The Enduring Folly of the Battle of the Somme.
In a country that uses every possible occasion to celebrate its “warriors,” many have forgotten that today’s holiday originally marked a peace agreement. Veterans Day in the United States originally was called Armistice Day and commemorated the ceasefire which, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, ended the First World War.
Up to that point, it had been the most destructive war in history, with a total civilian and military death toll of roughly 20 million. Millions more had been wounded, many of them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals; and because of an Allied naval blockade of the Central Powers, millions more were near starvation: the average German civilian lost 20% of his or her body weight during the war.
A stunned world had never experienced anything like this. In some countries for years afterward, on November 11th, traffic, assembly lines, even underground mining machinery came to a halt at 11 a.m. for two minutes of silence, a silence often broken, witnesses from the 1920s reported, by the sound of women sobbing.
Like most wars, the war of 1914-1918 was begun with the expectation of quick victory, created more problems than it solved, and was punctuated by moments of tragic folly. As the years have passed, one point that has come to symbolize the illusions, the destructiveness, the hubris, the needless deaths of the entire war — and of other wars since then — has been the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The preparations for that battle went on for months: generals and their staffs drew up plans in their châteaux headquarters; horses, tractors, and sweating soldiers maneuvered thousands of big 13-ton guns into position; reconnaissance planes swooped above the German lines; endless trains of horse-drawn supply wagons carried artillery shells and machine gun ammunition up to the front; hundreds of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire, from the Orkney Islands to the Punjab, filled frontline trenches, reserve trenches, and support bases in the rear. All was in preparation for the grand attack that seemed certain to change the course of the war. And then finally on the first day of July 1916, preceded by the most massive bombardment British artillery had ever fired, the battle began.
You can see the results of the battle’s first day in dozens of military cemeteries spread out across this corner of France, but perhaps the most striking is one of the smallest, on a hillside, screened by a grove of trees. Each gravestone has a name, rank, and serial number; 162 have crosses and one a Star of David. When known, a man’s age is engraved on the stone as well: 19, 22, 23, 26, 21, 20, 34. Ten of the graves simply say, “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God.”
Almost all the dead are from Britain’s Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the frontline trench they had climbed out of that morning. Captain Duncan Martin, 30, a company commander and an artist in civilian life, had made a clay model of the battlefield across which the British planned to attack. He predicted the exact place at which he and his men would come under fire from the machine gun as they emerged onto an exposed hillside. He, too, is here, one of some 21,000 British soldiers killed or fatally wounded on the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country’s military, before or since.
Dreams of Swift Victory
In almost every war, it seems, the next planned offensive is seen as the big breakthrough, the smashing, decisive blow that will pave the way to swift victory. Midway through the First World War, troops from both sides had been bogged down for the better part of two years in lines of trenches that ran across northern France and a corner of Belgium. Barbed wire and the machine gun had made impossible the war of dramatic advances and glorious cavalry charges that the generals on both sides had dreamed of.
To end this frustrating stalemate, the British army planned an enormous assault for a point near where the River Somme meandered its slow and weed-filled way through French wheat and sugar-beet fields. A torrent of supplies began pouring into the area to equip the half million British Empire troops involved, of whom 120,000 would attack on the first day alone. This was to be the “Big Push,” a concentration of manpower and artillery so massive and in such a small space that the German defenses would burst open as if hit by floodwaters.
After the overwhelmed Germans had been bayoneted in their trenches, it would be a matter of what General Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, called “fighting the Enemy in the open,” and so battalions were trained intensively in maneuvering across trenchless meadows. Finally, of course, streaming through the gap in the lines would come the cavalry, three divisions’ worth. After all, hadn’t glorious charges by men on horseback been a decisive element in warfare for millennia?
Troops unrolled 70,000 miles of telephone cable. Thousands more unloaded and piled ammunition in huge dumps; stripped to the waist and sweltering in the summer heat, they dug endlessly to construct special roads to speed supplies to the front. Fifty-five miles of new standard-gauge railway line were built. With as many British soldiers crammed into the launching area as the population of a good-sized city, new wells had to be drilled and dozens of miles of water pipe laid. No detail was forgotten.
British troops, the plan went, would move forward across no-man’s-land in successive waves. Everything was precise: each wave would advance in a continuous line 100 yards in front of the next, at a steady pace of 100 yards a minute. How were they to be safe from German machine gun fire? Simple: the pre-attack artillery bombardment would destroy not just the Germans’ barbed wire but the bunkers that sheltered their machine guns. How could this not be when there was one artillery piece for every 17 yards of front line, all of which would rain a total of a million and a half shells down on the German trenches? And if that weren’t enough, once British troops climbed out of their trenches, a final “creeping barrage” of bursting shells would precede them, a moving curtain of fire riddling with shrapnel any surviving Germans who emerged from underground shelters to try to fight.
The plan for the first day’s attack on July 1, 1916, was 31 pages long and its map included the British names with which the German trenches had already been rechristened. Preparations this thorough were hard to conceal, and there were occasional unnerving signs that the German troops knew almost as much about them as the British. When one unit moved into position, it found a sign held up from the German trenches: WELCOME TO THE 29TH DIVISION.
Several weeks before the attack, 168 officers who were graduates of Eton met for an Old Etonian dinner at the Hotel Godbert in Amiens, a French city behind the lines. In Latin, they toasted their alma mater — “Floreat Etona!” — and raised their voices in the school song, “Carmen Etonense.” Enlisted men entertained themselves in other ways. A haunting piece of documentary film footage from these months, taken from a Red Cross barge moving down a canal behind the lines, shows hundreds of Allied soldiers stripped completely bare, wading, bathing, or sunning themselves on the canal bank, smiling and waving at the camera. Without helmets and uniforms, it is impossible to tell their nationality; their naked bodies mark them only as human beings.
Riding a black horse and with his usual escort of lancers, General Haig inspected his divisions as they rehearsed their attacks on practice fields where white tapes on the ground stood for the German trenches. On June 20th, the commander in chief wrote to his wife, “The situation is becoming more favourable to us.” On June 22nd he added, “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help.” On June 30th, as the great artillery barrage had been thundering for five days, Haig wrote in his diary, “The men are in splendid spirits…. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the Artillery preparation so thorough.” For good measure, the British released clouds of deadly chlorine gas toward the German lines.
As it grew close to zero hour, 7:30 a.m. on July 1st, men detonated 10 enormous mines planted by British miners tunneling deep beneath the German trenches. Near the village of La Boisselle, the crater from one remains, a stark, gaping indentation in the surrounding farmland; even partly filled in by a century of erosion, it is still 55 feet deep and 220 feet across.
When the artillery barrage reached its crescendo, 224,221 shells in the last sixty-five minutes, the rumble could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath in London. More shells were fired by the British this week than they had used in the entire first 12 months of the war; some gunners bled from the ears after seven days of nonstop firing. At a forest near Gommecourt, entire trees were uprooted and tossed in the air by the shelling and the forest itself set on fire.
Soldiers of the First Somerset Light Infantry sat on the parapet of their trench, cheering at the tremendous explosions. Officers issued a strong ration of rum to the men about to head into no-man’s-land. Captain W.P. Nevill of the Eighth East Surrey Battalion gave each of his four platoons a soccer ball and promised a prize to whichever one first managed to kick a ball into the German trench. One platoon painted its ball with the legend:
THE GREAT EUROPEAN CUP
EAST SURREYS V. BAVARIANS
Throughout the British Isles, millions of people knew a great attack was to begin. “The hospital received orders to clear out all convalescents and prepare for a great rush of wounded,” remembered the writer Vera Brittain, working as a nurse’s aide in London. “We knew that already a tremendous bombardment had begun, for we could feel the vibration of the guns… Hour after hour, as the convalescents departed, we added to the long rows of waiting beds, so sinister in their white, expectant emptiness.”
“God, God, Where’s the Rest of the Boys?”
Haig waited anxiously in his forward headquarters at the Château de Beauquesne, 10 miles behind the battlefield. Then, after a full week of continual fire, the British guns abruptly fell silent.
When whistles blew at 7:30 a.m., the successive waves of troops began their planned 100-yards-a-minute advance. Each man moved slowly under more than 60 pounds of supplies — 200 bullets, grenades, shovel, two days’ food and water, and more. But when those soldiers actually clambered up the trench ladders and over the parapet, they quickly discovered something appalling. The multiple belts of barbed wire in front of the German trenches and the well-fortified machine gun emplacements were still largely intact.
Officers looking through binocular-periscopes had already suspected as much. Plans for any attack, however, have tremendous momentum; rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is awry. To call off an offensive requires bravery, for the general who does so risks being thought a coward. Haig was not such a man. Whistles blew, men cheered, Captain Nevill’s company of East Surreys kicked off its four soccer balls. The soldiers hoped to stay alive — and sometimes for something more: troops of the First Newfoundland Regiment knew that a prominent young society woman back home had promised to marry the first man in the regiment to win the Empire’s highest medal, the Victoria Cross.
The week-long bombardment, it turned out, had been impressive mainly for its noise. More than one out of four British shells were duds that buried themselves in the earth, exploding, if at all, only when struck by some unlucky French farmer’s plow years or decades later. Two-thirds of the shells fired were shrapnel, virtually useless in destroying machine gun emplacements made of steel and reinforced concrete or stone. Nor could shrapnel shells, which scattered light steel balls, destroy the dense belts of German barbed wire, many yards thick, unless they burst at just the right height. But their fuses were wildly unreliable, and usually they exploded only after they had already plummeted into the earth, destroying little and embedding so much metal in the ground that soldiers trying to navigate through darkness or smoke sometimes found their compasses had ceased to work.
The remaining British shells were high-explosive ones, which could indeed destroy a German machine gun bunker, but only if they hit it with pinpoint accuracy. When guns were firing from several miles away, this was almost impossible. German machine gun teams had waited out the bombardment in dugouts as deep as 40 feet below the surface and supplied with electricity, water, and ventilation. In one of the few places where British troops did reach the German front line on July 1, they found the electric light in a dugout still on.
Unaccountably, an underground mine had exploded beneath the German lines 10 minutes before zero hour, a clear signal that the attack was about to begin. Then, like a final warning, the remaining mines went off at 7:28 a.m., followed by a two-minute wait to allow the debris — blown thousands of feet into the air — to fall back to earth before British troops climbed out of their trenches to advance. Those two minutes gave German machine gunners time to run up the ladders and stairways from their dugouts and man their fortified posts, of which there were roughly a thousand in the sector of the line under attack. During the two minutes, the British could hear bugles summoning German riflemen and machine gunners to their positions.
“They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches,” recalled a German soldier of the British advance. “…When the leading British line was within 100 yards, the rattle of [German] machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line… Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in [the] rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines.”
The Germans, like the British, had plenty of artillery pieces; these were under camouflage netting and had simply not been used during the preceding weeks, so as not to reveal their positions to British aircraft. Now they fired their deadly shrapnel, whose effects the Germans could see: “All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony… with… cries for help and the last screams of death.”
Plans for the orderly march forward in line abreast were quickly abandoned as men separated into small groups and sought the shelter of hillocks and shell holes. But there was no question of the hard-hit British troops turning back, for each battalion had soldiers designated as “battle police,” herding any stragglers forward. “When we got to the German wire I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told,” remembered one British private. “The colonel and I took cover behind a small bank but after a bit the colonel raised himself on his hands and knees to see better. Immediately he was hit on the forehead by a single bullet.”
Because the artillery bombardment had destroyed so little of the barbed wire, British soldiers had to bunch up to get through the few gaps they could find — making themselves an even more conspicuous target. Many soldiers died when their clothing, especially the loose kilts of the Scotsmen, caught on the wire. “Only three out of our company got past there,” recalled a private of the Fourth Tyneside Scottish Battalion. “There was my lieutenant, a sergeant and myself…. The officer said, ‘God, God, where’s the rest of the boys?’”
The vaunted “creeping barrage” crept forward according to the timetable — and then continued to creep off uselessly into the far distance long after British troops who were supposed to be following behind its protective cover had been pinned down by the tangles of uncut German wire. The cavalry waited behind the British lines, but in vain. Some of those who had survived in no-man’s-land tried, after dark, to crawl back to their own trenches, but even then the continual traversing of German machine gun fire sent up showers of sparks as bullets hit the British barbed wire.
Of the 120,000 British troops who went into battle on July 1, 1916, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded before the day was over — nearly two casualties for every yard of the front; 19,000 were killed, most of them within the first disastrous hour, and some 2,000 more would die in aid stations or hospitals later. There were an estimated 8,000 German casualties. Because they led their troops out of the trenches, the toll was heaviest among the officers who took part in the attack, three-quarters of whom were killed or wounded. These included many who had attended the Old Etonian dinner a few weeks before: more than 30 Eton men lost their lives on July 1st. Captain Nevill of the East Surreys, who had distributed the soccer balls, was fatally shot through the head in the first few minutes.
The First Newfoundland Regiment, awaiting its Victoria Cross winner and the young woman who had promised herself as his reward, was virtually wiped out. There were 752 men who climbed out of their trenches to advance toward the skeletal ruins of an apple orchard covered by German machine gun fire; by the day’s end 684 were dead, wounded, or missing, including every single officer. The German troops the Newfoundlanders attacked did not suffer a single casualty.
Attacking soldiers had been ordered not to tend injured comrades, but to leave them for stretcher bearers who would follow. The dead and wounded, however, included hundreds of stretcher bearers themselves, and there were nowhere near enough men to carry the critically injured to first aid posts in time. Stretchers ran out; some wounded were carried off two to a stretcher or on sheets of corrugated iron whose edges ravaged the bearers’ fingers. Many wounded who lived through the first day never made it off the battlefield. For weeks afterward their fellow soldiers came upon them in shell holes, where they had crawled for shelter, taken out their pocket Bibles, and wrapped themselves in their waterproof groundsheets to die, in pain and alone.
In other ways as well, the terrible day took its toll after the fact. One battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel E.T.F. Sandys, having seen more than 500 of his men killed or wounded during that day, wrote to a fellow officer two months later, “I have never had a moment’s peace since July 1st.” Then, in a London hotel room, he shot himself.
A Quiet Trench
Engraved on a stone plaque in the small cemetery holding the Devonshire Regiment’s casualties from this day are the words survivors carved on a wooden sign when they first buried their dead:
The Devonshires held this trench
The Devonshires hold it still
In the cemetery’s visitors’ book, on a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops — or was it tears? “Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk.” “Sleep on, boys.” “Lest we forget.” “Thanks, lads.” “Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace.”
Only one visitor strikes a different note: “Never again.”
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch and includes illustrations by Joe Sacco.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.