The Great War was a struggle on a titanic scale consisting of many battles which could almost be called wars in their own right in another time and place. Many of these battles still ring down the years to recall a sense of pride in victory or shame in defeat for the nations who fought them. The French have Verdun; the Italians have Isonzo; the Turks their defense of Gallipoli, and the British have the Somme; the name of which still draws a hush over anyone in Britain’s military.
The Somme Campaign began on 1 July 1916. History would name it the largest battle of the First World War, but the first day will always be remembered as the blackest day in British military history. In spite of the massive battles of World War II, none ever replaced the first day of the Somme as the single deadliest day for the British. In all, British forces suffered 57,470 casualties — on par with the death total for the entire Napoleonic Wars.
The genesis of the Somme Offensive lay with French Field Marshall Joseph Joffre and the new British commanding general Sir Douglas Haig. At a planning session in the winter of 1915, the two commanders envisioned a grand offensive along the Somme River. The scope of the offensive was larger than any before it and both men figured it to be a war winning blow once struck. Then the Germans attacked Verdun. By the time the Somme campaign launched in July, the French had been bleeding for five long months in the battle of attrition to the south. As a result, most of the French forces earmarked for the Somme had long since been diverted to Verdun and what began as a grand war ending battle turned into an effort to relieve some of the massive German pressure at Verdun and, as General Haig put it, “to inflict casualties upon the Germans.” What a plan.
Essential to this fine plan was Lord Kitchner’s “New Army.” This mass of troops consisted of the first wave of enlistees who had spent most of 1915 in training back across the Channel. They were all volunteers as the draft had not yet been instituted (the Somme casualties changed that.) Many of these troops were divided into the famous “Pals Battalions” where men had enlisted en masse from a single town or school or even fraternity at a school with the goal of serving together in combat. What seemed like a tremendous morale asset — fighting besides one’s best mates — became a morale nightmare, especially on the homefront, as some towns lost over 90% of their young men in single engagements.
This was also the first major battle where British “territorials” fought for their common King. Troops — many of them men of color — from Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia, India, Canada, and Bermuda lined up to go over the top. In fact, it was these territorials that kept the German High Command awake at nights. Britain and France both had numerous overseas colonies and former colonies to draw great reserves of manpower from while German had to make do with what lay within her borders.
As was the case by this point in the war, a huge preparatory artillery bombardment preceded the initial attack by the Anglo-French forces. For five days, French and British batteries pounded the Germans on a front 27,000 yards long where the first blow by the British Fourth Army would fall. The attack began on schedule with men going over the top early on the morning of 1 July. Despite great advances in areas along the line, the first push was not a universal success. This complicated matters for the British because so much of the safety of the troops depended upon not getting flanked that a huge advance in one area left a gap in British lines which the commanders were certain the Germans would exploit to get behind and cut off large chunks of the attacking army. As a result, many of the gains of the first day had to be abandoned in order to close up gaps in the line and prevent any salients forming. The result was 19,240 British soldiers killed for — on the whole — minimal gains.
The Somme Campaign lasted 141 days and by the end, the gods of battle claimed over a million casualties again, for basically no appreciable gains. The stalemate of the Western Front continued unabated.
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