory. No one is certain. Henry V, known as King Harry, led his noble men at arms in their suits of armor and formed them in a line four deep.
Kenneth Branagh as Henry V on the White Cliffs of Dover
The English archers were positioned on the flanks. King Henry’s deployment forced the French, who outnumbered the English by more than 5 to 1, to attack on a very narrow front of 750 yards. This had the effect of packing them together very tightly so they could hardly move and thus the French became jammed together.
English long bowman

The English long bowmen fired barrage after barrage of arrows high into the air over the mass of Frenchmen. Arrows fired high came down with tremendous force, each arrow having a sharpened iron arrowhead known as a bodkin point.

 

Bodkin1A bodkin point arrowhead. The iron part is about 4 ½ inches long.

 

Naturally, there is great historical debate over what happened at Agincourt. Experiments have been conducted which prove, or disprove, that the English arrows could penetrate French armor although the ones I have seen on YouTube and elsewhere don’t seem to account for the parabolic effect of the flight of the arrow and the additional force that would give the arrow as it fell.

While the arrows may, or may not have, been able to penetrate the steel armor of the richest nobles, they could penetrate chain mail. (Foot soldiers and lower ranking nobles on foot rarely wore more body protection than chain mail). Further, and more disruptive, the lack of protection horses had from the rain of English arrows was a “game changer.”

An armored knight on a steed was a powerful “weapons system” but unhorsed, he couldn’t move very quickly. In fact, without help, he couldn’t get back on his feet. Killing or disabling a mounted knight’s horse with a flight of arrows would hardly have been difficult.

Without his horse, a medieval knight wearing the battle armor of a mounted man, and not the lighter armor of a man expecting to fight on foot, would have been easy to neutralize since once unhorsed, his mobility was almost zero. Given the visor which covered his eyes except for a tiny slight, he would have difficulty seeing anything not directly in front of him.

An interesting theory claims that numbers of French men-at-arms who were attacking on foot were apparently killed in a classic crowd disaster. There were rank after rank of these men. When crowds press forward into a small space, the force generated begins to create a huge jam of people with more and more force being exerted by people in the back continuing to push forward. This asphyxiates those jammed into the small space who get pushed together so tightly they cannot move — or breathe. The force is also enough to break bones.

If this indeed happened to the thousands of Frenchmen on foot then while they were being jammed together so tightly they could not breath, and their armor plate was no doubt breaking the bones and spines of the men in front of them, it might explain why literally thousands and thousands of Frenchmen died.

 

Arrows fired by English longbow men could easily penetrate chain mail

According to a research paper by John J. Fruin, Ph.D., P.E.  The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters:      

Crowd forces can reach levels that are almost impossible to resist or control. Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the “trampling” reported by the news media. Evidence of bent steel railings after several fatal crowd incidents show that forces of more than 4500 N (1,000 lbs.) occurred. Forces are due to pushing and the domino effect of people leaning against each other.
AGINCOURT  WAS PROBABLY ONE OF THE WORST CROWD CRUSH INCIDENTS IN THE WESTERN WORLD

When the Frenchmen began to endure this horror, panic would have set in, which would only have increased the intense force pushing the men together as some tried to go forward and others backward. Into the midst of this panicked crowd, the English bowmen were shooting upwards of 50,000 arrows a minute. They didn’t aim at individuals. They just fired masses of arrows into the air so they would come down in an arc onto a crowd.

figure above is from Medieval Character Models. (Arrows would have gone through the chain-mail)

http://henning-kleist.de/knights_en.html

There were 5,000 plus English archers and they could fire about ten arrows a minute. They were well trained although physical exhaustion would have led to a slackening of fire after a time. If you have ever fired a bow and arrow for just a few times you become aware of the muscle power required.

Still, whatever the pack of French knights and men at arms were trying to do, they were doing it under a hail of deadly arrows. And only the wealthiest men could afford the best steel armor which could not be penetrated by English arrows. Only a handful would have been wearing armor like that. Most would have had inferior armor and chain mail which the English arrows could and did penetrate.

French casualties were said to be in the thousands against a handful of English dead and the French who survived their calamitous defeat left the battlefield in shock defeated in mind and spirit.

From Henry V. After the slaughter of the French knights and gentlemen on foot, the French herald comes and informs Henry that he has won a great victory.

KING HENRY V

I tell thee truly, herald,
I know not if the day be ours or no;
For yet a many of your horsemen peer
And gallop o’er the field.

MONTJOY

The day is yours.

KING HENRY V

Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!
What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?

MONTJOY

They call it Agincourt.

KING HENRY V

Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.

 

 

Free French Destroyer Triomphant

A massive wave washes over the deck of the Free French Force destroyer, Le Triomphant, during a cyclone. She was on convoy duty with the American oil tanker Cedar Mills and the Dutch cargo ship Java when the cyclone hit and received considerable damage. Without fuel, water and provisions and listing 45 degrees, she was towed by the Cedar Mills to Diego Suarez, Madagascar, for repairs.

Le Triomphant, one of six Le Fantasque class destroyers built by At. & Ch de France of Dunkirk, France, was launched on 16 April 1934 and commissioned into the French Navy on 25 May 1936. She had a complement of 220 officers and men and was reputed to reach speeds of well over 40 knots.

On 3 July 1940 she arrived at the British port of Plymouth, escaping the Vichy French government and was transferred to the French Free force under the command of Commandant Pierre Gilly. She served in the Pacific after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, undertaking numerous escort and convoy assignments. (photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

 

The crew of the Free French Force destroyer, Le Triomphant, race to apply a collision mat to the damaged ship’s hull during a cyclone on 2 December 1943. The collision mat, a large piece of canvas, is passed under the ship and is held in place by the pressure of the water trying to enter the breach. (photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

 

The crew of the Free French Force ship Le Triomphant, a large destroyer of Le Fantasque class, are presented to the leader of the Free French Force, General Charles Andre Joseph Marie de Gaulle (saluting on right) while in port at Algiers. Saluting General de Gaulle is Lieutenant de Vaisseau Leon Mequin (later Commanding Officer of the Free French Force corvette Lobelia). General de Gaulle is attended by the Minister for the Navy, Louis Jacquinot and Commandant Pierre Gilly.  (photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

 

 

Starboard broadside view of the French Free Force ship the large destroyer Le Triomphant. One of six Le Fantasque class destroyers built by AT & CH de France of Dunkirk, France, she was launched on 16 April 1934 and commissioned into the French Navy on 25 May 1936.

 

Members of the ship’s crew of FFS LE TRIOMPHANT in working rig, seated on gantries hanging over the ship’s side, painting the ship’s bow. FFS LE TRIOMPHANT was one of the French naval ships which came to British ports after the capitulation of the French Government and was manned by Free French sailors, forming part of the Free French Navy.

 

*Feature photograph: Starboard broadside view of the French Free Force ship the large destroyer Le Triomphant. One of six Le Fantasque class destroyers built by AT & CH de France of Dunkirk, France, she was launched on 16 April 1934 and commissioned into the French Navy on 25 May 1936

Vichy Navy Scuttles Itself “Then It Will Blow Up”

“then it will blow up”

Toulon_1942

The scuttled French fleet at Toulon: aerial pictures. On 28 November 1942, the day after the scuttling and firing of the ships of the French fleet in Toulon harbour, photographs were taken by the Royal Air Force. Many of the vessels were still burning so that smoke and shadows obscure part of the scene.

But the photographs show, besides the burning cruisers, ship after ship of the contre-torpilleurs and destroyer classes lying capsized or sunk, testifying to the thoroughness with which the French seamen carried out their bitter task. While the vast damage done is shown in these photographs, no exact list of the state of the ships can be drawn up, since the ships themselves cannot be seen in an aerial photograph. Thus the upper deck of the battle cruiser Strasbourg is not submerged, but here are signs that the vessel has settled and is grounded.

The key plan C.3296 shows the whereabouts of the majority of the ships and their condition as far as it can be seen from the photographs. Picture shows: damaged and sunk light cruisers and destroyers visible through the shadow and the smoke caused by the burning cruisers.  To the left is the Strasbourg (bridge above the water but clearly sunk) next to her, burning, is the Colbert under the smoke, the Algérie to the right, the Marseillaise.

(Caption & photo in the public domain and courtesy of the US Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC).

 

On 27 November 1942,  in violation of the terms of the armistice between the Vichy government of France and Nazi Germany, German troops and tanks broke down the gates of the main French naval base at Toulon and made an effort to seize the French High Seas fleet.

There was a minor exchange of small arms fire then both sides stop firing. The French sailors on guard duty had already reported all the details to the C-in-C so they stood aside no doubt smiling to themselves. It was 0400 and still very dark.

German infantry and tanks had a difficult time finding their way through the huge naval base to the piers where the ships were secured. Just because one could see the silhouette of a ship in the distance didn’t mean you could drive in a straight line to it. There was the usual dockyard impedimenta: cranes, huge machine sheds, stacks of barrels, warehouses, vehicles, steel plates, rope, spare parts, wharves for smaller vessels which could be mistaken for larger vessels in the dark.

The French stayed true to their word to the British and Americans to never allow their fleet to fall into the hands of the Germans. As the Germans swarmed into the naval base, Admiral de Laborde, C-in-C of the High Seas Fleet aboard his flagship Strasbourg, ordered all ships to scuttle themselves according to a pre-arranged and plan and they did.

 

Toulon, Panzer IV

German panzertruppen watch a burning French warship, probably the cruiser Colbert.(Photo courtesy German National Archive).

Critical machinery and gyro compasses were destroyed by grenades. Reduction gears in the turbines were damaged beyond repair. Electrical fuse boxes smashed. And all the guns were blown up.

German officers finally made their way to the pier where the French cruiser Algérie was located. This ship happened to be the the flagship of the heavy cruiser squadron and the commander of the squadron, Admiral Lacroix, was aboard.

All the guns except the after turret had been blown and the ship was sinking.

“We have come to take over your ship!” one of the Germans officers yelled in French.

“You are a little late,” replied Admiral Lacroix. “It is already sinking.”

“Will it blow up?”

“No.”

“In that case,” the German officer shouted, “we will go aboard.”

“In that case,” the Admiral replied, “it will blow up.”

At that point the after turret exploded and flames shot up through hatches close to the bow as the interior of the ship began burning.

The Germans did not come aboard.

 

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

The stern of the light cruiser Marseillaise. (Photo courtesy German National Archive)

 

Source: author’s research and The French Navy in World War Two by Rear Admiral Paul Auphan, French Navy (retired) and Jacques Mordal. Published by the US Naval Institute Press, 1959.