THE SOMME, no more than Verdun, failed to allow Allied armies break out of the trenches.
We can salute men of all armies for being resolute in the face of an awful death — certainly. We can acknowledge the unparalleled challenge faced by those who directed them, and insist that operational and strategic insights were learned. But it was never a victory, least of all in the terms in which it had been sold.
Tit-for-tat began all over again. On 4 July, the British took Bernafay Wood, east of Montauban — the same day as, in Verdun, the Germans regained Thiaumont. Five days later, while the British regained ground in Bois de Mametz, the Germans regained their footing in Trones. And the weather was foul — heavy thunderstorms hampered operations, but never stopped them.
Unspoken fears that a catastrophe had unfolded were borne a little more easily when you could point to a pin-up hero. Schoolmaster Donald Bell, a player for Bradford Park Avenue, had been the first professional footballer to enlist and was now a Second Lieutenant with the Yorkshire Regiment. He remains the only professional footballer to win the VC, following an attack on the Horseshoe Trench near La Boiselle on 5 July — an action he described to his mother:
When the battalion went over … my team crawled up to the communication trench and attacked the machine gun and the trench and I hit the gun first shot from about 20 yards and knocked it over. We then bombed the dug-out and did in about 50 Bosches. The GOC has been over to congratulate the battalion and he personally thanked me. I must confess that it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing. I only chucked the bomb and it did the trick … I believe God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not.
He did not — poor, gallant soul. Only five days later he led a bombing attack on a similar attempt to knock out a German machine-gun at Contalmaison and was killed during the charge.
His batman wrote to Bell’s wife of just five weeks:
I would to God my late master and friend had still been with us, or, better still, been at home with you. The men worshipped him in their simple, wholehearted way and so they ought, he saved the lot of us from being completely wiped out by his heroic act.
Not long before, Alan Seeger, the American poet who had anticipated his death in his poem Rendezvous, had been killed.
Reactions to the news of death say so much. On 10 July, Raymond Asquith wrote from France to commiserate with Lady Diana Manners on the death of their “irreplaceable” close friend Lord Elcho Charteris, Cynthia Asquith’s brother:
A blind God butts about the world with a pair of delicately malignant antennae to detect whatever is fit to live and an iron hoof to stamp it into the dust when found … One’s instinct that the world (as we know it) is governed by chance is almost shaken by the accumulating evidence that it is the best which is always picked out for destruction.
That was the authentic voice of the Victorian rationalist, albeit one shaken by loss into bleak metaphysics.
Edith Appleton, overwhelmed by coping with the wounded in Etretat that week, saw Him differently:
Many men have told me that after our men have attacked, the Germans sweep the ground low with a machine-gun to kill our wounded. I should think that is an act best left to God to reward. He will do it thoroughly.
Her view was redolent of God of the Old Testament: one who was properly punitive and partisan. But it is not difficult to understand why, then above all, she might be feeling testy: the rescue of the wounded and burial of the dead were huge priorities, quite distinct from the business of actually caring for those who might have survive.
Wounded men often lay for hours before being rescued and taken for medical attention. Harry Streets was with the 58th Field Ambulance and described conditions at a Dressing Station in the basilica at Albert:
Wounded flooded in on foot, or were brought by stretchers, wheelbarrows, carts — anything. Their wounds were dressed and then they were laid out on the floor for evacuation. Soon the whole church was packed and we were ordered to stop any vehicle that passed and make them take the wounded to the rear. I even put three cases in a general’s staff car. Those who were not expected to survive were put on one side and left. It was very hard to ignore their cries for help but we had to concentrate on those who might live. We worked for three days and nights without rest. It was the bloodiest battle I ever saw.
The sheer numbers overwhelmed medical staff. Soldiers with minor wounds, who in more normal times would have received treatment in a field hospital preparatory to being sent back to the front, were now often shipped to England, since there was no time to treat them, exacerbating the problem of the much-depleted ranks at a vital time. In the first four days after 1 July, the hospital trains carried 33,392 patients from the casualty clearing stations to the bases at Boulogne, Rouen and Le Havre. Back in England, they were despatched by train to hospitals all over the country, and in such numbers that the rumours of heavy casualties exploded across the country — cutting right across optimistic official versions of battle.
The most critical cases were dealt with in hospitals near the ports of arrival. Walking wounded were sent to Scotland and the north of England where Red Cross organisers had to beg for accommodation for the hundreds of unexpected arrivals. Seven out of every ten hospital trains were directed to London and in the week after 1 July they arrived almost every hour at Paddington and Charing Cross stations. The busiest day ever experienced was Friday 7 July.
An amount was learned directly from those who were there. Private Daniel Sweeney who was with his regiment, the 1st Lincolns, wrote to his fiancee:
We have come out of action with 4 officers out of 26 and 435 men out of 1150. I am glad to say that most of them are wounded, and I can say that for every 1 of our dead there are 10 German soldiers dead. I have accounted for 14 I am certain of but I believe I killed 12 in one dugout. I gave them 8 bombs one for Kitchner (sic) and the others for my chums … We took hundreds of prisoners that day and they were glad to be prisoners, but we made them work like slaves, we made them carry water and ammunition up to the firing line and some of them could not stand when we had finished with them.
He described the morning of 3 July when the regiment had been ordered to charge into a big wood:
A wood is a terrible place to take … We were met by terrible machine gun fire which knocked a lot of our boys over as soon as they saw us coming they left their trench and ran into the wood then we had some terrible fighting with bombs and bayonets the Germans had a machine gun in this wood and we could see it and only 1 man with it but he was a brave man and we couldn’t get near him. As soon as some boys got close he started throwing bombs but at last he was shot in the head but he must have killed a lot of our boys before he went under … We captured 2 generals and 1,100 men in this charge so not bad for the old Lincs was it. Our General did not know how to thank us he was pleased.
Others were less pleased. The usual harbinger of news of a death came in a telegram, quantities of which now claimed the attention of anxious families the length of the land. Last letters also arrived, such as this from Percy Boswell to his father:
I am just writing you a short note which you will receive only if anything has happened to me during the next few days. The Hun is going to get consummate hell just in this quarter & we are going over the parapet tomorrow when I hope to spend a few hours in chasing the Bosch (sic) all over the place. I am absolutely certain that I shall get through all right, but in case the unexpected does happen I shall rest content with the knowledge that I have done my duty — and one can’t do more.
Goodbye and wish the Best of Love to all, Percy.
Second Lieutenant Boswell’s battalion, the 8th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 8th Division, had been in the first wave of attack at 7.30 a.m. on 1 July. A battalion’s strength was, on average, 800 of whom 26 would be officers. That day, 21 officers and 518 men became casualties and Boswell was killed in the first few minutes of the attack.
The custom of subalterns writing to the bereaved families of soldiers in their company or platoon was treated with seriousness. In a society more unashamedly hierarchical than our own, there were important considerations of class and status which not even death could quite eclipse. To receive an encomium, handwritten by an officer, conferred status on the departed and was balm to the soul of many a grieving relative.
The scale of losses on the Somme, especially in the Pals’ Battalions, meant individual letters were often no longer possible. The Commander of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce Battalion wrote instead an open letter to his city on 6 July:
I should like to express to all the relatives of those who have died, my sincerest sympathy with them in their present great sorrow, and to assure them that the remaining officers, NCOs and men share their grief with them.
It may be some consolation to know that the battalion walked into action as steadily as if it had been on the Parade Ground, and I cannot adequately express my feeling of admiration for the spirit, gallantry, and daring with which all faced their terrible task.
Those who have, in this battle, given their all for their country, did so in a spirit worthy of Scotland’s best traditions.
A dearth of ground gained, and legion casualties, had a lowering effect on men at the front. The legendary mountaineer (and another schoolmaster), George Mallory, serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery, wrote after the first day: “We were profoundly depressed that night; though we had no certain news of operations elsewhere, our hope of moving forward immediately seemed to have vanished”. His battery was in action repeatedly; on 5 July they fired all day and groups of German prisoners were brought past.
As a gunner commented to Mallory: “A mixed lot like us … Some fine soldiers and some that look as if they could hardly hold a rifle”. His view of the enemy was less dyspeptic than that of Edith Appleton. She wrote:
My Germans see very little of me or of my VADs, and some must do without a woman’s care and be left chiefly to orderlies — with my pleasure. Some of them are Prussians and very bitter, so they can just get on with their bitterness.
You can see why she was angry, however:
July 4 Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking — all covered head to foot in well-caked mud. The rush and buzz of ambulances ad motor-buses is the only thing I can remember of yesterday outside my wards….One poor lad had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes…. He said, ‘Shall I need an operation? I can’t see anything’. Poor boy, he never will. Three men died in the train and two only just reached hospital before they went west too. Three were completely dumb. They say we are serving the division that acted as a ‘draw’ to save the other divisions. If any are left, they deserve all honour.
July 6 I give up trying to describe it — it beats me. In ordinary times we get a telegram from Abbeville saying a train with so many on board has just left and is coming to us. Then they stopped giving numbers — just said ‘full train’. Now not even a telegram comes — but the full trains do. Yesterday, in addition to our 1,300 beds we took over the lounge of a large restaurant. … if full trains continue to pour in today we shall have to start on private people’s houses.
July 8 It is to be hoped our attacking is doing useful work for the war as we are paying a tall price! … The surgeons are amputating limbs and boring through skulls at the rate of 30 a day —
July 10 The sea looks lovely and jumpy and clean and thirst-quenching….I wonder if anyone, short of a wounded man, really knows what thirst is. Standing at the door of any ward you hear one continuous plea from all sides for water, a drink — anything to drink …
That primal thirst wrings the heart. Raymond Asquith, a gallant Grenadier, had so far escaped injury and maintained his attachment to more elaborate comestibles. On 7 July, he wrote to his wife Katharine asking for:
Tinned grapes … Anchovy paste (in moderation) … Kippers and smoked haddocks if they can be packed. The Stornaway kippers are the best if obtainable. One feels the lack of fish here.
Access to such luxuries belonged to a privileged few. But death and mutilation was shared democratically. The horrific nature of some injuries proved a real challenge to the expertise and emotional self-control of medical teams. VAD Claire Ellis recalled:
The worst case I ever saw — and it still haunts me — was of a man being carried past us. It was at night, and in the dim light I thought his face was covered with a black cloth. But as he came nearer, I was horrified to realise that the whole lower half of his face had been completely blown off and what had appeared to be a black cloth was a huge gaping hole. That was the only time I nearly fainted on the platform, but fortunately I was able to pull myself together. It was the most frightful sight, because he couldn’t be covered up at all.
Philip Gibbs, the war correspondent, now paid a visit to the Somme. He visited a captured German trench where the evidence of terrible deaths lay abundantly about him:
I drew back from those fat corpses. They looked monstrous, lying there crumpled up, amidst a foul litter of clothes, stick bombs, old boots, and bottles. Groups of dead lay in ditches which had once been trenches, flung into chaos by that bombardment I had seen. They had been bayoneted. I remember one man — an elderly fellow — sitting up with his back to a bit of earth with this hands half-raised. He was smiling a little, though he had been stabbed through the belly, and was stone dead.
So too did the youth of some of the combatants:
Some of the German dead were young boys, too young to be killed for old men’s crimes, and others might have been old or young. One could not tell because they had no faces, and were just masses of raw flesh in rags of uniforms. Legs and arms lay separate without any bodies thereabouts.
Commanders could neither afford the time nor risk the emotional cost of reflection. Winning was what mattered. On July 3, General von Below issued an Order of the Day which insisted:
We must win this battle in spite of the enemy’s temporary superiority in artillery and infantry … The will to stand firm must be impressed on every man … The enemy should have to carve his way over heaps of corpses.
And that, pretty much, was what happened. That same day, over at British HQ, Haig was visited by the French Generals Joffre and Foch. He had been advised by the Adjutant-General that British losses in the first two days totalled 40,000 (rather than the true figure of 60,000) — quite bad enough, but the figure elicited from him his usual steadfast resolve. Joffre now pressed him to launch an attack on Thiepval and Pozieres, while Haig was equally insistent that the French move on Guillemont. Tempers (Joffre’s anyway, according to Haig) became heated.
When Joffre got out of breath, I quietly explained what my position is relatively to him as the ‘Generalissimo’. I am solely responsible to the British Government for the action of the British Army…
Haig was more sensitive to rapidly changing intelligence than the slurs of inflexibility suggested. He halted the attack north of the Ancre and encouraged Gough to “make steady pressure” on the sector from La Boiselle to Serre. The railway at Mametz and La Boiselle were taken on 4 July and front-line trenches consolidated. On 7 July, Orvillers, Contalmaison and Mamentz Wood plus Trones Wood on the right were attacked, the latter changing hands several times.
Events in France necessarily impacted on Westminster and, on 6 July, Lloyd George was appointed Secretary of State for War. He had done well at Munitions and his prestige and popularity made him instrumental to the survival of the government.
Margot Asquith write caustically about the appointment in her diary:
I may be quite wrong but I prophesy that Ll. G’s appointment to succeed K. at the War Office will turn out to be a great failure! If it is a great success, he will take good care to cut Henry out — to pose as the saviour of the soldiers in the greatest war that has ever been, that he has fought for them in the face of sluggishness and “wait and see” opposition; that thanks to him we had enough guns for our new offensive.
Even if the Somme were to be a storming success, she acknowledged fears. Lloyd George would be the darling of the nation — he and his detestable friend, Lord Northcliffe. The alliance of the rising politician and the press baron filled her with horror and contempt. Sometimes, the past feels not such a foreign country.