(This essay was originally published as “Bloodiest of Bloody Battles,” in the Newport Daily News on July 12, 2016.)
One hundred years ago this month, the Battle of the Somme began with British and French forces attacking entrenched German forces near the Somme River in northern France. The largest battle of World War I, the battle or “Somme Offensive,” lasting from July 1 to November 18, 1916, was one of the bloodiest in history.
The First World War had begun on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Within two weeks all the major European powers were at war. By mid-1916 the two blocs included the Allies, composed of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, on the one hand, and the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, on the other. Many lesser states also joined. The United States had not yet entered the war. In November, 1916, Woodrow Wilson would be re-elected on a campaign including a pledge to keep the U.S. out of the war.
Both sides were surprised that the war had continued this long and that the former mobile, offensively-oriented type of warfare had given way on the Western Front to a stagnant, defensively-oriented “trench warfare,” the trench lines running essentially from the French coast to the Swiss Alps. Neither side had been able to effect a decisive breakthrough.
By mid-1916, the trench lines had become elaborate networks, protected by barbed-wire fields five feet high and thirty yards wide, machine gun positions, mortars, and artillery. Troops lived in horrid conditions subject to the elements and at times to the rotting corpses of their comrades.
The battle began on July 1 with a combined British-French offensive, the British attacking with 13 divisions, the French with 11. The Germans defended with about 10 divisions. The horrendous, week-long, preliminary, Allied bombardment with 1537 guns was supposed to destroy the German’s barbed wire and initial line of defense so that the assaulting forces would have a simple “walkover”. Unfortunately for the British forces, the artillery bombardment did not succeed in these tasks. At 7:30 am, when the bombardment lifted and the infantry attacked, many German forces simply moved back into their firing positions and mowed down the assaulting forces with deadly machine gun fire.
Our own Newport Daily News, on the day of attack, covered the battle in its lead, front-page articles. The main article was headlined: “Allies Take Three Towns and Two Woods,” It continued: “Main First-Line Trenches Stormed and Second Line Reached.” To be expected from a report from “British Headquarters in France”, it was more positive than the actual events justified. It incorrectly reported that the combined forces had “broken through a distance of more than five miles beyond the German trenches.” In reality their farthest penetration that first day was merely a mile and perhaps four miles wide. The article ends: “Thus far the day has gone well for France and England.” (Granted that the article is based on information as of mid-day, July 1.)
Reality was different. The first day was the bloodiest day in British history. It lost 57,470 men: 19,240 killed and 35,493 wounded. Historians have called this day the “low point” of the entire war for the British.
Much of the other news reported in the July 1 edition focused on the coming July 4 celebration. Lt. Cdr. Franck Evans, USN, drilled 125 women at Morton Park in preparation for the July 4 parade. A large ad announced the “Buffalo Bill (Himself)” show on July 5, including “750 people and horses”. (In 1916, this paper cost two cents, six dollars a year.)
The entire offensive did not end until November 18, 1916, with close to 100 British and French divisions taking part against about 50 German divisions. The British, including its imperial forces, sustained a staggering 419,654 casualties; the French: 204, 253 casualties. German statistics vary widely: at least 237,000 casualties, and perhaps as high as 465,000. This expenditure of human life paid for a gain of about six miles across a 16-mile front.
The effects of World War I, and this battle in particular, lasted for decades. Jump forward some 26 years to World War II. In a combined meeting of American and British political and military officials, George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the US Army, was arguing eloquently for an early cross-channel invasion of the continent. Frederick Lindemann (Lord Cherwell), the principal, British science advisor to Prime Minister Churchill responded: “It’s no use. You are arguing against the casualties on the Somme.”
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (www.zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.