“Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries, they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade” (1)
On this date, at the break of dawn precisely one hundred years ago, they went over the top in what became known as the Battle of the Somme. (2) It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. As the sun rose, the whistles blew and the men went, in the parlance of the time, “Over the Top”. By sundown, the British had lost 57,470 men, an estimated 20,000 dead, mostly by noon that day. It was a killing field. The army advanced at a cost of 3 men for every foot of ground gained.
It is remembered today largely as the leitmotif of a struggle characterized by what historian Max Hastings has termed the “Blackadder” interpretation of the First World War, after the British Sitcom of that name, which pilloried the struggle, especially the military leadership that led it. Hastings takes umbrage with the critics, among them Siegfried Sassoon, claiming that they didn’t understand either its necessity nor its tactics. I must take issue with Hastings on both counts.
I don’t think that either Atkinson (“Blackadder”) or Sassoon the poet were critics of the struggle. I don’t think either one of them, or many of the host of other critics of General Haig and the military chiefs, hold the view that the battle was unnecessary. Where they take issue is with the strategy and the tactics used, and the continued order of repeated attacks for the next 141 days until the battle subsided due to the onset of winter having achieved not even the first day’s military objectives. When it ended both sides suffered casualties each estimated at over half million men.
“The Children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation.” (3)
The battle occurred because the French were being decimated at Verdun and to alleviate the pressure and to save the French army, the British were called upon to begin a major offensive. Its necessity is, therefore, not in dispute. What is in dispute are the tactics.
I’ve made the point in previous posts concerning this conflict that I hold the military brass responsible because they had learned nothing from studying war. One questions the purpose of military academies where lessons from previous conflicts seemingly are at best forgotten and at worst ignored. All the European powers had observers on both sides during the American Civil War, a war that introduced the devastation of the modern rifle as well as the stalemate of trench warfare. Nothing had improved since then, the introduction of the Gatling gun, followed in turn by the machine gun, could not auger well for any military offensive. Nevertheless the military mind, being what it is, refused to come to terms with the evolving technology. Indeed the French military approached the conflict with a training manual that insisted that the army would do nothing but attack. Such tactics, given the technology at the time, were breathtakingly uninspired.
“Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lesson drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All for a Children’s Crusade” (4)
The bombardment started a week or so before they went over the top. The British fired an estimated 3 million shells at the German lines but, due to lack of quality control, a third of them were duds. The purpose was, of course to destroy the enemy’s earthworks; but also to cut the barbed wire to ease the advance. Ignoring front-line reconnaissance reports back to headquarters that the barbed wire was still in tact; and arming the men with wire cutters that couldn’t cut the much thicker German barbed wire, the men were led ‘over the top’.
The artillery were largely anti-personnel shells (similar to Civil War era grape shot) and, therefore, useless at destroying either trenches or wire, and the enemy was dug in with bunkers 30 to 40 feet underground. The British Infantry, loaded with up to 60 pounds of kit and told to walk across ‘no man’s land’ because the enemy will have been destroyed, went up—‘over the top’ into a perfect killing field.
Like Viet Nam decades later, a conflict in which American forces would be brought to the battlefield by helicopter and the enemy simply counting the rotors and quickly determining if he would stand and fight or blend back into the jungle, so the Allies would announce the advance by the cessation of the artillery barrage. A quick silence followed by the blowing of whistles signaling the men to climb out of their trenches and advance on no-man’s land—but also signaling to the enemy to come out of his bunkers and take up position, a strategy that effectively eliminated any purpose or advantage the bombardment was supposed to produce. With the element of surprise gone, with the relative strength of each army generally understood, it was left to the infantry to slog it out in what quickly became a hell on earth.
All of this was foreseeable. As in the American Civil War, one had only to look to Fredericksburg or Antietam for lessons on what not to do at Gettysburg or Kennesaw Mountain; one had look no further than what was going on at Verdun to draw similar simple conclusions. However, no, the military mind has trouble with universally observable empiricism.
The historian struggles to justify. Many point to the Battle of the Somme as the first use of tanks and the use of aircraft as offensive weapons in an effort to demonstrate the military’s willingness to embrace new technologies and strategies but, unfortunately, these apologies are not supported by the historical record. The fact is that tanks, here introduced to warfare, were not the brainchild of the Army’s brass. Instead, the modern tank is the brainchild of one Winston Churchill who, in a rare moment of prescience and wisdom, insisted as Lord of the Admiralty, to build the tank. It was the British Navy not the army that developed the modern tank; the army having been presented with the idea quickly dismissed tanks, deriding them as ‘land yachts”. While taking part in the battle, tanks were, nevertheless ineffective both because they were not present in large enough numbers and because the Army hadn’t developed the tactics for their use. Indeed the same criticism has been leveled at Haig and the brass concerning the use of flamethrowers, mortars, and other weapons that civilian authorities were to impose upon the military command in an effort to break the stalemate. Indeed, it was the Canadians, later in the war that introduced the ‘rolling’ artillery”, a strategy of using it during the assault and calibrating their fire to lay down a barrage just ahead of the advancing troops. This to prevent the enemy from taking position—a strategy that more than any other would finally break the stalemate near the end of the war.
Hastings, unlike Sassoon, did not fight this battle, nor any other in this war. He is the grandson of one who did, but he wasn’t there. Sassoon was and, on balance, I’ll take his version of it.
Let us take a moment and pay our respects to the ones who fought and died there, to the ones who fought and were wounded and dismembered in body and soul, to the ones who carried the memories well into my lifetime for while it surely wasn’t in vain it was, however, altogether too great a sacrifice. The battle remains, however, a veritable monument to the stupidity of leadership and the madness of man.
“Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed” (5)
(3) Op. cit.