A Brief History
On July 1, 1916, the five month Battle of the Somme began with horrific results for the British Army, leaving 19,240 men dead on the battlefield and another 36,230 wounded on only the first day! Known in Britain as The Battle of Albert (July 1 through July 13, 1916), the start to the Battle of the Somme was a portent of the slaughter to come.
With “only” 7000 total casualties the French do not remember this day as particularly noteworthy, lost in World War I, a war of many horrific days. Nor do the Germans consider July 1, 1916 an infamous day, suffering “only” 8000 total casualties and 4200 men taken prisoner. The British were the big losers on July 1st, and the reasons why will make any modern military person or historian sick!
British soldiers were ordered to attack into heavy machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire carrying 66 pounds of equipment, and marching shoulder to shoulder! Some British writers of the time bragged of the bravery of the troops being mown down rather than decry the idiotic tactics, and of course, no one in particular took credit for ordering overloaded men to march into machine gun bullets abreast of each other. British officers whined about the defenses faced by the more successful French forces being less robust than the mighty defenses faced by the British (they were actually about the same), neglecting to notice that French artillery preparation fires were more effective and French tactics were better suited to the situation.
The British and French attacks were successful in places, but were later lost to German counterattacks. The Battle of the Somme would grind on until November of 1916, by which time a million men had become casualties, with about 420,00 British (95,000+ killed), 200,000 (50,000+ killed) French, and perhaps as many as 500,000 Germans becoming killed or wounded (164,000+ killed, 38,000 captured). The average allied advance during the 5 month battle was only 6 miles, though of course British high ranking officers and some politicians called this a “victory.” Realistically, the result was that the Germans were still near where they had been with a still strong defensive line, but a million men suffered broken bodies basically for nothing.
The callous attitude toward British enlisted men by the high-ranking officers from the gentry class and the politicians and nobles was forcibly altered during the war as men from “lower” classes had to fill officer vacancies and class lines finally began to blur, but not before so many were sacrificed like pawns on a chessboard. In Britain and in other countries, there seems to be a new appreciation for the fighting men and women in today’s military that has become downright trendy. Hopefully this trend will someday soon translate into reluctance to send the military into war. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Axelrod, Alan. The Battle of the Somme. Lyons Press, 2016.
Hart, Peter. The Somme. Pegasus Books, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Amanda Slater, from Coventry (England), of the Thiepval Memorial to the British Missing of the Somme, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr by amandabhslater at https://www.flickr.com/photos/15181848@N02/1788158299. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.