England’s Bloodiest Day: The Battle of the Somme

In the entire 15 years of the Afghan War and the Second Iraq War, the United States suffered 58,000 casualties, including 6,600 deaths. On July 1, 1916, the British Army lost more than that during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, making it the single bloodiest day in British history.

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British troops leave their trenches to begin the Battle of the Somme

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, both sides expected it to be over quickly. Instead, the war bogged down into a stalemate, with both sides dug into massive systems of trenches that ran from the English Channel all the way across Europe to the Swiss border. A typical defensive line consisted of two or three parallel trenches, with dug-out shelters and machine-gun positions, protected by sandbag walls and heavy bands of barbed-wire entanglements. They were virtually impregnable.

After several attempts by the allied Entente forces of France and Britain failed to break through the German trenchlines, the British concluded that this would now be a war of attrition, in which the strategic aim would simply be to kill the enemy troops faster than they could kill yours, until his forces became so depleted that he could no longer continue the war. To increase their own forces, the British, who had begun the war with just a small “British Expeditionary Force”, now made a frantic effort under Lord Kitchener to recruit volunteers. One of these programs was the so-called “Pal’s Battalions”, in which groups of friends or “pals” were recruited and trained together and then sent to France as a single unit. In London, all the workers from a particular factory, or all the members of a fraternal order, would sign up together; in rural England, all the young men from an entire village would join as a single “Pal’s Battalion”. By the end of 1915, the British Army had over a million freshly-trained volunteers. They became known as “Kitchener’s Mob”.

Plans were immediately made to use them. In December 1915, the British and French began preparations for a massive frontal assault, along 25 miles of German trenches. This would be centered near the village of Thiepval along the Somme River, where the British and French trenchlines met. Before the attack, massed artillery would unleash the heaviest bombardment that had ever been seen–almost two million shells would be fired over a period of eight full days. The artillery barrage would, it was expected, destroy the German trenches and barbed-wire barriers, eliminate their artillery and machine gun emplacements, and allow the Entente troops to simply walk across No Man’s Land and occupy the abandoned German lines. The attack would be made jointly by both French and British units. Although one of the objectives was to capture a number of villages and observation points, the primary aim was simply to kill as many Germans as possible and deplete their reserves. The massive assault was planned for August 1, 1916.

But the Germans beat them to the punch. The German General von Falkenhayn had also decided on a war of attrition, and had also planned a massive attack that would kill the Entente forces at a higher rate than they could kill his. The place von Falkenheyn chose for his assault was the ancient fortress at Verdun. Although of only marginal strategic value, the Verdun fortress was of enormous symbolic patriotic significance to France, and the Germans knew that no matter how many soldiers the French lost defending Verdun, they would continue to pour more and more forces in to defend it. The sole intent of his attack, von Falkenheyn asserted, was to “bleed the French Army white”.

The Battle of Verdun, launched in early 1916, went just as von Falkenhayn expected. The French rallied around the defense of the fortress, adopting the popular slogan “They shall not pass!” As French losses mounted, units were pulled out of other sectors of the front and pushed into the Verdun meatgrinder, only to also be chewed up. With the French Army approaching collapse, the Entente generals decided that something had to be done quickly to relieve the pressure, and the only option readily available was the planned attack at the Somme. This was now advanced by 30 days, to take place on July 1, and its purpose changed; it was now intended to force the Germans to pull their units out of Verdun and use them to defend the Somme front.

On Saturday, June 24, the preliminary artillery barrage began. Over 1,500 British guns poured shells onto the German trenches for the next eight days. The British had also dug a series of tunnels that extended under No Man’s Land all the way to the German trenches. Here, they packed underground chambers full of dynamite. At 7:30am on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme was begun when 17 of these “mines” were detonated. They were, up to that time, the largest man-made explosions in history; according to later stories, the sound of their concussion could be heard all the way across the English Channel in London. They blew enormous craters into the German trenches, that are still visible today.

As the mines went off, the British troops climbed ladders out of their trenches and emerged into No Man’s Land. They were each laden with some 75 pounds of weapons and equipment, and were under strict orders to walk, not run, across the bombed-out terrain towards the German trenches, taking care to keep a tightly-maintained formation. The British presumed they would meet very little opposition, with the intense artillery barrage having destroyed the German trenches.

They were wrong. The British bombardment was not nearly as effective as they expected. The shells had been manufactured by inexperienced factory workers in England and the United States, and about 20% of them failed to detonate. Those that did explode, had little effect; most of them were shrapnel shells, which were not very useful against barbed wire. The German wire entanglements were still mostly intact. The German troops, meanwhile, had sheltered in their deep dug-outs during the bombardment, and when the barrage ended, they quickly moved back into their positions. When the British troops emerged from their trenches and began walking across No Man’s Land, the Germans were ready for them. Machine-gun fire swept across the fields, mowing down English soldiers by the hundreds. As “Pal’s Battalions” were wiped out by machine guns, English villages lost their entire male populations at one stroke. By the time the troops were pulled back, the British Army had suffered 58,000 casualties, including 20,000 deaths. It remains the single worst day in all of British military history.

The French, meanwhile, had also attacked. The original plan was for about half the advancing troops to be French, but the disaster at Verdun had reduced their strength to only 20% of the Somme force. Unlike the British, however, who were going into battle for the first time, the French had already learned some hard lessons about trench warfare from their bitter experience at Verdun (which they had unsuccessfully tried to communicate to their British allies). While the British had in effect simply given advance warning to the Germans of the attack with their long but ineffective preliminary bombardment, the French had limited their “softening-up” barrage to just a few hours before the assault, thereby preserving some element of surprise. The French also reduced their casualties by advancing in small groups and moving from cover to cover, unlike the British who advanced in full line abreast at a walking pace. As a result, the French forces at the Somme, though smaller, were more successful–they captured several of their objectives and also suffered far fewer casualties.

But the Battle of the Somme did not end that day–or even that month. It would drag on, through assault after counter-assault, for the next five months, as both sides, each convinced that the other was about to collapse, continued to make “one more effort”. The slaughter finally came to an end as winter set in, in November 1916. In the end, the battle had cost the British some 425,000 casualties and the French about 200,000; the Germans had lost about 500,000 men killed, wounded, and captured. In exchange, the Entente had advanced an average of just ten miles.

Although the initial press reports were censored, the massive casualties from the Somme could not be hidden, as entire neighborhoods got the telegrams at the same time. Even today, every rural English village has its church cemetery with a section where every grave bears the date “1916”. The effect on morale was horrifying, and the British Army promptly stopped deploying men in “Pal’s Battalions”. The Battle of the Somme, more than any other battle of the war, came to symbolize the First World War in all its blood and mud and futility, and produced the image of the Entente armies that still prevails today–they were “lions, led by donkeys”.

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