A strange sight crossed the eyes of travelers at London’s famed Waterloo Station this morning, a vision one hundred years anachronistic. Hundreds of young men dressed as Tommys from the Great War milled about in the main concourse, some quietly, others chatting with their chums, a number answering questions from confused passers-by. The answer to the most frequent question was undoubtedly echoed time and time again: “We’re commemorating the Somme.”
To those with a grounding the history of the Great War, that name should provide a chill. The Somme was a bloodletting unlike any that British forces had ever fought before, or would ever fight again– inclusive of the next war to follow. The Somme was a long British offensive designed to take pressure off the French army that was cracking under pressure at the Battle of Verdun, and the Russian Imperial Army driving against Austria-Hungary in the Brusilov Offensive in the east.
Beginning 1 July 1916 and dragging on until 18 November, the insanely costly offensive took the lives of better than 19,000 British troops on the first day of the fight alone, nearly 482,000 over the course of the fight. German casualties were also daunting: 538,000. The total casualties between the belligerents therefore stood at over a million young men– a staggering number by any measure. To put this into perspective, the total population of the UK in 1914 stood at 46 million– more than 1 out of every hundred citizens (not soldiers– citizens) of the UK perished at the Somme for about seven miles of the Belgian countryside.
From late 1914, the front between the forces of Imperial Germany and the western Allies stretched from the Swiss border to the sea. On the German side for much of the time between the ‘Race to the Sea’ and July of ’16, the strategy was simply to dig in and hold on, while the war in the with with Russia was concluded. Germany, having seized portions of France and essentially all of Belgium had the luxury. The Allies did not. Constantly from Paris came the calls to drive the Hun from sacred French soil, and from exiled Belgians to redeem their homeland under the hobnails of the Imperial Army. For the Allies, a defensive war would not do. They needed to go on the offensive. Politics and honor demanded no less. For much of 1915, the Allies launched assault after assault on the well-entrenched German foes from their own shoddy trench lines (kept that way because they were not meant to be long-term), and time after time they were driven back with bloody losses from machine-gun, rifle, and artillery fire. The Germany army took fewer, leaving them in a better state.
By February of 1916, Germany hatched a new plan– one designed to “bleed the French white“. The fortress city of Verdun had long stood as a strong-point along the Franco-German border, and it was a matter of French pride as much as military necessity, in that it was the last major obstacle on the way to Paris in the south. With more artillery, men, and resources, the German High Command hoped that with an all-out assault at Verdun the French could be lured into a battle of attrition– a battle they could no longer win. As the fight at Verdun ground on, the German army began capturing outlying forts in the defenses of Verdun, driving back the defenders, and threatening the whole works with enfilade artillery. The French army diverted their reserves to Verdun in an attempt to hold the line against the encroaching Germans and retake the lost ground, but the signs of a catastrophe were in the air.
Prior to the developments at Verdun, the plans were already underway for a joint British-French assault along the Somme to drive into Belgium and towards Brussels. The attack at Verdun made the push all the more necessary, to take pressure off the city, and divert German reserves away from the battle and toward the north. The fact that the elements of the French army assigned to the Somme offensive were drawn to Verdun made the challenge all the more daunting– the British would need to fight the conflict alone, and would need to succeed, lest Verdun fall and the Germans drive through a disorganized and beaten French army across the southern plains towards Paris.
Meanwhile along the southeastern border between Austria-Hungary and Russia, a massive offensive on a 200-mile long front was opened with a massive artillery barrage and infantry assault. Dual Monarchy forces were sent reeling backwards towards the Carpathians as the Russian juggernaut advanced. In the north of the Russian front, two Russian Armies were meant to demonstrate against the Germans in East Prussia to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their ally in the south. The British also hoped this might draw reserves away from the Somme.
Voices from the Field
The brutality of the fight at the Somme is difficult to qualify. The numbers, while stunning, do not do justice to the damage done to the countryside, the lives of the men who died, and those who lived as well.
By July 1916, the area around the front was stable but utterly decimated. Once verdant fields were ruined wastelands of shell craters, blackened trees, barbed wire, and mud. In the ever-present, all-encasing mud were the bodies of thousands of men and horses, shot down over the previous two years’ fighting, left to decay in the aptly-named ‘No Man’s Land.’ On either side of the lines were networked, honeycombed trenches two, three, four lines deep, connected by communication and travel trenches. Exhausted, dirty, and shell-shocked men stood in these various lines by the tens of thousands, numb to the horrors of seeing their friends butchered by shot and shell. It was truly a hell on earth.
The battle kicked off on 1 July with a titanic artillery barrage designed to kill every German within the forward trenches, or bury him in debris. British troops climbed to the parapets of their trenches and stormed across No Man’s Land into a hail of fire, ultimately seizing many of their objectives, but at great cost– the 19,000 killed and better than 52,000 wounded in the first day alone.
A. D. Gristwood noted that:
“Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel. It watered a country of simple beauty. . . Then came the pestilence.”
R. Mottram wrote of new reality at the at the Somme by the young men going over the top, recounted in Denis Winter’s Death’s Men:
“Enormous noise. Continuous explosion. A deserted landscape. Complete immobility of everything… I tried, but could see nothing but upturned empty fields. Then suddenly there was a terrific crash which flung me yards. I picked myself up and did my best to laugh. Near by a manlay with a tiny hole in his forehead and close to him another limped with blood pumping out of his leg. They were both carried away. A casualty was not a matter for horror but replacement… This was how I first saw the war.” (Winter 82-83)
Winston Churchill quotes the history of the German 27th Division, defending at the Somme, writing about the British assault:
“What we experienced surpassed all previous conception. The enemy’s fire never ceased for an hour. It fell day and night on the front line and tore fearful gaps in the ranks of the defenders; it fell on the approaches to the front line, and made all movement toward the front hell; it fell on the rearward trenches and the battery positions and smashed up men and material in a manner never seen before or since; it repeatedly reached even the resting battalions far behind the front and there occasioned exceptionally painful losses, and our artillery was powerless against it.” (Churchill 664)
American Alan Seeger fell in love with France on a visit prior to the outbreak of war, and when the guns of August called, Seeger answered, joining the French Foreign Legion. Prior to the Somme, he penned this poem:
“I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air–
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.“
Seeger kept his rendezvous. He was killed in the first day’s battle on 1 July 1916.
British medical orderly Hubert Harding was a witness to the fighting at the Somme, and somehow survived the battle. His war diary turned up in 2007, and an entry from July 4 reads:
“Most hellish day I ever knew. Enemy bombard our communication trench heavily, soon levelled out flat. Bomb store blown up, 4 men of 35 FA [Field Ambulance] wounded whilst helping us, I am very busy dressing.”
Jock Gaffron of the 4th Highlanders recounts his personal carnage at the hands of German artillery at the Somme.
“I noticed that my right foot had gone. I was hit behind the heel, which took the sole clean away, and the big toe was left dangling… So a Red Cross van man came (who) just casually cut the toe away and threw it on the roadside.“
William Griffith wrote of his unit’s return from the battle.
“After the Somme, marching in column of fours, there was no ring of feet and no swing of shoulder. There were slackness and frequent hitching of packs, a rise and fall of heads, much leaning forward. Men were marching abreast who had never before stood in the same file. There are no gaps in a battalion on the march though many have fallen. The closing up that follows tells its own tale. The faces of the many silent and hard-eyed men showed that they were not half-aware of their neighbors– newcomers who jostled the ghosts of old companions, ursurpers who were themselves struggling against the same griefs and losses and longings, marching forward with minds that looked backwards in time and space.” (Winter 187)
Edward Francis Lynch, a private with the Australian corps survived the Somme, noting of his experience of the long battle:
“It’s the end of the 1916 winter and the conditions are almost unbelievable. We live in a world of Somme mud. We sleep in it, work in it, fight in it, wade in it and many of us die in it. We see it, feel it, eat it and curse it, but we can’t escape it, not even by dying.“
Perhaps the most telling quote about the Somme is one that remains on the battlefield long after the fighting is over. Devonshire Cemetery sits in place of a trench line defended by the 8th and 9th Devonshire Regiments, some of the ‘Pals’ battalions made up of hometown friends who’d enlisted together in Lord Kitchener’s call for volunteers following the virtual destruction of the British regular army in 1914 in the first wave of the war. From this trench the lads went over the top on 1 July 1916. Some 160 died. Their remains were brought back and buried in what was their forward trench prior to the assault. A marker was later placed in the location, reading:
“The Devonshires Held this Trench, The Devonshires Hold it Still.”
Beaucourt Revisited — This poem by Sir Alan Patrick Henry, a survivor of the fight, was published in 1917 and recounts his memories of the battle around Ancre Heights.
On Somme— Ivor Gurney of the Gloucestershire Regiment survived the battle despite being shot and gassed, and wrote a book of poetry while convalescing in 1917.
First World War.com: The Somme – A decent recounting of the tale.
The Somme at Wikipedia – For the encylopedia version.
BBC Video on the Living Memorial Project in London on 1.7.2016.
Winter, Denis. Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War. London, England: Penguin, 1979. Print.