Remembering the Somme

Of course large, flat expanses of land are good for more than planting sugar beets. They’re great for fighting on. So it’s not surprising that the world’s deadliest-ever battle was waged in Picardy, on the banks of the River Somme. It was of course the Battle of the Somme, which occurred right in the middle of the First World War.

Those who aren’t familiar with WWI probably still know that it was famous for slow, bloody trench warfare. At the outset of the war in July 1914 the Germans wasted no time invading eastern France, where they promptly dug in. That long battle line barely moved for two years as troops from both sides shot at, gassed and bombed one another. The whole thing was very inefficient from a military perspective, costing lots of lives for little territory gained.

Fed up with the lack of progress, the Germans attacked the fortified town of Verdun to the east of Paris in February of 1916. They hoped to break through quickly, but French troops put up a tough fight and kept them at bay for weeks which turned into months. Nevertheless worried that Verdun would eventually fall under German pressure, the British and French together conceived a massive diversionary tactic which they hoped would draw German troops and materiel away from Verdun. The plan: attack the German lines to the north in Picardy.

It was one of history’s most disastrous, “seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of decisions. The Allies had initiative on their side to say nothing of numbers. However the divisions were made up of mostly inexperienced volunteers, the professional soldiers having been largely wiped out the two previous years. Thus despite an opening week-long bombardment of the German lines in which some 1.7 million explosive shells were fired, the Germans emerged from their underground bunkers — which were located on the high ground — and inflicted massive casualties.

The opening charge pitted divisions of green British foot soldiers against entrenched Germans armed with state-of-the-art water-cooled machine guns. They mowed down 60,000 British troops on the first day alone — a battlefield butcher’s bill that has yet to be equalled. Overall the battle lasted some five months. In that time the Allies did gain six miles of French territory, but each one of them cost over 100,000 lives.

In total the French lost some 200,000 troops, the Germans 500,000 and the British 420,000. The casualties were especially hard on the Brits, since at that time they had a habit of assigning men from the same villages to the same regiments in the belief that soldiers who knew each other fought better together. That may or may not have been true, but the upshot was that the male populations of entire towns were eliminated in one fell swoop. No wonder that the British still speak of the men of the turn of the 19th century as the “lost generation.” But the really sad part is that the Battle of the Somme had virtually no effect whatsoever on the Battle of Verdun.

It’s hard for us modern types, who are rightly horrified at the loss of even a dozen fighting men in the field, to wrap our minds around single battle casualty figures that reach into the hundreds of thousands. But sadly these sorts of epic losses of life for relatively little were typical of Word War I, where advances in mobility and defensive tactics were greatly outpaced by advances in firepower.

Representatives of the armed forces like to say that, nuclear weapons aside, war is a lot safer than it used to be. As absurd as that sounds, it’s quite true.

5 thoughts on “Remembering the Somme”

  1. Anything to do with WWI brings me to tears. All those young boys, the families at home had no idea what they were going through, and their country treated the ones who survived like garbage afterwards.

    1. No question that life came very cheap in those days. It’s no wonder that the world sort of turned upside down after that war, intellectually speaking. All perceived limits of human barbarity were vastly, vastly exceeded. And then exceeded again just twenty years later. Let’s hope we can do better in the coming 89 years.

      – Joe

  2. I’ve heard it said that the Battle of the Somme was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The reasoning goes that so many of the remaining British “elite” — the boys who would have gone on to become the political, religious, and social leaders of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s — were lost in the battle that it caused a leadership vacuum that the Empire could not withstand.

    I don’t know how true it is, nor can anybody really know, of course. Then again, 420,000 was almost 1% of the UK’s population in 1916 — it’s hard to think that at least a couple of those kids would not have gone on to have a significant influence on British history.

    1. That may very well be true. No one was prepared for the scale of the killing in that war. Indeed no one imagined that killing on that sort of “industrial scale” was even possible. Such were the costs of the pursuit of new super weapons without much thought to super defenses. That the major European powers started to get a clue afterward is evident in casually figures from WWII, in which Britain lost less than half the men it lost in its first global contest. But there’s no question that a small island nation like that can’t sustain those kinds of losses, human, social and economic, and still remain an Empire.

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