With Great Britain, in 2016, about to turn itself into “Little England”, it is salutary to remind ourselves of the sacrifices it was prepared to make for Europe 100 years ago.
The worst day of bloodshed in the history of the British army occurred on July 1, 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, a century ago on Friday. On the first day of the Somme offensive against the German army in northern France, almost 20,000 men were killed and 35,000 were wounded. Thousands more were captured.
Almost half of the 120,000 men (including many Maltese) who left their trenches and went “over the top” that morning had become casualties by the time it ended. As one battalion commander observed after losing 75 per cent of his battalion in the first yards of their advance: “Dead men could go no further.”
It was a truly dreadful carnage for any military engagement, ancient or modern. Whole battalions, thousands on thousands of men, had been swept away in unbelievable butchery in the first five or 10 minutes of the battle. It was the most costly British day of the war – of any war.
The tiny amount of ground gained, much of which had to be ceded back to a heavy German counter-attack later in the day, made the tragedy all the more painful. However, many useful tactical lessons were learnt from the bloody experience.
1916 marked World War I (or the “Great War” as it was known) at its mid-point. By 1916, the war that some had believed would be over by Christmas 1914 had become a battle of attrition on both the largely static Western Front and on the more fluctuating front in the east.
To break the deadlock, the general staffs of all the main belligerents continued to develop new tactics, such as the creeping artillery barrage, and to seek new technologies, such as the tank, which first saw action in September that year.
The idea that sheer offensive “dash” (or elan) and fighting spirit could overcome well-entrenched defences equipped with modern weaponry in the form of accurate artillery and the machine-gun, had died during the appalling blood-letting of late 1914.
By 1916, sentiment had hardened into a widespread feeling on both sides that the sacrifices had already been so great that the possibility of a negotiated peace was politically inconceivable. The only way forward was to prevail in a fight to the finish, whatever the cost.
Verdun and the Somme became a byword for the manifest horrors of industrialised total war which lives to this day
This was one reason why that year saw two of the most terrible confrontations of the Great War: the battle of Verdun, which the Germans launched against the French in February and was bravely repelled; and the battle of the Somme, which began on July 1.
The reason that the unpromising Somme battlefield had been chosen and the motive for throwing British battalions into the attack before they had been fully trained, was in order to try to take the pressure off Britain’s French allies at Verdun, which had become an even worse sacrifice of human lives than the Somme was to be.
The German assault on Verdun started on February 21 and was not to end until December 20, 1916, by which time France had suffered 377,000 casualties (of whom 162,000 had been killed) and Germany 337,000 (with about 143,000 killed). The villages around Verdun remain devastated and scarred to this day.
During the whole of 1915 there were 1.8 million casualties on the Western Front. In just eight months of 1916, because of the two epic struggles of Verdun and the Somme, France, Britain and Germany together sustained 2.2 million casualties. Verdun and the Somme became a byword for the manifest horrors of industrialised total war which lives to this day.
In addition to those killed or maimed, 60,000 shell-shocked sufferers emerged from the Somme offensive. Facing a new kind of warfare on a battlefield dominated by high explosives, poison gas and intensive machine-gun fire, a new and unexpected type of casualty began to appear. They were the victims of shell-shock (or “post-traumatic stress disorder” as we have belatedly come to recognise it), a medical phenomenon not known until then.
Although some Great War generals could take a merciless view of shell-shock, the high command recognised that it was a medical condition that could erode “fighting spirit” and took steps, albeit inadequate, to seek medical remedies.
For France, the defence of Verdun in the face of Germany’s greatest onslaught of the war became the ultimate symbol of national heroism. But for the British, the battle of the Somme – which had failed to break the German lines – came to represent something less noble.
At the outset, the British army suffered its greatest-ever loss in a single day. The shock of July 1, 1916 subsequently came to represent not just the suffering and courage of the soldiers, but later, the human cost of flawed tactics and callous military leadership.
Yet, at the time, the battle was not regarded as a disaster. The Somme relieved the pressure on Verdun, restored the initiative to the Allies, wore down the Germans’ power and morale and stretched their resources dangerously thin. Consequently, the French made significant gains in September, which was probably the tipping point of the war.
With their superior manpower and resources the Allies believed then that the Somme was a strategic victory in a war of attrition.
It was only with the passage of time that the horrific impact of the loss of human lives – the flower of a generation of British and French manhood – and the moral impact of the Somme and Verdun were to be felt. These two long battles of attrition engulfed the European powers in 1916. It was a year crammed both with horrors and with consequences, many of which still endure to this day.
Although in 1916 the British people reacted to the lists of deaths in the newspapers with incredible stoicism, by the 1930s the first day of the Somme had become a byword for the illogicality, pity and sheer waste of war. It bred such British pacifism that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was persuaded it would be appeased by Britain over and over again.
France was similarly affected by Verdun. In the whole war about 1.25 million men were killed and wounded at Verdun, breaking the French will to resist and leading to widespread mutinies in the army the following year, although Verdun itself did not fall.
The subsequent demoralisation of French society and its army in the face of the Nazi threat in 1940 would probably not have happened had it not been for France’s Pyrrhic victory at Verdun.
1916 was the pivotal year of World War I. There are few years in history whose cataclysmic events resonate even for decades, let alone over an entire century. But then there were few years like 1916.
In the words of Fritz Stern, a German-American historian, it was “the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang”.
The intensity and scale of the fighting was the trigger for a wave of political, economic and social upheavals that destroyed empires and forged national identities, sometimes for the better and often for the worse.
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