The Somme offensive, “a gargantuan effort by Field Marshall Haig to move his drinks cabinet 6″ closer to Berlin” and with 1.5 million casualties over the 3 months of fighting vies with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Verdun as the bloodiest battles in history, and is consistently held up as an example of the futility of war. What was the point, people ask, of throwing all those men, thoughtlessly over the top, which achieved nothing. To which I always reply, it wasn’t thoughtless, nor did it achieve nothing. The image of men marching into machine guns an inaccurate caricature of the first day, not the whole battle. Indeed contrary to popular imagination of thoughtless Generals piling ever more men into ever more murderous offensives, enormous thought was put into the battle as many approaches to end the stalemate which had existed since 1914, were tried. That many failed should not reflect badly on the men desperately seeking solutions. Whether the objective was worth the cost, you decide. Those making the decisions, and those obeying the orders which flowed from them at the time clearly thought the cost was ‘worth it’, and thought it ‘worth it’ for a further two and a half years.
First, the strategic point of the battle was a little more sophisticated than that parodied in ‘Blackadder’. It was to relieve the French on the Meuse, who were at that point being bled white by a massive German offensive at the fort of Verdun. The French Army was close to collapse which if it occurred would see the British Army surrounded, cut off from the channel ports, and nearly a million men would have been captured. The war would have been lost, and the British Empire would probably have been carved up between Germany and Austria-Hungary, to the detriment of, I think, every citizen of the Empire. France would have been over-run. The light of democracy in Europe would have been snuffed out. The British Army HAD to relieve the French and the only way to do it was to launch an offencive themselves. In this ultimate strategic goal, the battle was a success, despite hasty preparations. The German army immediately ended its offensive at the Meuse to concentrate on reinforcing the Somme front to the North-West. The French stayed in the war.
Second: the tactics. This was the first major offensive involving Kitchener’s citizen soldiers, many of whom were hastily trained. They were not the “Old Contemptibles” who so surprised the German Army on the Marne two years earlier with accurate rifle fire of such a rate that the Germans thought every man was armed with a machine-gun. Complex small-unit tactics such as section and platoon fire & manoever were just not possible with such raw troops. So the army tried a new tactic, one still in use today the Creeping, or Walking Barrage. Prior to this, the enemy were to be annihilated by a massive bombardment lasting several days, that it was hoped, nothing could survive. And if they did, the still new mine warfare led to detonations under the German Lines 2 minutes prior to the men going ‘over the top’ would finish off the survivors. The attacking British wore full kit, because they were expected to occupy positions they took, perhaps without resupply. These were new tactics: The troops following on day one were too far behind their own gunfire (to protect from self inflicted casualties) allowing the Germans to come out from their dug outs and man the Guns before the British troops got into the German lines. The mines weren’t numerous or big enough.
Blackadder, set in 1917 has the guns fall silent before they go “over the top”, because it’s “more sporting” to let the Germans do the killing. A gag, but telling about the world-view of the writer, and ultimately inaccurate. The heavy guns would have switched to depth postions o prevent reinforcement and still be firing, and the ligther guns would be raining fire down ahead of the advancing troops, who would, by 1917, be taking more casualties from “dropshorts” than enemy action: 10% casualties from your own guns was thought better than 15% casualties from the enemies’. It still is.
The German defences were hard, and well-constructed. And the German soldier is always tough. And this has led to the idea that the pre-bombardment didn’t work. It did, in places: the Germans who faced the French to the south of the British, for example faced an army much better equipped with really heavy artillery (and with the right shells, see comments). As a result, the French bombardment of the Germans worked. The Somme is not seared into the french consiousness as it is the British because they achieved all their day one objectives, and more and at much lower cost. The popular image of the futility of the pre-attack bombardment is false. The British guns were just not big or numerous enough. Lessons were learned.
There were examples of inflexible behaviour from officers, as there are in any war, sticking to the plan at all costs, but there were also examples of excellent leadership successfully exploiting local successes. You only need to look at the survival rates of officers compared to their men to see that the British officer led from the front. These were not “lions led by donkeys”, but brave men doing their best in all ranks. The myths of the first world war do disservice to the men who fought.
The first day of the Somme was Britain’s bloodiest day, seared into the folk memory of the communities who were ripped apart by the losses suffered by the pals battalions which went over the top. Newfoundlanders, Ulstermen and men from the New Army formations, mainly from the Midlands and The North were shattered in a way hopefully never to be repeated.
As the battle wore on new tactics were tried, new technologies rushed into service, such as Landships (codenamed ‘tanks’ to fool the Germans that they were mobile water supply vehicles). This was not an organisation which was throwing men’s lives away lightly. Nor was it without point.The citizen-soldiers facing each other across the Somme in 1916 were not victims of stupidity. They were soldiers fighting a total war of a sort that perhaps, if we are lucky, the likes of which the world has seen the end.
Those men died so France would remain in the war, eventually so that the Democracies of Britain, France, the Dominions, and later the USA would triumph over the totalitarian monarchies of Central Europe. Their legacy, and that of their Children who fought for the same goals 23 years later, is the basic human freedom we still enjoy to this day. Our freedom to say what we will to those who would rule us did not come free.
Wear your poppy with pride, and protect dearly that for which they fought. For that is the best memorial to the young men who died 94 years ago.