This Day in History: The First Day of the Somme

Still from The Battle of the Somme
Still from the 1916 film, The Battle of the Somme – Imperial War Museum

On the single day of July 1, 1916, over 19,000 British soldiers died along France’s Somme river, slaughtered in largely futile assaults on German defenses that had survived the week-long artillery bombardment preceding the attack. The battle raged on until mid-November, with over 75,000 more British soldiers dying and 300,000+ being wounded. British photographers on the scene produced the first war documentary to boost morale back home — and the sight of the carnage proved to be too much for British audiences to take.

In his recent book on World War I and those Britons who opposed it, journalist Adam Hochschild tells of visiting one of the hundreds of British cemeteries that lie on the twenty miles of the former Somme battlefield. It’s harvest time in Picardy, but Hochschild is more interested in “the evidence of another kind of harvest, reaped on this spot nearly a century ago….

Almost all of the dead are from Britain’s Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the front line trench they had climbed out of that morning. Captain Duncan Martin, 30, a company commander and an artist in civilian life, had made a clay model of the battlefield across which the British planned to attack. He predicted to his fellow officers the exact place at which he and his men would come under fire from the nearby German machine gun as they emerged onto an exposed hillside. He, too, is buried here, one of some 21,000 British soldiers killed or fatally wounded on the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country’s military, before or since. (To End All Wars, xi-xii)

When my colleague Sam and I took students to Europe last January to study World War I, our tour guide Carl stopped outside the French village of Beaumont Hamel, one of the targets of the British assault. Near the enormous Celtic Cross that commemorates the deaths of Scottish Highlanders who died in the last days of the battle, he led us up a sloping field until we had a panoramic view of the first day of the Somme: from a copse of trees in what had been the German defensive line, we could see the former No Man’s Land that British forces dared to enter on July 1, 1916 — marked now by a succession of Commonwealth cemeteries that follow the terrain for miles.

Former battlefield outside Beaumont Hamel
The battlefield today: view from the German positions defending Beaumont Hamel – note the British battlefield cemetery in the distance (courtesy of my colleague Sam Mulberry)

Most of the gravestones in those cemeteries are inscribed “Known to God” — their unidentifiable remains are buried where they fell, but their names are carved into the massive Anglo-French memorial at Thiepval.Memorial at Thiepval

“I never met a man in a high position who seemed to me so utterly devoid of imagination,” wrote former British prime minister David Lloyd George of the general who designed and oversaw the British offensive at the Somme: Douglas Haig.

Yet Haig has his defenders. In The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army, Gary Sheffield puts most of the blame for the catastrophic losses on the commander of the Fourth Army, Henry Rawlinson (“The evidence is overwhelming that Rawlinson spurned the real possibility of achieving a breakthrough on the British southern flank” and “ignored Haig’s clearly expressed concept of operations”) and emphasized that Haig “did not know what was going on and was unable to affect the events on the battlefield.” Concluded Sheffield of his controversial, perhaps misunderstood subject: “Haig was little more than a bystander while his plans were being wrecked by his principal subordinate.” Without completely relieving Haig of the burden of responsibility, Sheffield tries to repair his image:

So the evidence strongly suggests Haig’s plan to seize the German Second Position on the first day of the battle was achievable, at least on the southern sector. This does not absolve Douglas Haig from the mistakes he committed in planning and preparing the Somme, errors that had terrible consequences for tens of thousands of soldiers and their families. It does however severely undermine the arguments of his critics. Far from being an egregious folly, a romantic throwback to the days of Napoleon, Haig’s plan to use a cavalry-based all-arms force to exploit success and fight its way forward was a sensible response to the tactical situation. If employed, in all likelihood it would have brought at least modest success, and an advance of one to three miles would have taken the BEF past German strongholds like Thiepval that on this plane of reality took months of fighting to capture. (Sheffield, The Chief, p. 174)

Haig Memorial statue in Whitehall
The Earl Haig Memorial in Whitehall, London

Hochschild is clearly aware of such arguments (and acknowledges that Haig’s equally stubborn, equally callous opposites on the other side of No Man’s Land deserve ample blame for the scale of losses) but is unswayed. Remarking on the ultimate ineffectiveness of the brutal British barrage that preceded the attack, he suggests that a better general would have called things off from the start:

Plans for any attack, however, have tremendous momentum; rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is catastrophically awry. To call off an offensive requires bravery, for the general who does so risks being thought a coward. Haig was not such a man. (p. 203)

Nor does Sheffield’s argument that Haig was largely unaware of what was happening impress Hochschild, as he continues his narrative of the Somme into August and September:

What made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He “felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations,” wrote his son, “because these visits made him physically ill.”

…Haig’s diary says little about the wounded, except for notes such as one on July 25, 1916, in which he recorded a surgeon’s informing him that “the spirit of the wounded was beyond all praise… all were now very confident, very cheery and full of pluck. Truly the British race is the finest on Earth!” (p. 210)

Untroubled by memories of bedside visits to the dying, Haig redefined success in terms of attrition rather than victory: German deaths, not French soil was the goal. But Hochschild points out that this led to a paradoxical logic in which terrible losses confirmed Haig’s confidence:

Taking attrition as the standard of success turned out to be more realistic for this war than measuring land gained, but one problem with it was that the other side’s losses were always unknown. The only thing you could know with certainty was your own staggering losses—and then hope that the enemy’s were at least similar. After one battle in August Haig reported back to London, based on little evidence, that German casualties “cannot have been less than our own.”

This perverse logic sometimes led Haig to fly into a rage when he thought British losses—and so, by association, German ones—were too low. After a September attack on Delville Wood by the 49th Division, he was upset enough to deplore, in his diary, that “the total losses of this division are under a thousand!” (p. 209)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.