The Battle of the Somme at 100

Max Gwynne

1st Battalion Irish Rifles prepare for the Somme offensive on 1st July 1916 | Photograph: Irish Typepad/Flickr
“’Somme’. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word”
Freidrich Steinbrecher

July 1st will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the world’s bloodiest battles. Lasting 141 days, the Battle of the Somme saw more than 19,000 British dead in the first day alone and by the end of the campaign, that November, well over 400,000 Commonwealth soldiers had died. The battle was arguably one of the most significant of the First World War, it was without doubt the bloodiest; this fact led the very word ‘Somme’ to become synonymous with the whole horror of the wider war.

Despite being of such historical significance, today the Somme has been largely forgotten amongst the British public. A recent survey conducted by the National Army Museum of over 2000 UK adults quizzed random members of the general public, from a variety of different age groups, on the battle; finding that most of them (85%) knew very little about the event, or failing to even identify the war in which the battle was part of. A very sad point of fact indeed.

You would be forgiven for thinking the Battle of the Somme was a single battle, however it was in fact a long series of battles fought against German troops in the Northern France region of the River Somme (‘The Somme’ being a complete misnomer, no British soldier fought near the river at all due to the fact that the area by the river was a French sector of attack). The Somme Offensive is a far better and much more accurate term and way of describing it. Historians have comprised this huge offensive into three key phases, with each phase comprised of 3-5 battles. Phase One comprises of the dates from 1st July to the 17th and focuses upon the battles of Albert, Bazentin ridge and Fromelles. Phase Two, from the rest of July until September, consists of the battles of Delville Wood, Pozieres Ridge, Guillemont and Ginchy. And finally Phase Three, looking at September through to November, observe the battles of Flers-Courcelette, Morval, the Transloy ridges, Theipval ridge, the Ancre heights and Ancre itself.

The underlying purpose of the offensive was for the British and Commonwealth forces to use the attack as a divergent tactic to lure the Germans away from Verdun, in the north, in order to relieve the weakening French forces there (The French’s bloodily expensive stubbornness in defending Verdun was akin to the Russians at Stalingrad in the Second World War. For the French, the loss of Verdun would be a truly crushing blow on the path to victory). The plan was thus; After a week of solid artillery bombardment of the German line, Allied infantry and cavalry would storm the enemy trenches and push them back as far as possible in their heavily weakened state. However, they failed to anticipate that the Germans could possibly have survived such a bombardment which surprisingly they did. The Germans, seeking no reason to advance, had dug in as best they could; their trenches could hardly have been better constructed. Thus, a combination of stronger than expected German defences, deeper than expected German trenches, a lack of British speed and surprise, combined with the failure of our artillery to really penetrate the German line meant that in the end the resulting land gain was a mere six miles’ worth of territory and was not the great success it was anticipated to have been.

Whilst hundreds of thousands were injured and killed, many more suffered mentally in the aftermath of the battle for the rest of their lives. Since the beginning of the Somme, a concerning increase of particular incidents had troubled the battlefield doctors. Men showed signs of partial and total paralysis, stuttering, uncontrollable shakes, the inability to walk or even stand, blindness and deafness. These cases only further increased as the battle raged on. The commanders of the British Army were aghast at the rate of which these fit young men were mentally deteriorating. They had lost all morale, with entire battalions being withdrawn with these symptoms. With cases spreading like wildfire, the commanders grew extremely concerned and began to suppress talk and knowledge of these incidents in order to keep morale from plummeting. Men who suffered from ‘Shell-shock’, as it was becoming known, were considered cowards with an absence of courage. Many were reprimanded, and most of them were sent back to the front-line. Medical officers banned the terminology ‘shell-shock’ and little to no sympathy was shown to any man plagued by the condition. The true numbers of those effected are not known, but estimates are high at roughly 60’000 men. In the aftermath of the Somme, armies have been sure to line up teams of psychiatrists for soldiers both before and after they engage in combat. This forward psychiatric work is now a fundamental part of any modern army.

Photograph: RV1864/Flickr
Photograph: RV1864/Flickr

Those few men who survived the battle and continued fighting the war had however evolved. Far from being ‘Kitchener’s Mob’ as they were before the battle, the conflict had hardened many men into a highly professional force that went on to win the majority of the victories for the continuation of the war. The lessons learnt not just by the men, but by the generals as well served in good stead in those later battles, such as the Battle of Scarpe during the Arras Offensive on April 9th 1917 and in the Battle of Amiens in August 1918; the integration of the ‘lewis gun’, the use of tanks to pierce enemy lines, increased tactical troop movements, trench mortar fire and aerial reconnaissance.

There were undeniably too many failures in the offensive, many of which were the result of poor communications and planning. Both Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and General Rawlinson have received incredible criticism for their plans and conduct. Yet whilst many historians argue over Haig’s reputations to whether or not he should be ranked as a great military leader, both groups largely agree that he was certainly of vital significance. Sadly, the Somme was not to be the only slaughter that Haig presided over; with the quagmire in Passchendale a year later in 1917. But he was also responsible for a set of outstanding victories on the Western front too that would ultimately seal Germany’s fate in 1918. Despite the popular misconception of Haig being a bumbling fool, he was actually quite the military intellectual of his time. He was a man of great experience; having graduated from Sandhurst, serving well in the 1898 Sudan campaign as well as distinguishing himself in the Boer War, and being a large Army reformer.

Sir Douglas Haig was, like most of the commanders and generals, well versed and experienced in conflict. So why didn’t the commanders and generals know better? In hindsight we may scream and curse at those generals who sent all those men into the bloodbath. But let’s be clear, the they were not so sinister as to callously send their men into oblivion willingly. It must be remembered that warfare on this scale had never been seen before, and thus no case study examples could have been used to prevent such events. There was great debate and much logical, painstaking and rational thought put into the attack, but ultimately too many assumptions were made. What is obvious however is their extreme optimism and unimaginative plans which resulted in a huge and bloody cost; but one that wasn’t soon forgotten. Their actions were to have a profound impact on the conduct of the Second World War. The battle undeniably left a psychological scar on the memory of the British government and military. The fear of a return to trench warfare was simply not an option for them.

Was there a strategic alternative? Regrettably, there wasn’t. If there had been any way else of fighting the battle, that didn’t involve head on attacks against a formidable enemy neither the British nor Commonwealth forces found one. The line from Switzerland to the sea had left no possible flank to be attacked and the Russians had failed to make much in the way of progress on the other side of Europe. There was simply no room for either a manoeuvre or pincer attacks.

Ultimately, the battle was a terrible and bloody leaning curve. It served as a valuable tactical lesson and as a linchpin in the evolution of modern warfare. The Somme was the first mass-industrialised offensive in that it saw the birth of the ‘tank’ and revealed the importance of air power and reconnaissance.

Fricourt German Cemetery, where over 17,000 german soldiers are buried | Photograph: Nick Garrod
Fricourt German Cemetery, where over 17,000 German soldiers are buried | Photograph: Nick Garrod

With regard to whether or not the Somme was a victory or a defeat, historians continue to debate the matter. The anniversary will lead to, and to some extent already has led to, reassessment of the battle, and indeed the wider war. Until the 1930s, the prominent view had been that the battle was a hard-fought victory earned against an elite German army. Many began to question and critique this viewpoint. Not least, Winston Churchill vocally objected to the way in which the battle had been conducted. (Like others though, he failed to suggest an alternative). David Lloyd-George later also criticised the battle in his post-war diaries claiming the battle to have been a ‘bull-headed fight’ consisting of little more than ‘horrible and futile carnage’. An emergent revisionist viewpoint of ‘mud, blood and futility’ arose shortly afterwards. This view saw the Anglo-French battle as a disaster and has now been widely deemed a defunct argument. Yet, the debate still continues.

100 years on and today in the area of the Somme, some 150,000 Commonwealth soldiers lie in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries. They serve as a stark and permanent reminder of all those who fought and died there; the memorials play an essential role in reminding us of the great sacrifices those men made for us. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, designed in 1932 by Sir Edwin Lutyens and located in Picardy in Northern France, is the primary focal point used to memorise those who lost their lives in the Somme Offensive. The centenary will be marked at the memorial, with international ceremonies hosted by both the British and French governments which will be attended by international politicians, military representatives, historians and relatives of those lost on the battlefield. Musical tributes will be held by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, The Welsh Guards Band and a great many other bands. Shows, exhibits, lectures and talks will also take place throughout the day in honour of the fallen men. This will be primary event of tribute, but many more will undoubtedly take place across Europe on July 1st.

Despite the battle, and of course the wider war, slipping further and further into history, those soldiers’ sacrifices for us must never be forgotten. As long as we remember those courageous men and what they fought and gave their lives for and why, the Somme will never be a defeat. Rather, it will be a victory if it prevents such tragic and senseless loss in the future.

We must never forget them.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”
For the Fallen – By Robert Laurence Binyon
About Max Gwynne 4 Articles
Max is a graduate of History and International Relations and currently looking to do a Masters Degree in IR. His particular areas interest include British and American Political History and hopes to one day write a book (or several) on his political inspiration, US President John F. Kennedy. Follow Max on Twitter @MPG23