Within the collective British and Commonwealth psyche, no battle epitomises the futility of war as much as the Battle of the Somme. Almost 20,000 men were killed on the first day, 1 July 1916, alone.
It started with the usual preliminary bombardment. Lasting five days, and involving 1,350 guns and 52,000 tonnes of explosives fired onto the German lines, British soldiers were assured that the 18-mile German frontline would be flattened – it would just be a matter of strolling across and taking possession of the German trenches – beyond that, lay Berlin.
The Battle of the Somme was designed to relieve the pressure on the French suffering at Verdun. The British army at the Somme consisted mainly of Kitchener recruits. Most had received only minimal training and many had still to grasp the skill of shooting accurately.
‘Dead men cannot move’
At 7.20 am on Saturday 1 July 1916, the first of seventeen mines was detonated; a huge explosion on the German lines at Hawthorn Ridge (pictured). The explosion was captured on film by official war photographer Geoffrey Malins and the Hawthorn Crater is still visible today.
The advance started ten minutes later, at 7.30 am. The massive explosions certainly alerted the German defenders to what was about to come.
To the right of the British, a smaller French force, transferred from Verdun. As ordered, the men advanced in rigid lines. The bombardment combined with heavy rain had ensured that the ground was akin to a sea of mud and many an advancing soldier, lumbered with almost 70 lbs of equipment, drowned.
Far from being decimated by the artillery, the German trenches ahead were brimming with guns pointing towards the advance. What followed went down as the worse day in British military history and perhaps in the history of warfare – 57,000 men fell on that first day alone, 19,240 of them dead. In return, the Germans suffered 185 casualties that first day. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, for example, suffered ninety per cent casualties – of the 780 Newfoundlanders that advanced on 1 July, only 68 were available for duty the following day.
One of Britain’s generals at the Battle of the Somme, Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, wrote, ‘It was a remarkable display of training and discipline, and the attack failed only because dead men cannot move on’. Despite the appalling losses, Britain’s commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, decided to ‘press [the enemy] hard with the least possible delay’. Thus the attack was resumed the following day. And the day after that.
Cavalry and tanks
On 14 July, following a partially successful nighttime attack, the British sent in the cavalry – a rare sight on the Western Front of World War One and one that stirred the romantic notions in old timers such as Haig. But the horses became bogged down in the mud, the Germans opened fire and few survived, either horse or man.
On 15 September, Haig introduced the modern equivalent of the cavalry onto the battlefield – the tank. Originated in Britain, and championed by Winston Churchill, the term ‘tank’ was at first merely a codename to conceal its proper name – ‘landship’. Despite advice to wait for more testing, Haig had insisted on their use at the Somme. He got his way and the introduction of 32 tanks met with mixed results – many broke down but a few managed to penetrate German lines. But, as always, the Germans soon plugged the hole forged by the tanks. Nonetheless, Haig was impressed and immediately ordered a thousand more.
The Battle of the Somme ground on for a further two months. Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded on the first day alone; another 41 by the end of the battle. Soldiers from every part of the Empire were thrown into the melee – Australian, Canadian, New Zealanders, Indian and South African all took their part. The battle finally terminated on 18 November, after 140 days of fighting. 400,000 British and Commonwealth lives were lost, 200,000 French and 400,000 German. For this the Allies gained five miles. The Germans, having been pushed back, merely bolstered the already heavily-fortified second line, the Hindenburg Line.
As AJP Taylor put it in his First World War, first published in 1963, ‘Idealism perished at the Battle of the Somme. The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer’.
Rupert’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling drama set during World War One, is now available.