As it completed its second full year, World War I bore all the marks of an unprecedented gash across the landscape of civilization. The Battle of the Somme, the Allied campaign to change the grim arithmetic of casualties and futility, only worsened matters. With 1.5 million shells fired, the biggest artillery bombardment the world had ever seen (even heard in the South of England) as a week-long rologue, British and French soldiers rushed forth into battle on July 1, 1916, only to be cut down by the waiting German guns—60,000 British casualties in those 24 hours alone, including 20,000 dead, the greatest loss of life in the nation’s military history.
Could it get any worse? No, but it could remain remarkably bad throughout the month and well into autumn, as the Somme would soon feature commanders who used Napoleonic tactics rendered obsolete by modern weaponry; common soldiers left physically and psychically wounded in ways little understood at the time; and writers who sought to make sense of it all. When the fight ended four months later, the British incurred more than 400,000 casualties, while their French allies lost 200,000 and the Germans half a million. Together with the Battle of Verdun (discussed in this prior post of mine), the Somme came to symbolize the horror of trench warfare.
(Believe it or not, the image accompanying this post comes from a British propaganda film meant to drum up homefront spirit during the fight, The Battle of the Somme. Well, I guess this image of a badly wounded soldier could have been worse—if it showed the rats that the soldiers had to contend with, not to mention the gas masks frequently worn there.)
Oh, yes—and the futility and basic absurdity of such warfare, for the battle was waged not on as site of military significance, but at the spot on the map where British forces adjoined their French allies.
Reading these last two paragraphs reminds me of nothing so much as America’s Civil War. But Britain’s leaders, let alone those of the other nations in this conflict across the Atlantic, seemed to have learned nothing from the conflict that had occurred across the Atlantic a half-century before, and so they were doomed to suffer similar outward convulsions and internal divisions.
That enormous single-day loss of life, for instance, will remind Americans of the bloodiest 24 hours in their own history, the Battle of Antietam—except that the Somme was even worse. The number of British dead, wounded and missing in action for this one day was more than double the combined Union-Confederate toll for the legendary Civil War battle.
Although the depth of the carnage is reminiscent of Antietam, the manner in which the first day of the Somme unfolded resembles nothing so much as the third day of Gettysburg. An offensive-minded commander (for the British, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig; for the Confederates, Robert E. Lee) preceded an order to attack with an unprecedented artillery barrage—in the case of Gettysburg, a morning shelling that was the greatest seen in the Western Hemisphere to that point; at the Somme, a week-long bombardment. Far from softening the defender up as intended, the bombardment was largely ineffective (e.g., British medium-range fire fell consistently short of its target, and 30% of the shells were duds).
And so, khaki-clad British troops—many the product of the “New Army” swelled by recruitment posters featuring military hero Lord Kitchener, sunk by a submarine only the month before—marched into sunlight in perfect order along a 15-mile front, across open fields, like so many sitting ducks, under the watchful gaze of three ranks of Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops safely entrenched, on higher ground, in dugouts.
Only minutes before the fateful assault, an operation to disrupt the German defenses occurred in the form of two huge mines, containing more than 100,000 pounds of explosives. The advancing “Tommies” could then, the thinking went, exploit the resulting confusion around the two craters to avoid the enfilade fire that would surely come from the Germans.
Civil War buffs will recall a similar plan involving Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces in the summer 1864 Petersburg campaign. The resulting “Battle of the Crater” resulted in 4,000 Union casualties. On the other hand, the mining operation meant to ease the capture of La Boiselle Salient led to nearly 12,000 combined casualties in Britain’s 8th and 34th Divisions. British planners had not reckoned with the possibility that German intelligence, piecing together newspaper articles, soldiers’ indiscreet talk and reports from spies, would figure out that the twin explosions would in effect provide advance warning of the follow-up assault by the Tommies.
Over the years, Haig has been excoriated so soundly and repeatedly that in some quarters, a reaction has even occurred in his favor. A number of his partisans say he learned from his mistakes, with some claiming that he came around to see the value of new weaponry. One historian, William Philpott, even nominated him as Britain’s greatest general.
But Haig’s lack of imagination—his inability to grasp how tactics had to evolve in the face of new technology—is nowhere better illustrated than this passage from a 1926 when he still saw a future for horses in combat:
“I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.”
Even a relatively sympathetic historian such as Peter Hart—who argued, in The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front, that “Haig’s way was excruciatingly painful but it was the only realistic way at the time”—ends up acknowledging the myopia of the general and his subordinates:
“There seemed to be no limit to the number of times that it had to be demonstrated to them that isolated attacks on a narrow front would not succeed without overpowering artillery to devastate everything in both that and the adjoining sectors. The British rarely seemed to realise that an attack to 'improve' a tactical position did not do so unless it succeeded. Too often there was no proper analysis of how many guns and shells needed to be fired to subdue a given frontage and depth of trench lines. And there seemed to be no limit to their optimism that the German Army and the entire German Empire stood ready to collapse if there was just one more push towards Bapaume.”
The Somme was also remarkable for the authors who lived long enough to recapture the experience of the campaign, in one fashion or another, in their writing, including:
*Alan Seeger, an American who, before being killed on July 4, 1916, wrote “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” a poem taken to heart by the young John F. Kennedy;
*J.R.R. Tolkien, whose grittily realistic battle scenes from his Lord of the Rings trilogy reflect his service in the Somme;
*Robert Graves, whose bitter 1929 antiwar memoir Goodbye to All That narrated his participation in the attack on the High Wood three weeks into the campaign, where he suffered a wound so grievous that his parents were mistakenly informed of his death;
*Wilfred Owen, trapped underground at the Somme, was transferred for treatment of his shell shock to Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he began to write the verses that made him the most acclaimed British poet of the Great War;
*Siegfried Sassoon, Owen’s fellow shell shock victim at Craiglockhart—and who, unlike his friend, survived the war;
* Ford Maddox Ford, who translated his experience with shell shock into the novel sequence Parade’s End.
In this small sample of soldiers, the number of shell-shock victims from the Somme looms large. But they were only a handful compared with the total number of those afflicted with this disease, later called combat fatigue and post-traumatic stress syndrome. A 2011 article on the BBC Web site by Joanna Bourke, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, estimates that by the end of WWI, the British Army had dealt with 80,000 cases of this. Altogether, war neuroses represented one-seventh of all personnel discharged for disabilities from the British Army.
An article by neuropathologist Daniel Perl in the scientific journal The Lancet Neurology, then summarized in a New York Times Magazine article last month by Robert F. Worth, offers the hypothesis that blasts in modern warfare can leave scars on the brain. TNT, first used by the German Army in 1902, was employed on a far greater scale in WWI, leading to development of shell shock.
The Allies learned hard lessons about fighting at the Somme, lessons they were able to apply in outlasting the Kaiser’s military machine (with American help) over the next two years of the war. But it came too late for the men who fought at the Somme in July 1916. Peter Simkins, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, noted, in an interview for the Great War documentary on PBS, that veterans of the Somme were primed to go “over the top” in taking enemy positions, but it was all for nought then:
"But it's sustaining the impetus of the advance once they've gone over the top that's important. If they've got the wrong weapons with which to fight, if they're carrying rifles and bayonets and they're up against machine guns, the formula is wrong.”