Today marks the centennial of the Battle of the Somme. Unlike most battles, it wasn’t over in a day or even a week, but instead took months to resolve.
The popular memory of the battle (and indeed the First World War as a whole) is inaccurate and clichéd, dwelling on muddy trenches and troops marching mindlessly to their deaths. The truth is quite different, and far more interesting.
To begin with we must understand the context of the battle, and why the British in particular are so affected by it.
Unlike all the other Great Powers of Europe, the British disdained a large standing army of conscripts, and instead relied on a small, highly-trained all-volunteer force backed up by territorial militias. (Note that the notion of being ‘pressed into service’ went out of use a century before).
When German forces swung through Belgium in August 1914, it was this modest force of regulars that helped stall their otherwise irresistible advance, though at great cost to themselves.
After the German defeat at the Battle of the Marne, the two sides tried to turn each other’s flank, leading to a “race to the sea.” At that point, the Western Front stabilized and the armies began to dig in, creating a massive trench system from the Swiss border to the English Channel.
For much of 1915, the armies in the west stared at each other. The pre-war stocks of ammunition were exhausted and the factories strained to keep up with the day-to-day needs of the war, let alone provide new equipment for the rapidly expanding armies.
Britain’s tiny army and its meager reserves were particularly hard-hit by the constant attrition and so troops from all over the Empire were brought in to shore up the line. At the same time, the British government launched a powerful appeal for volunteers, and the nation answered.
It’s hard for us to relate to this now, but back then, the concept of duty to one’s nation was a powerful force. Men had a profound sense of personal honor and women disdained cowards. Adding further to the social pressure to enlist, the British army permitted groups of friends to enlist and serve together. The British Army had always used regiments largely based on local areas (and still does, in fact) but these units of “pals” took it to the next level.
It took a year to train and equip them and when they stepped off on July 1, 1916, there was every expectation that they would sweep all before them.
Contrary to the popular myth, the generals didn’t mindlessly send troops to their deaths. Instead, there there was a learning curve throughout World War I and the generals eagerly seized upon whatever trick they might use to break the deadlock and spare their armies further losses.
The problem was that the British Army on that fateful day was woefully inexperienced and the Allied leaders had greatly overestimated the effectiveness of their preliminary bombardment. Making matters worse, the size of the attack and the primitive command and control system meant it was almost impossible for the generals to get clear information about what was happening.
Still, the initial offensive was a debacle, with 60,000 British casualties (a third of them dead) by the end of the first day. The French also participated in the attack and because of their previous combat experience, did better than their allies. The problem with the French was that they had their own meat grinder to sustain at Verdun, so they could provide only limited support.
The Germans were driven back in several places with heavy losses and a more agile British command structure could have exploited this, but it didn’t happen. So the offensive wore on.
I mentioned the myths associated with the battle and one of them is that the troops lived for years in the trenches. That isn’t true and I think it’s based on the fact that TV and film versions tend to be the way most people are exposed to World War I. Both of these media rely on sets, so it’s cheaper to just film everyone in the same place – particularly when you have to go to the trouble of making a giant trench complex.
In actuality, the troops only stayed at the line for a few days at a time, after which they were rotated to the rear for rest, reinforcements and recuperation. Most of a soldier’s career would be spend in rear areas and units were frequently moved to different portions of the line, thus the stereotypical “we’ve been sitting in this bunker for three years” line is false.
So too is the notion that a spell in the trenches was a death sentence. Part of this is based on the confusion between troops killed in action vs total casualties, a term that includes battle dead but also wounded, missing and captured.
For example, the British 24th Infantry Division sustained 25,000 casualties during the course of the war. Given that it had an authorized strength of only 10,000 men, that would seem to indicate that it was wiped out two and a half times. However, many of those who were listed as missing were only temporarily separated from their unit (often helping take wounded to the rear). Others were lightly wounded but able to return to duty.
To put it another way, your odds of survival overall during World War I were pretty good, close to 90 percent. The problem was that when you create vast armies in the millions, that ten percent equates to hundreds of thousands of dead.
Of course, such a sustained slaughter is unthinkable today. The concept of honor is all but empty and “duty” has been redefined to mean "What other people owe us."
On the other hand, no one back then expected the war to come or to have the form and duration that it ultimately took. We may imagine ourselves too intelligent to fall into the trap, that’s what people always think right up until they trip the mechanism and find themselves caught.
Given the shattering ineptitude of our current leaders, a disaster on the order of the Somme seems in many ways the best case scenario.