The Battle of the Somme
Tragedy: ‘a sad, lamentable event; one causing or involving death and unhappiness’ (Webster’s Universal Dictionary).
... I, that on my familiar hill
The last poem of William Noel Hodgson (written just before the battle of the Somme).
The son of a Bishop, Hodgson volunteered for the Devonshire Regiment in Sept. 1914, at the age of 21. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery on 25 Sept. 1915, when he and a small party held a captured trench for 36 hours without food or reinforcements.
On 1 July 1916, he was killed by bullet in the throat from a German machine gun while taking a supply of bombs to his men in newly captured trenches near Mametz.
Philip Gibbs account - the effect of the battle on the Germans
First Day of the Somme - map with accounts of engagements.
BBC Animated map - BRILLIANT!
The Somme after 1 July - an account by Peter Simkins
Swavesey (inc map)
Film and Youtube
Watch clips of the film
This 1916 cartoon from the Daily Mirror
– entitled ‘The Somme Punch’ – shows the Somme as the Kaiser’s
This map shows Haig’s plan – the
army would break through the enemy lines, then the infantry and cavalry
would sweep on past Bapaume.
The attack was preceded by an eight-day artillery bombardment, in which 1537 British guns fired 1,723,873 rounds. The sound of the bombardment could be heard in England.
The aim of the bombardment was two-fold: firstly to kill the German soldiers and reduce them to shell-shocked chaos, secondly to destroy the German barbed wire.
But the artillery failed The shells were not powerful enough to break down into the German dug-outs (which were up to 9 metres deep), and the shrapnel shells, which consisted merely of cases filled with ball-bearings, did not destroy any of the wire, but simply made it more tangled and impassable.
The historian JM Bourne writes:
‘Rarely can so much effort have been expended to such little effect…
Once the artillery failed, the infantry was doomed.’
Mines (tunnels) had
been dug under the German trenches and packed with explosives.
At 7.28 am these were detonated just before the British attack,
giving the Germans 2 minutes warning.
Then, at 7.30 am,
whistles were blown and the men went ‘over the top’.
Each man carried a gas mask, groundsheet, field dressings, trench
spade, 150 rounds of ammunition and such extras as sandbags or a roll of
barbed wire – up to 80 pounds of equipment.
Thinking that the
Germans had been destroyed by the bombardment, and fearing that their
inexperienced soldiers would become disorganised in a rush attack, the
generals had ordered that the men should walk, in straight lines, across
No Man’s Land.
They were slaughtered. ‘They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them,’ wrote one German machine-gunner. One British battalion was unable to advance because it could not climb over the bodies of the dead and wounded blocking the way. The British officers, ordered to carry only a pistol, and leading their troops by example, were easily marked out and shot – the result was chaos.
At this point a
British commander decided to detonate a mine which had failed to explode,
burying his own men under a hail of rock and soil.
Some British units captured enemy positions, but in the afternoon the Germans counter-attacked and recaptured most of the land they had lost.
gives a vivid impression of the slaughter involved in going ‘over the
top’. The phrase is
still used today to describe something excessively stupid.
on the first day were 20,000 dead and more than 35,000 wounded –
‘probably more than any army in any war on a single day’.
The British soldiers at the Somme were not conscripts – they were
volunteers, who had flocked to join up in response to Kitchener’s
‘Your country needs you’ poster.
In the First World War, men from the same town served together in
the same regiment; now they were killed together.
Friends and brothers died side by side, and towns lost all their
young men in the same battle.
Despite the setback
of the first day, Haig – in his HQ in the château at Valvion, 50 miles
behind the lines – was still confident.
He continued the attacks for 4 more months.
He made a major attack, following the same plan, and with the same
results, in September.
wounded man is rushed to the Forward Dressing Post. Half an hour later, he was
questions were beginning to be asked – Lloyd George lost confidence in
Haig. At home, there
was grief and horror. A
propaganda film – designed to encourage support for the war by showing
the public what the men were going through – was well-received by many
people as a 'glimpse of what our soldiers are doing and daring and
suffering in Picardy'(The Times).
Not everyone welcomed it; one wounded soldier had to be led hysterical from the cinema, and
one woman, after a stunned silence, shrieked out: ‘They’re dying!’ Nevertheless, the film was seen by 20 million people
in Britain, as well as world-wide.
Only on 18
November, as winter set in, did the battle grind to a halt. Bapaume had not been captured. Only 6 miles of ground had been taken.
The final casualties were: British 415,000, French 195,000, Germans
Lloyd George called
the battle of the Somme: ‘The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and
bloody fight ever waged in the history or war’.