"Consider us as having died today or tomorrow"

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The Battle of the Somme started on 1 July 1916 and dragged on until the following November. Steve Guy describes the rigid class divisions between officers and rank and file soldiers and the snobbery of generals such as Haig, that became major features behind the subsequent slaughter.

In the years prior to what became known as the Great War, most of the nations that were to become embroiled in the conflict had standing armies numbering hundreds of thousands. The empires of Austro-Hungary and Tsarist Russia, Germany and France all used conscription — enforced recruitment — in varying degrees, to maintain their numbers.

In Britain there was no conscription, the imperial power relying on a smaller professional army, but a very large navy, to impose its rule wherever the Union Jack was flown. “Native” troops were also used to bolster the regular army in every part of the empire.

Many of these troops would be shipped over to fight on the Western Front, but in spite of the manpower needs of the war, the imperial authorities would maintain a sizeable garrison of regular army units to control their colonial possessions.

The architects of the biggest military mobilisation in British history to date, Lord Kitchener and Lord Derby, capitalised on the wave of patriotic fervour that swept tens of thousands into the arms of the recruiting sergeants in the early days of the war.

In every major urban centre recruiting stations were beseiged by volunteers. Brigades were formed from every town and city, known as the “Pals Brigades”, where men from the same town were assured that they would be able to serve together.

In Ireland the war interrupted the conflict between Ulster Unionists, who joined the 36th (Ulster) division and the Irish Nationalists, who became the 10th (Irish) division. It is estimated that by the beginning of 1916 some 2.5 million men had volunteered.

And what kind of army was it that these willing volunteers were joining in such numbers? At the start of the war not only was it deficient in equipment and ordinance and manpower, but it was also an army staffed by an officer corps that was ill-equipped to deal with the
challenges of total war.

Most officers were still drawn from the ranks of the establishment, and replicated the attitudes of that class towards those that they commanded. As one Northumberland Fusilier said, “The officers were mainly public schoolboys. They came through officers training in the public schools, and they were given commissions. They weren’t taught to think. Only to lead.”

Command

The further on up the chain of command, the more those in authority expected their orders to be carried out without question, while a rigid system of promotion by seniority rather than merit meant that the service was dominated by people with antediluvian ideas about how war should be fought.

Innovation and originality were viewed with suspicion, even contempt. This could certainly be said of the commander in chief of the British forces Sir Douglas Haig, a man whose ability to manoeuvre himself into a position of authority was not matched by his military prowess on the field of battle.

At a summit of all the allied powers in December 1915, it was agreed to try and launch a coordinated offensive on several fronts in the new year. German high command anticipated this development, and in an attempt to disrupt allied plans, launched an all-out offensive against the French in February 1916 at Verdun. This battle was to continue until December and cost the lives of 380,000 Frenchmen and 320,000 Germans.

The French commander, Joseph Joffre, called on the British and a reluctant Haig to attack the Germans on the Somme to force them to divert their forces away from Verdun and relieve the pressure on the beleaguered defenders.

The sector that the British Expeditionary Force was scheduled to attack was one of the most heavily defended on the Western Front.

The German battle lines were composed of a series of fortified redoubts generally centred on villages or hamlets built on higher ground. Many of the village houses had cellars which the Germans excavated, widening and deepening them by as much as 40 feet underground. In front of the redoubts were at least three trenches while in front of the trenches was a dense, impenetrable layer of barbed wire. And behind the defensive lines was the artillery, zeroed in on no man’s land.

It was in these killing fields that the enthusiastic volunteers of the Pals Brigades were to be committed for their baptism of fire.

Offensive

One of the key maxims of any military offensive is the necessity for secrecy and surprise. Preparations for the Somme offensive were characterised by a complete absence of both as the build-up of men and materials was a clear indication of the impending onslaught.

A week-long bombardment was designed to both destroy the German fortifications and blast away the barbed wire, but did neither. In fact so many shells failed to explode in the chalky soil that even today French farmers sit on armour-plated tractors in case they disturb unexploded ordnance.

But worst of all was the blind optimism of the senior officers from Haig down, with the commander of the Fourth Army, Henry Rawlinson, quoted as declaring that “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it”.

Regimental commanders such as General de Lisle addressed their troops, echoing their commander’s optimistic pronouncements. “He made it sound like it was going to be a walkover,” wrote one regular.

On 1 July the opening phase of the attack was announced with two massive explosions, the result of mines packed with explosives and detonated under the German lines. Now the German defenders knew the exact time of the attack. They emerged from their bunkers battered and bloody after the week long bombardment dragging their machine guns into position, and were confronted with the serried ranks of British troops walking as instructed in order to adhere to the timetable laid down by the high command.

Defenders

Along the 14-mile front the attacking troops were cut down in their tens of thousands as the defenders traversed their machine guns from right to left and back again, while the artillery pounded them even as they clambered out of the trenches.

By the end of that terrible first day nearly 20,000 had been killed, and another 40,000 wounded or missing. One of the Sheffield City Pals summed up the experience of those enthusiastic volunteers: “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.” For another man coming into the line the following day, a dreadful scene greeted him:

Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water-mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work.

It is at this point that the commander in chief, Haig, took the fateful decision to continue the offensive, in spite of the fearsome losses that had been incurred. He sacked one of his generals who had called off an attack to avoid further catastrophic losses, as an example to other senior officers who might have taken a similar line.

Haig then embarked on an attritional strategy, one designed to inflict more casualties on the defenders than were sustained by the attackers.

Exhaustion

So 12 separate battles were waged over the next four and a half months, blurring into what became known as the Battle of the Somme, and tens of thousands more were killed each time, on both sides.

The last attack faded out on 18 November, with Haig still calling for further attacks, prompting Lord Cavan, commander of XIV Corps to protest pointedly: “No one who has not visited the front can really know the state of exhaustion to which the men are reduced.”

At the conclusion of the battle the allied (British and French) losses were 620,000 to the Germans’ 437,000 (figures for killed, wounded or missing). The missing’s remains continue to be unearthed even today by the same French farmers in their armour-plated tractors.

For the soldiers in the BEF, the Somme was a watershed as they assessed the situation, a battle fought for so little gain, an advance of barely five miles, at such cost. Many were unwilling to give expression to their doubts in the way that an Indian soldier, Bhagail Singh, did in a letter to his family: “Consider us as having died today or tomorrow. There is absolutely no hope of our ever returning… None will survive.”

Desertion

One indication of a certain demoralisation within the ranks was the increase in the rate of desertion, while the supply of willing volunteers dried up and almost all the replacements for those killed on the Somme had to be conscripted.

For the communities from which those willing volunteers had set off, the local papers published daily lists of the casualties, while in some places it was unusual to find a house that wasn’t decked in black with the curtains shut as each family went into mourning. The streets were filled with wives and mothers in black mourning garb.

A deadly pall of hopelessness, interspersed with chauvinistic anger, gripped the country, leavened by a courageous minority that was prepared to articulate their opposition to the war, and an increasing industrial militancy in protest at the demands imposed on workers by the war economy.

It would take another year of senseless slaughter before events in the East would start to change the course of the war.


1916: YEAR OF SLAUGHTER

Battle of Naroch: 100,000 Russians; 20,000 Germans
Brusilov Offensive: 500,000 Russians; 600,000 Austro-Hungarians
Battle of Verdun: 380,000 French; 320,000 Germans
The Somme: 620,000 British and French; 437,000 Germans
(Figures for killed, wounded or missing)