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The Somme offensive sacrificed over one million human lives

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about the Battle of the Somme originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 762 published on 21st August 1976.

The Somme, picture, image, illustration

Slaughter on the Somme by James E McConnell

The Somme offensive of 1916 was opened earlier than had been intended. Its purpose was to relieve the pressure on Verdun, where the French had held out with incredible bravery for more than five months against an enemy who had mercilessly pounded their lines with the biggest concentration of artillery fire yet known. The start of the offensive had succeeded in forcing Falkenhayn, the German commander, on to the defensive at Verdun.

But what of the battle that was to be fought on the Somme? There had been no attempt at surprise, nor had this been possible, as immense precautions had had to be made behind the lines. Worse still, out of the fourteen front line British divisions, the ranks of eleven of them were filled with untried troops, leavened with professional, peacetime-trained soldiers. How would they fare against seasoned German soldiers who were, moreover, holding heavily fortified positions which overlooked the Allied lines, so that they could see practically everything that was going on in them, as well as being able to range their guns on the four roads leading to the front? Time was to prove, and very quickly, that their courage and fortitude could match those of the French who had suffered so much at Verdun.

The bombardment of the German lines began on 24th June, and continued with only a few interruptions until the early morning of 1st July, when the French and British infantry attacked. Almost immediately, they were met with heavy machine gun fire and a hailstorm of rifle bullets. 60,000 men, in closely packed waves, stumbled on almost blindly towards the enemy front line, senselessly laden with about 30 kilos of equipment on their backs. As their ranks were thinned, others followed them over the parapet, and so it went on, until thirteen British divisions had flung themselves at the enemy.

At the end of the day, a so-called victory could be claimed, with the capture of nearly 2,000 prisoners and a small tract of land. This was to be symptomatic of the battle of the Somme, in which no major gains were made in a single battle. Instead, attacks were launched to knock out strongpoints, but each time the British losses were completely disproportionate to the results. By the end of July alone, the British losses had mounted to a staggering 158,736 lives.

All through the August, the British were used like battering rams against the German strongholds, but each time the gains never justified the terrible losses. By the end of August, more than 58,000 British lives had been lost.

On September 15, 1916, a new weapon was used which was, ultimately, to change the whole course of the war. For the first time the British tank went into action.

The crews of this new weapon had been trained in a heavily guarded camp near Thetford in Norfolk. A number of names had been thought of which might hide the true nature of Britain’s new secret weapon, if enemy agents in Britain became aware that something was afoot. After discussing the merits of tank, cistern and reservoir, it was decided to call it a tank.

As far as security was concerned, the birth of the tank was a complete success. This was more than could be said, however, for its debut. The tanks had been rushed to the front before the crews had been fully trained, and before the tank itself had been fully tested. The result was that out of the 50 tanks that were to go into battle, only 32 reached the assembly area in working order. Out of these only 24 actually went into battle.

To make matters worse the ground was so shell torn that many of them broke down, or were bogged down in the mud, where they wallowed helplessly until they were knocked out. However, despite these failures, there is no doubt that the tanks caused considerable dismay among the Germans, and performed well enough at some points to encourage further development of the weapon that was to revolutionise warfare.

Although the use of the tank on that occasion caused much disappointment, it was to come into its own during the last stages of the war, when its use caused a German general to comment afterwards: “It was not the genius of Marshal Foch that beat us, but ‘General Tank’.”

In October, the rains came, turning the battlefield into a slippery bog, where men sank up to their knees and had to shelter in water-logged craters. Both the British and the French armies were now exhausted, but even though the conditions became more appalling, the British continued to struggle on until they were finally able to take the high ground around Beaumont Hamel.

From there they fought their way down into the valley beyond, only to find themselves condemned to spend the winter in flooded trenches. The battle of the Somme was virtually over.

But ghastly and futile as much of the battle had been, the net results were important. Verdun was relieved and the Germans worn down, after using more than half their whole army in the west. It took them, moreover, many months to make good their losses in material and ammunition, and as a result they had to fall back to their positions on the Hindenburg Line. The total territory gained in the actual fighting and the subsequent German retirement left the Allies in the possession of about 1,000 square miles (259,000 hectares), which had been reduced to the condition of wasteland where no animal lived, nor any flower grew.

In human terms the sacrifice of life, often expended uselessly, was horrifying. At the previous battle of Verdun, and the battle of the Somme, the total of British, French and German dead, wounded and missing, amounted to 1,500,000.

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