The Battle of the Somme

Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which – in spite of the carnage – demonstrated the qualities that distinguish the English-speaking people.

The Brits pounded the German trenches for 7 days before the attack, but the Germans had dug in their machine gunners 30 feet below ground and the Brits used few shells that dug that deep.

John Keegan describes the race when the bombardment ended, between the Brits moving across no man’s land and the Germans getting themselves & their machine guns to the surface. The Germans won, and the Brits lost almost 20,000 dead, most in the first 10 minutes of their advance. Brit casualty evacuation were overwhelmed, and many wounded dragged themselves into shell holes, where they died clutching their Bibles.

But the Brits adapted – even on the day of the battle.

The Royal Ulsters crept halfway across no man’s land under cover of darkness, then: At zero hour the British barrage lifted. Bugles blew the “Advance”. Up sprang the Ulstermen and, without forming up in the waves adopted by other divisions, they rushed the German front line…..By a combination of sensible tactics and Irish dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.


At Gommecourt…Attacking from the south, the 56th (London) Division had performed brilliantly. Making use of the new trench they had dug in No Man’s Land and a smoke-screen, four battalions had captured the whole of the German front-line system.

Two weeks later the Brits applied the terrible lessons of July 1:

There is considerable contrast between the preparation and execution of this attack and that of 1 July. The attack on Bazentin Ridge was made by four divisions on a front of 6,000 yards with the troops going over before dawn at 03:25 after a surprise five minute artillery bombardment. The artillery laid down a creeping barrage, and the attacking waves pushed up close behind it in no man’s land, leaving them only a short distance to cross when the barrage lifted from the Germans’ front trench.

This was much more successful, but not decisive. A week later, the Australians followed up with a night attack that succeeded because of their skill, training, and outstanding courage.

Then the Brits threw in their newly-invented tank:

The British made gains across the length of their front, the greatest being in the centre at Flers with an advance of 3,500 yards, a feat achieved by the newest British division in France, the 41st Division, in their first action. They were later joined by the tank D-17, giving rise to the optimistic press report: “A tank is walking up the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind.”

As a result of this terrible battle, the German army that spent for 10 years preparing this war was destroyed:

The Battle of the Somme damaged the German Army beyond repair, after which it was never able to adequately replace its casualties with the same calibre of soldier that doggedly held its ground during most of the battle. By the end of the battle, the British and German armies were closer to being equally matched; effectively militias.

My grandfather fought in and survived the Battle of the Somme. He died before I was born, but my mother tells me that – although he would talk freely about fighting the Turks – he would never talk about the Battle of the Somme.

Almost 100,000 English speakers died in the extended battle, and they and their surviving comrades proved the eternal truths of battle:

– You have to develop and deploy weapons systems that reliably kill the enemy.
– You have to adapt intelligently to his (often unpredictable) countermeasures.
– Things aways go wrong.
– And raw courage changes history.


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