ONCE TO EVERY MAN and nation, they say, comes the moment to decide.
But, reflecting upon the carnage of the Somme, the spirit revolts at such a dinky formula. It was the nation’s leaders who tended to decide, and the nation’s young who tended to die. The Somme was full of death and no single episode during the Great War did more to feed the myth of lions led by donkeys.
Haig had long been keen to launch a major offensive, for a range of very good reasons. The French badly needed relief following months of catastrophic suffering at Verdun, and the credibility of Britain as both a military power and an honourable ally hung in the balance until she made an equivalent investment.
Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, acknowledged a further motive: “to inflict as heavy losses as possible upon the German armies”. That sounds fair enough — less inflammatory than Falkenhayn’s torrid ambition “to bleed the French Army white” — but not, in reality, substantively different.
Although the poilus who had taken such fearful punishment at Verdun may not have believed it, the British Army had taken a significant beating all of its own. From 19 December to 30 June, it had lost 5,845 officers and 119,296 other ranks in “small operations”. As commanders prepared now to launch a front 25 miles north and south of the River Somme, they were only too conscious that many of their rank-and-file were raw conscripts, and that German artillery and machine guns could rip any number of them apart.
Hence came the decision by British commanders to launch a savage bombardment of German front-line defences in the days leading up the actual assault. On this matter, theory and reality were brutally polarised.
At its most complacent, troops were encouraged to believe that, by the time the order came to go over the top, a “mopping up” operation would be all that was required. Some junior officers were even advised: “You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick … You will find the Germans all dead, not even a rat will have survived”.
Such reassuring words were, of course, exactly what many deeply anxious soldiers and junior officers wished most to hear. They were also made more believable by the ferocity of the assault which unfolded before the eyes and ears of fascinated and terrified Tommies. Over one and a half million shells were fired in those days, more than the British had fired in the first twelve months of the war. The noise, famously, was heard across the Channel.
As is widely known, the bombardment promised more than it delivered. Hindsight allows limitations which were not apparent at the time to become painfully clear. For instance, we can now see that it sacrificed impact for width and depth; that the British had fewer heavy guns than the French; that, although severe damage was inflicted and many Germans killed or traumatised, many shells were duds which contained only shrapnel, not the heavy explosives needed to penetrate the deep German dug-outs.
These qualifiers would have meant nothing to those who lived through such terrors. On 30 June, a young German corporal recorded the effect of the noise: “One’s head is like a madman’s. The tongue sticks to the mouth in terror. Continual bombardment and nothing to eat or drink and little sleep for five days and nights. How much longer can this go on?”
On 29 June, British troops in the front line were told that the “Big Push” was delayed for 48 hours — a consequence of rain, low cloud and poor visibility. Apprehension festered: they were forced to endure the acute physical discomforts of being packed into trenches, but also had time to brood on their probable fate. Many men filled out last will and testament forms in their pay books, wrote letters home. Religious services were uncommonly well attended. As Captain May put it: “We were all ready and anxious to get away. Waiting is rotten.” For a few it was worse than that: there was a spate of self-inflicted wounds and even of officers reporting sick.
The Germans knew full well that the moment when the big guns finally stopped would be the prelude to waves of infantrymen coming over the top, scurrying across no-man’s land and to an assault upon their own trenches. Unlike the British, theirs were built to last. Those in the Somme had benefited from its being usually a quiet sector, and the quality of construction which had resulted was formidable — swathes of fortified villages, machine-gun posts and secure bunkers forty feet underground, provided with electric light.
When, on Friday 30 June, they intercepted a Fourth Army HQ message wishing all ranks good luck for the following morning, the Germans robbed the British of the only question which until then had remained unanswered. At 7.20am the following day, the British detonated Hawthorn Mine. This was under a strongpoint protecting the village of Beaumont Hamel and the explosion left a crater 40 feet deep and 300 feet wide. It was a crude attempt to distract and divert enemy attention in the minutes before the attack began.
Ten minutes later, 7.30 am, 60,000 (mainly British) servicemen went over the top. Following strict instructions, they were spread out thinly and walked in waves towards the German positions. Private Slater of the 2nd Bradford Pals recalled wonderingly that “For some reason nothing seemed to happen to us at first; we strolled along as though walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine-gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit — quite unlike the way actors do it in films.”
To fall in all kinds of curious ways. The Army suffered 57,470 casualties that first day, of whom 19,240 were killed. It remains the bloodiest day in British military history and indeed the totals exceeded the losses in the Crimean, Boer and Korean Wars combined. The German casualties were only around 8,000. The lovingly fashioned Pals Battalions were among those most heavily hit. Private Pearson of the Leeds Pals reflected, “We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.”
Those from the Dominions suffered, if possible, even more terribly: that first morning the 1st Newfoundland Regiment lost 324 men killed and 386 wounded, out of a total of 801, in a suicidal and doomed attack on Beaumont-Hamel. A diversionary attack on Gommecourt Wood, intended simply to draw German fire away from the main assault, saw all twenty-eight officers of Queen’s Westminster Rifles lost and 475 out of 661 riflemen. According to Rifleman Lockhart: “All hell was let loose…I remember feeling that there was not enough air to breathe — so many shells were bursting. Small bodies of men simply disappeared when a shell burst near them.”
For those who survived the journey across No Man’s Land, new horrors awaited. Very often enemy barbed wire had not been cut by the bombardment, defences were intact and German soldiers were alive and armed to the hilt. For days they had sheltered in their deep underground bunkers and when the barrage stopped, rushed to the parapets to man their machine-guns as the British advanced. There was a well-known cinematic awfulness to those first slow-moving waves of British infantrymen, each weighed down with full kit. They were mown down in their thousands, most in the first ninety minutes. To modern ears, the temptation is to fall back on metaphor — lions led by donkeys, lunatics in charge of the asylum.
It was, of course, neither of these things. The truth was that to have any chance of flushing the Germans out of their trenches, vast numbers of well-armed and very determined men would be needed. It is difficult even now to know how much faith Allied commanders had genuinely placed in the bombardment. Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army, who was in charge of the attack, was a consummate professional. His strategy had been based on meticulous preparation, reliance on artillery and a wish to protect the inexperienced New Armies who were about to get their first taste of battle. The last point was perhaps the decisive one. It is easy to see why the preliminary bombardment has been seen by some as a confidence trick, designed less to kill the Germans and more to reassure a conscript army.
Offensive launched, confusion was inevitable. Fragile telephone links were quickly shattered, and runners often unavailable. Some senior officers seemed remarkably slow (or was it merely reluctant?) to grasp the seriousness of the situation, a point reflected in some of the wildly sanguine early newspaper reports back home: “Great Day on the Somme”; “Kitchener’s Boys — New Armies Make Good”; “Swift British Advance”.
Judged by its ability to launch the Entente into a war of movement, the Somme was a desperate failure — hyperbolically so on its first day. But it is the privilege of subsequent generations to try to uncover some kind of meaning in such episodes, if not precisely consolation.
There was astonishing bravery in these most terrible of circumstances. Matthaus Gerster, observing the British infantry approaching in lines while the German machine guns and rifles opened fire at one hundred yards, later recalled:
Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer order, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shells and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell-hole for shelter…
The British soldier, however, has no lack of courage … The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double … The noise of battle became indescribable. The shouting of orders and the shrill British cheers as they charged forward could be heard above the violent and intense fusillade of machine guns and rifles and the bursting bombs and above the deep thunderings of the artillery and the shell explosions. With all this were mingled the moans and groans of the wounded, the cries for help and the last screams of death. Again and again the extended lines of British infantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back.
It was an amazing spectacle of unexampled gallantry, courage and bull-dog determination on both sides.
These were the recollections of one who was there. We might consider also the words of F.L. Cassel, a German officer of the 99th Infantry Reserve Regiment who witnessed the British attack at Thiepval on 1 July:
On 1 July, at 7.30 am, the shout of our sentry, “They are coming!”, tore me out of the apathy. Helmet, belt, rifle and up the steps. On the steps something white and bloody, in the trench a headless body. The sentry had lost his life by a last shell, before the fire was directed to the rear, and had paid for his vigilance with his life. We rushed to the ramparts, there they come, the khaki-yellows, they are not more than twenty metres in front of our trench. They advance fully equipped to march slowly across our bodies into the open country. Machine-gun fire tears holes in their rows. They discover our presence, throw themselves on the ground, now a mass of craters, welcomed by hand-grenades and gun fire, and have now to sell their lives themselves … it becomes clear that the attack has been repelled, at least in our section. Only a few men who had reached the second trench are left over. Volunteers … begin to drive the intruders out proceeding from breastwork to breastwork throwing hand-grenades and slowly succeed. Badly wounded Tommies fall into our hands and their rations provide something to satisfy our hunger and thirst …
That last allusion, to taking the rations of wounded Tommies, reads uncomfortably to some, but it has also the ring of truth. Soldiers of all armies, confronted by the irreducible reality of a fight to the death, were not disposed to be sentimental. Consider, for instance, the words of Private Robert Cude, a bicycle battalion runner, with the 55th Brigade, who witnessed the carnage on the beautifully sunny first of July:
Punctual to the time 7.28 a.m. two minutes before the line advanced Captain Neville, 8th E. Surreys, kicks off the football that is to take the boys across to Jerry. He is killed as his leg is uplifted after kicking the ball … Soon after the lads get going, we can see that, contrary to expectations, we are not to have things all our own way … Jerry’s machine-gun opens a terrific fire on our chaps and the first wave is speedily decimated. Others jump forward and fill the gaps. I am aghast at the accuracy of the fire. He has plenty of machine-guns, and is making a frightful carnage. I long to be with battalion so that I can do my best to bereave a German family. I hate these swines …
10 a.m. No quarter is asked or given in a good many places and today I was astounded to think that men could fight so bitterly. The reason is not far to seek, for tens of thousands of our men are lying low, never to rise again.
11 a.m. One point worth mentioning. The burnt faces and hair of some of the Boches bear excellent testimony to the effectiveness of our liquid fire, which was used considerably.
Those who, for various reasons, were not actually part of the assault, tended to ingest what they saw in different ways, The diary of the Reverend John Walker, Captain at the 21st Casualty Clearing Station at Crombie, is a textbook attempt to square a circle — trying to not to shun awkward truths, but also determinedly optimistic:
1 July: We got back for a late breakfast and soon the wounded by German shells came in, then all day long cars of dying and wounded, but all cheerful for they told us of glorious successes …
Later. We have 1,500 in and still they come, 3–400 officers, it is a sight — chaps with fearful wounds lying in agony, many so patient, some make a noise.
3 July: We hear of great successes but there are of course setbacks.
As a nurse in France, Edith Appleton “saw” virtually everything. The enormity of her practical concerns, in attempting to minister to the vast numbers of wounded, defy imagination. Yet her analysis of events just a few miles remains straightforwardly partisan and her take on events feels also naïve:
June 30 The Germans are getting very windy … Also, they are carrying on with their dirty tricks. Their snipers bandage themselves up and shout for mercy, and when it is shown they start sniping our men — but not twice! I’m afraid they have done their own wounded a bad turn.
July 2 The Germans have been giving themselves up and coming across in dazed groups — which is fine. How absolutely glorious if we knock them right out and level them flat, so our infantry and cavalry can have a walkover such as would make good reading in history.
Stripped to essentials, war teaches us that men long passionately to live. One day before the Somme offensive began, Captain Henri Desagneaux — still enmeshed in fighting in Verdun — confided to his diary:
30 June Attacks and counter-attacks. Frightful day … There’s death everywhere … At last at 8 p.m., an order: we are to be relieved. What a cry of joy from those of us left … Tiredness disappears, and our limbs regain enough strength to escape from these plains …
Our time at Verdun has been awful. Our faces have nothing human about them. For sixteen days we have neither washed nor slept. Life has been spent amongst the dead and dying, hardships of every sort and incessant anguish … Despite our joy at being alive, our eyes reveal the crazy horror of it all.
Those words —“the crazy horror” — linger awkwardly. Which of us today could settle for this being our portion, or even less that of our children? The cruelty meted out upon this particular generation still sticks in the throats of their descendants many generations later.
At this time, grief and terror were expiated through tales of heroism and from the consolations of faith. Although newspapers greedily milked the tales of heroism, courage and love were real and abundant. Nine VCs were awarded for outstanding courage shown on the first day of the battle, six posthumously. One incident took place even before the action began: Soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles were preparing for their attack on Thiepval Wood when twelve Mills grenades fell out of a box into a packed trench — and two safety pins were dislodged. Unhesitatingly, Private William McFadzean threw himself on to the bombs, which killed him and wounded one other, but he saved the lives of many of his comrades.
Last letters home testified to more private preoccupations. Certain themes tended to recur — religious fidelity and patriotism were prominent, of course, but somehow it was the love of family and friends which seemed to be remembered at the last.
Lieutenant Eric Heaton with the 16th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, 28 June, wrote to his parents:
If I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind … My greatest concern is that I may have the courage and determination necessary to lead my platoon well … No-one had such parents as you have been to me … How I have learnt to love my men; my great aim has been to win their respect which I trust I have accomplished and hope that when the time comes I shall not fail them. If I fall do not let things be black for you ….
He would be fatally wounded when the attack began on 1 July.
Captain Charles May, killed near Mametz on 1 July, had written to his wife:
I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal — there is no room for it here. But I do not want to die … My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours … know through all your life that I loved you and baby with all my heart and soul …
Lieutenant Noel Hodgson, a bombing officer with 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, was killed by machine-gun fire near Mametz. Aware of the likelihood of death, he had composed a prayer for courage whilst remembering the beauties of England and sunsets behind Durham Cathedral which he had so loved:
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this;
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.