The Battle of the Somme was a suicidal battle plan – and the ordinary volunteer foot-soldiers paid the price. John Lichfield on the most calamitous single day in the British Army’s history.
Just after 7.30am on 1 July, 1916, Musketier Karl Blenk of the German 169th regiment scrambled to the parapet of his shattered trench near the village of Serre in northern France.
Strolling up the gentle slope towards him, he saw rank after rank of amateur British soldiers – “Pals” from east Lancashire and south Yorkshire.
“We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before,” he told the British historian, Martin Middlebrook, more than a half century later.
“I could see them everywhere. There were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick,” he went on.
“When we started firing, we just had to reload and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. If only they had run, they would have overwhelmed us.”
The attack on Serre was one of the most bloody and futile episodes on the most-murderous single day in the history of the British army – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The Accrington Pals (11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment) were mill workers and shopkeepers’ assistants, railwaymen and solicitors, brothers, cousins, neighbours and friends from Accrington, Burnley and Blackburn. They had volunteered together in the first flush of patriotic enthusiasm in August and September 1914.
This was their first time in combat – as it was also for the Barnsley Pals and the Sheffield City Battalion who walked towards the German lines alongside them. In many cases, their experience of war lasted 30 minutes or less.
There were 720 Accrington Pals in “the Big Push” – the largest British offensive of the war so far – at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. By 8am, 584 of then had been killed or wounded. Some Pals in the first wave reached the German trenches. The second and third waves were machine-gunned behind the British front line before they even reached No Man’s Land. Those who got to the German lines were cut off and rapidly wiped out or forced back.
Much the same kind of thing happened along most of the 16 miles of front assaulted by the British army (two thirds composed of 1914 volunteers) that morning.
Of the 66,000 troops in the first waves – under orders to walk not run, variously laden with food, ammunition, barbed wire, telegraph wire, shovels, and even pigeons – Mr Middlebrook estimates that almost half were killed or wounded in the first 60 minutes. By the end of the day, after several equally calamitous frontal assaults and some successes, 21,000 British soldiers were dead and more than 30,000 wounded.
The first day of the Somme was a sacrificial slaughter of the amateur army raised in 1914 which had been expected by British public opinion to roll over “the Huns” and march to Berlin. Never such innocence again.
The scale of the calamity was almost entirely the fault of the professionals – and especially General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the main commander on the Somme. He was contemptuous of the fighting skills of his amateur soldiers, who made up two-thirds of his command – and especially his amateur, willing but scarcely trained front-line officers. He devised a battle plan that denied them any right of initiative and misread the lessons of the bloody but smaller, failed offensives of 1915 (Neuve-Chapelle; Loos). Instead, Rawlinson tried to copy the successful German tactics which had opened the battle of Verdun that February.
A seven-day bombardment by more than a million shells would crush the German front line, destroy the German artillery and scatter the German wire. The heavily encumbered British soldiers would leave their trenches at 7.30am, not at dawn but in broad daylight.
They would walk, not run, in order to stay in formation. They would not creep forward while their own bombardment was in progress. They were given no instruction in how to rush defended positions. In any case, they were told, all Germans would have been killed or cowed by the shelling. The British infantry would merely occupy the German lines, like pawns advancing across a chess board. The Germans would be forced by their standing orders to counter-attack – incurring crippling losses.
Rawlinson did not believe in “breakthrough”. He believed in attrition, preferably attrition of Germans. He imposed his plan over the misgivings of the overall British commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. The result amounted to mass-murder of his own troops.
The bombardment, though the largest in British military history to that date, failed. One shell in three was a dud. The German wire remained undisturbed in most places.
The German defenders took shelter in dug-outs scooped up to six storeys deep in the chalk. The German artillery was damaged but operational.
When the Pals battalions and others rose from their trenches, they were mown down by German machine guns that could strike targets up to a mile away. They were bombarded by the German artillery. Several units – the four battalions of the Tyneside Irish, the Newfoundlanders – were destroyed before they even reached the British front line.
Those who did make it as far as the German trenches found that the barbed wire had not been destroyed as promised.
Private J.S. Reid of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders (a regular army unit) recalled: “I could see that our leading waves got caught by their kilts. They were killed hanging on the wire, riddled with bullets, like crows shot on a dyke.”
The areas where the British did capture the German lines – mostly in the southern part of the battlefield, alongside a broadly victorious French attack – proved that Rawlinson had been doubly wrong.
His amateur soldiers showed themselves to be impossibly brave when asked to do the impossible. If given half a chance, they could also be enterprising and successful. The Manchester and Liverpool Pals and the Ulster division ignored Rawlinson’s “walk don’t run” instructions. Copying French tactics, they crept right up to the German lines before the British bombardment ended. They pounced before the German machine-gunners manned their shattered parapets. They suffered heavy casualties but captured large sections of German line.
The first day of the Somme was largely fought by soldiers from Scotland, northern England, Northern Ireland, London and the north Midlands. (Others gave blood later.)
There were 9,000 casualties from Yorkshire; 6,000 from Lancashire. When the telegrams began to arrive entire streets and districts of northern towns were plunged into mourning.
Before 1916, soldiering in Britain had been an occupation for toffs and toughs: for the sons of the aristocracy and the unemployed, especially from Scotland and Ireland (the Navy was different).
On the Somme, the British middle and artisan classes – the clerks, the solicitors, the skilled workers – fought on foreign soil for the first time.
This helps to explain why the Somme – like Verdun for the French – has become the abiding symbol for Britain of the 1914-18 war. The British and French rotated all their front-line units through the 1916 mincing machine. Each passing generation doubles the number of people who had a forebear at the Somme and Verdun.
The two conflicts were, arguably, a single battle, 150 miles apart but overlapping in time. The Somme had been chosen for an allied offensive the previous year because it was where the British and French-held trench lines joined. There, and only there, the allies could attack side-by-side. The unexpected German attack on Verdun hurried the preparations and reduced the French contribution.
After the calamitous first day, the Battle of the Somme ground on for four and a half more months, with some local British successes, but no breakthrough.
Rawlinson got his wish. The Germans did counter attack – over and over. Their losses were enormous; so were the British, French, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African losses.
By mid-November, when the battle petered out, there had been more than 1,100,000 casualties at the Somme – roughly 400,000 British and Commonwealth, 500,000 German and 200,000 French.Of these, just over one-in-four – including 125,000 British and Empire troops – died. The precise casualty figures are still in dispute, but the Somme was the most-destructive single battle of the war.
As summer moved into autumn, the battlefield, still green and forested on 1 July, became a desolate landscape of smashed villages, broken tree stumps, shell holes, rotting bodies and mud. By mid-November, the British and French had advanced the equivalent of 77.5 metres (the length of three-quarters of a football field) for each day’s fighting. Each metre of territory gained towards the east cost, on average, the lives of 11 British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African soldiers.
At the Somme and at Verdun, the power and ingenuity of modern industry and modern government were applied in inexhaustible force to human flesh for the first time. To permit 3,000,000 men to fight in a space of 200 square miles for over three months takes political organisation and determination, administrative skills and economic power, not just military strength or callousness.
Tanks were used in combat for the first time on the Somme (by the British on 15 September). Flame throwers, effective combat aircraft and more-destructive forms of gas first appeared at Verdun and the Somme.
The Somme also saw one of the last British cavalry charges in Europe (at High Wood in mid July 1916, with predictable results). The battle was a pivotal moment in a pivotal war, a transition between old and new worlds. Some British historians have argued that the Somme was a victory. They say that the strength of the German army was “broken” at the Somme. (What about Verdun?) They also argue that the British Army – even its generals – went through a learning process on the Somme and emerged stronger at the end of the battle.
The greatest British historian of the battle is Mr Middlebrook, who was a Lincolnshire chicken farmer when he published The First Day on the Somme in 1971. He traced more than 500 survivors of the battle – British and German – and told the story through their eyes for the first time.
The Independent asked him eight years ago whether he thought that the Somme was a victory. Recently, we checked again. Mr Middlebrook, 82, stands by the following reply: “The German army, supposedly ‘broken’ on the Somme, held back the British advance at Arras in early 1917, drove the French army to mutiny at the Chemin des Dames that spring and held the British for months in the third battle of Ypres later that year. That same German army, admittedly reinforced after the collapse of Russia on the eastern front, almost broke through and won the war in 1918 before it was finally worn down by the Allied advance that summer.
“So much for a victory on the Somme.”
And the Somme as a British “learning curve”?
“In truth, little was learnt,” Mr Middlebrook said. “Although the calamity of the first day was not repeated, the generals continued to switch aimlessly between attacks on a broad front or a narrow front… It was not before 1918 that different approaches were finally adopted.”
Rawlinson is given credit for developing those new approaches. He was never sanctioned for the mass slaughter of 1 July 1916. He led (from the rear) the successful advance of 1918. After the war, he was an official hero. He was made a baron, awarded £30,000 and appointed commander-in-chief in India.