Somme ‘nightmare’: debate rages 100 years on
It is 100 years since the bloodiest day in British army history. The battle of the Somme remains emotive and divisive. Can the Allies’ eventual victory justify the extraordinary losses?
A century ago this morning, 100,000 young British men left the ditches they were hiding in near the Somme river, in eastern France. Some were with groups of friends. They began to cross the ground in front of them — many at walking pace.
These Allied soldiers had been assured they were in minimal danger. Their generals had launched a week-long artillery bombardment so heavy, one had said, ‘nothing could exist’ in the enemy trenches opposite.
The generals were wrong. German soldiers emerged from their dugouts and mowed the men down with machine gun fire. One infantryman wrote in his diary: ‘We hadn’t gone far up the trench before we came across three of our own lads lying dead.’
Saturday July 1st 1916 was the deadliest day in British army history: 19,240 soldiers lost their lives.
The battle of the Somme continued for four and a half months. One man died every five seconds. There were more than a million casualties in total. Britain and its allies advanced just seven miles. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the first world war. Teenager Stuart Cloete described a ‘nightmare of fear, hardship, exhaustion and unbelievable loneliness’.
The Somme still grips the British public. Vigils were held in France and London last night. Today, the nation will observe two minutes’ silence. A number of new books are being sold and the BBC will broadcast a new three-part series about it.
Was it anything more than an appalling waste of life? The Allies were unable to force a lengthy retreat. But after the first day they tried to wear Germany down and take pressure from the French fortress of Verdun. As the battle went on, they used new tactics, which helped to inform more successful engagements in 1918.
The soldiers continued to fight despite dreadful losses. Many felt the Allies faced a threat to their survival from an expansionist imperial enemy which had declared war on France, Russia and Belgium. But can this justify the atrocious losses?
It was pointless and inexcusable, say some. Upper-class generals and politicians ordered ordinary men to fight with no idea of the value of their lives. The mistakes on the first day were appalling, and launching attritional warfare afterwards was the basest possible response. And Britain’s claim to moral superiority is dubious: it was also an imperial power.
It was necessary, respond others. Generals had to be prepared to suffer heavy losses to beat a powerful enemy. They had a hard job — prosecuting a new form of ‘total war’ on a huge battlefield, with limited communication and formidable defensive weaponry. Thankfully the Allies resisted German expansionism and Europe is now a relatively free, peaceful continent.
- Is there any cause you would be prepared to risk your life for?
- Was the battle of the Somme pointless or necessary?
- Write a list of five questions you would like to have asked if you had met someone who fought on the Somme. Discuss as a class: why did you choose these questions?
- Write, and act out, a short sketch in which one of the generals on the Somme meets one of his soldiers after the battle. What might they each think about the casualty rates, the battle’s necessity and the eventual outcome?
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Q & A
- This happened 100 years ago. Why does it affect me?
- It is worth remembering that many of those who fought and died were little older than you — in fact Sidney Lewis, who fought on the Somme for six weeks, was just 13. You could consider how you would react in a similar situation. Wars still rage around the world and you, or someone you care about, could be involved one day. And in countries which fought in the first world war, its horrors have had an impact on the collective psyche.
- How can I honour the memory of those involved?
- You can do things such as donating to charities like the British Legion, which helps veterans. But perhaps most importantly stories like this can act as a reminder that you are usually more fortunate than you think, and prompt you to keep some perspective in life.
- The British army created ‘pals’ battalions’ when war began in 1914 — groups of volunteers from the same town with little experience. Many fought for the first time on the Somme, with heavy losses.
- General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Britain’s fourth army commander.
- Stretcher-bearer Walter Hutchinson.
- The army suffered 57,470 casualties that day.
- There were about 1.1m casualties — 400,000 British and commonwealth, 500,000 German and 200,000 French troops. Over one in four casualties died.
- Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach shows the dysfunctional relationship between the two most senior generals. Taylor Downing’s Breakdown casts light on the 60,000 British soldiers who suffered shellshock.
- The Somme 1916: from both sides of the wire.
- The Germans besieged the town, a source of French pride, from February to December 1916.
- Tanks and ‘creeping’ barrages, where artillery moved forward slowly, were used for the first time. British forces made better use of light machine guns, grenades and trench mortars.