Sunday, July 1, 2007

First Day on the Somme

A support company of the "Tyneside Irish" (103rd Brigade, 24-27 Northumberland Fusiliers) advances opposite La Boisselle (Battle of the Somme) 1 July 1916. Photo taken by a member of the Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company.Imperial War Museum catalogue number Q 53.

Saturday 1 July
Glass rose slightly during night. A fine sunny morning with gentle breeze from the west and southwest. At first some mist in the hollows. This very favourable because it concealed the concentration of our troops. . .
General (later Field Marshal) Sir Douglas Haig, (later 1st Earl Haig), Journal entry for 1 July 1916, from War Diaries and Letters, 1914-1918 (edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2005), at p. 195.

I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow flowers appear.

Alan Seeger, American, serving with the French Foreign Legion (Legionnaire No. 19522). Killed in Action attacking the walled village of Belloy-en-Santerre, France (Battle of the Somme), 4 July 1916 (quoted in Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (Henry Holt, New York, 1994), at p. 263).

Today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. On this date in July of 1916, in the Somme valley of France (northeast of Paris), after almost a week of artillery bombardments, thirteen British and eleven French divisions, opened what was supposed to be a decisive, war-winning offensive against the German Army.
The Somme was mostly a British show, and the first real test of the new British armies of citizen volunteers. The British troops were for the most part very green, and incompletely trained -- the regular soldiers who could have trained the volunteers had mostly died in the war's first year. The new armies, many units composed of men from the same towns and neighborhoods -- bearing nicknames like the "Liverpool Pals"; the "Grimsby Chums"; the "Tyneside Irish"; the "Glasgow Tramways Battalion"; even units formed out of soccer clubs -- would learn most of their new trade by on-the-job training, paying in blood.
On that morning of Haig's "gentle breeze," nearly 250,000 shells were fired at German trenches in just over an hour. The morning's artillery barrage was so intense it was heard as far away as London. At precisely 7.28 a.m. mines planted in tunnels dug deep beneath the German lines were detonated, and two minutes later, along a 25 mile front, the British and French troops, impossibly weighed down with almost 70 pounds of equipment -- left their trenches and, for the most part deployed almost shoulder-to-shoulder, in long, successive lines -- moved out at a walking pace.
The result was one of the bloodiest days in the history of human conflict. The artillery barrage intended to blow holes in the German lines was largely ineffective and lifted too soon -- and the attackers who survived the trek across no-man's land to reach the German lines found carefully sited positions safe behind intact barbed wire which made them sitting ducks for the German machine-gunners. However, few of the British troops got this far. As John Keegan described it:
A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish recalled seeing "away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the 'patter patter' of machine guns in the distance. By the time I'd gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself." The whole of the Tyneside Irish brigade, of four battalions, nearly three thousand men, was brought to a halt inside British lines. . .One of its battalions lost 500 men killed or wounded, another 600. . .
John Keegan, The First World War, (Vintage Books, New York, 2000), at p. 295.
On that one day in July, the British Army suffered a total of 57,470 casualties, including the staggering number of 19,200 dead. (For comparison, total US combat deaths in the three-year Korean War were some 19,334). The French and Germans suffered too: 7,000, and 8,000 casualties respectively. But the offensive did not stop: the Europeans massacred their future for month after month: the allies losing 630,000 killed and wounded, the Germans 435,000 before the generals called a halt in November. All this carnage was for absolutely no result -- in November, the lines were about where they'd been in July, and the war that never should have happened -- which killed civilization -- no closer to being over.
That same summer of the Somme, the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, after living in isolation for two years in the remoteness of Antarctica, reached the British outpost on the south Atlantic island of South Georgia (near Argentina). Shackleton's first question to the manager of the whaling station there was "when was the war over ?" The station keeper replied: "The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad." (Gilbert, at 257).

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