For the French it is Verdun, for the British, it is the Somme. How do we think of the biggest battle of the First World War after 100 years?
During one of the biggest battles of the First World War the British Empire and the French Empire tried to break through the lines of their German foe. This battle lasted for one hundred and f days between 1st July and 18th November 1916. The Somme itself is so strongly intertwined with the concept of WW1 as an example of meaningless bloodshed that this perception of the battle is unlikely to change.
The Somme offensive was originally meant to be almost solely executed by the French army, but French resources had to be diverted to the key Battle of Verdun. The task was therefore reassigned to a combined force of French and British troops. The British contingent was made up of the Territorial Force and Kitchener’s Army. Kitchener’s army was a force of volunteers, mostly consisting of the so-called ‘Pals Battalions’ – in principle, each battalion was made up of men from similar geographical areas and mostly the same occupations. The allies’ main aim was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.
The infamous first day of the battle, 1st July ended in terrible bloodshed. The Allies had fired around 1,700 000 artillery shells in order to destroy the German trench defenses. In the belief that the bombardment was successful (it wasn’t), the army advanced. Some accounts say that the men were ordered to move at walking speed. Sadly, the British high command was completely unaware that the German line was very much intact, and that machine guns were still there, waiting. There were a staggering 57,470 casualties, out of which 19,240 died. 60% of the British officers involved in the advance were killed. Seemingly despite all reason and in spite of the heavy casualties, the offensive continued.
Although the first day of the battle was the worst, there were continuous efforts to break through the line. These attacks were sometimes successful, but usually they only ended up advancing mere meters. 49 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the battle. There was no lack of bravery or heroism, but the general view is that the new mode of warfare was more terrible than heroic.
The numbers involved are horrific. More than 419,000 casualties for Britain and the Commonwealth, more than 204,000 for the French and between 450,000-600,000 Germans fell. Over one in four casualties died. It is no surprise that the first cases of ‘Shellshock’ (PTSD) were reported after the battle. Once the fighting stopped in November, the allies had only advanced 5 miles.
The battle is also notable as this was the first case of tanks engaging in combat – although, on their first deployment, only a quarter of the tanks made it to the frontline. The Somme was also among the first instances where aerial warfare played a significant role. Although this might have increased their efficiency in exterminating the enemy, it did not stop the generals sending their men ‘over the top’ again and again.
The fate of the ‘Pals Battalions’ was heart-breaking. As people from the same place served together, a fatal action might mean the devastation of whole communities. The example of the ‘Accrington Pals’ clearly demonstrates this – 585 casualties out of 700 in less than 20 minutes. The figures are truly soul-wrenching.
The Battle of Somme also brought together people of a very different kind. Adolf Hitler fought in the battle and was wounded in the fighting. JRR Tolkien also fought there, and it is said that The Hobbit’s first line were written in the trenches. And one must not forget about Siegfried Sassoon and Ralph Vaughan Williams either. They experienced the trenches and immortalised the horror and futility of the First World War through their artistic works.
Since 1916, the most prevailing narrative has been that the battle was a futile exercise of terrible destruction; Peter Barton even argued that it should be regarded as German defensive victory. Another view is that it was inevitable and even considering the immense casualties, the offensive was a success in as much as it was able to relieve the pressure on the French forces at Verdun.
However, no strategic success can make up for the terrible experiences of so many men, vividly described by Edward Lynch: ‘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.’