July 1, 1916. The British Army goes over the top at 7:30 AM. By nightfall, over 19,000 of the best young men of London, Manchester, Ulster and Yorkshire will be dead in the fields of France. The First Day on the Somme is one of the most tragic episodes in a tragic war, but the myth and poetry has outshone the reality.
We – I mean Americans – will never understand World War I the way the British do. It’s not really our fault. The United States entered the Great War late, and only had its men on the front lines for the last six months of the war. We didn’t go through the harsh learning curve, the trials, and the unspeakable slaughter that our English, Scottish and Irish cousins confronted 100 years ago. No single experience is more indicative of that massive ordeal than the Somme.
To put it in its proper context, the United States lost around 2,499 men on D-Day. We lost 2,977 citizens on 9/11, in the great scarring event that brought America into the 21st Century. On the bloodiest day in American history, we suffered 7,650 killed at Antietam in the Civil War. By comparison, the British lost something north of 19,000 men on the First Day of the Somme – a sudden, shocking, devastating loss that the United States cannot comprehend to this day. (Britain is NOT a big country, either, so imagine the impact.) We’ve just never experienced anything like the First Day on the Somme.
The First Day at the Somme is one of the deepest scars in British national memory. It is an emblem of thousands of boys, idealistic volunteers sent to fight the Hun for King and Country, who perished in the mud and fire of the Western Front. A popular folk ballad, “The Green Fields of France,” presents a traveler sitting by the graveside of one of the vast number of soldiers who “joined the great fallen in 1916.” It also stands for the popular concept of the futility, pointlessness, and stupidity of the whole struggle.
When Great Britain decided to pitch in and join France at the outset of World War I, they faced a major problem: they didn’t have an army. Well, ok, they had an Army, but they didn’t have the massive land army that France, Germany, Russia or Austria did – one designed for fighting on the continent of Europe. Britain had always been a naval power, and the British Army was by and large a colonial force, more suited to policing up rebellions in India or South Africa than in fighting a major war in Europe. The fact that Britain, alone among the European powers, did not have a mandatory conscription law was especially noteworthy. When the war broke out in 1914, the Germans had 98 divisions, the French 72, the Austrians 48, and even the Belgians had 7. The British had 6. Yes, six.
So when 1914 ended with a British army locked in a stalemate with the Germans on the Western Front, London quickly realized that they needed a much, much bigger army, and fast. The Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener, put together an all-out propaganda offensive to encourage Britons of all classes to join – hoping to avoid the need for a draft. This drive for volunteers caught up the patriotic fever of the early war, with all sorts of interest groups pitching in.
The popular music halls sang songs with words like “I didn’t like you much before you joined the Army, John, but I do like you, cockie, now you’ve got your khaki on.” Women’s organizations would hand out white feathers to men out of uniform to shame them into military service. Propaganda posters, speeches, and songs encouraged the young men of Britain to put on the khaki and fight for King and Country. Men were required to go face to face with a recruiter in public view, explaining why they would or would not volunteer – an obvious shaming tactic, and it worked.
One of the main features of this early drive in recruitment were the so-called “pals battalions.” Groups of men from the same factory, football team, bank, fraternity, society or town would sign up together and go to war as a single unit. They carried names like the “Grimsby Chums,” from the former schoolboys of Wintringham Secondary School, or the 16th Battalion Royal Scots, virtually the whole Edinburgh football establishment. This was a massive boost to recruitment, since no one could be left behind. The brightest and most eager young men of Britain pooled into the army, and soon they were having to be turned away; too many young lads were leaving the factories and mines where they were needed for war production.
The new masses of recruits were formed into the New Army divisions, named after the Secretary at War as the “Kitchener Divisions.” Kitchener wanted to keep the New Army divisions safe and intact for the war-winning battle, not wanting to waste his babies on the usual grind of the Western Front. Even though the French and the British battered away at the German lines throughout 1915, the vast bulk of the New Army divisions and Pals Battalions were kept out of the fighting.
That changed in 1916, when the French had to bear the weight of the German attack on Verdun. This epic struggle cost the French heavily, and by June 1916 the Germans were beginning to break the French grip on their holiest of fortresses. The French high command began to make desperate appeals to the British to do something, *anything*, to relieve the pressure on Verdun. These pleas finally got through, and the British high command agreed to launch a major offensive on their portion of the Western Front. It would concentrate on the Somme sector, an area of hard ground in northern France, and it would be the first time most of the New Army and Pals units went to war.
There was no questioning the enthusiasm of the men who had rushed to the colors, but their training still left a lot to be desired. Most of their officers were brand-new, recently trained men like Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who hadn’t served before the war and had no combat experience. General Douglas Haig, the British commander, realized the limitations of his army and hoped for more time to train them, but the reality of the situation was that there was no time: the attack had to go in on July 1, 1916. If Kitchener had been around, he would have refused to commit his precious New Army and Pals troops until 1917, but Kitchener had died when his ship struck a German mine only a month before. The lads were going in.
The plan for July 1, 1916 was that a five-day artillery bombardment of the German trenches would precede the infantry assault. The massive saturation of artillery fire was intended to both destroy German defenses and to blow up the barbed-wire entanglements that stood in the way of attacking British troops. The hurricane of fire that descended on the Germans seemed unearthly, like God himself was striking the ground; the British artillery fired 1.5 million shells during the preliminary bombardment at the Somme, more than had been fired in the entire first year of the war. The barrage was so heavy that it could be heard 165 miles away in London. One of the major problems was that the British were mostly using shrapnel, rather than high explosive; the shrapnel failed to penetrate into German bunkers and was ineffective at cutting wire, compared to French artillery fire.
The infantry was organized to assault in waves, climbing on ladders out of their trenches to rush across no-man’s land and seize the enemy line. The Germans were supposed to be wiped out by the artillery fire, making it a virtual walkover. Each soldier was carrying about 66 pounds of equipment and tools, including not only rifle, bayonet and ammo, but several days’ rations of food, grenades, pick and shovel, empty sandbags, two gas masks and various other items. The result was a drastically overloaded soldier that would not be able to rush across no-man’s-land like he should – and worse still, some commanders ordered the Tommies to walk across in order to maintain their organization and discipline.
On top of all of this, the Germans had received advance notice of the British attack and begun fortifying their lines weeks in advance. Enormous dugouts would shelter the German soldier from artillery fire, and the white chalk of the French subsoil reinforced these holes. Nevertheless, the Germans were unaware of the exact location of the attack, and their forces were already stretched thin by the fighting at Verdun.
On July 1, then, the firing that had gone on for five days suddenly stopped at around 7:15 AM. Eerie silence crept across the battlefield as nine corps of British and French troops began to climb out of their trenches and make their assault. Over 390,000 British soldiers with enormous packs adjusted their helmets, fixed their bayonets, and moved out in great masses over the fields of France. The boys who had volunteered en masse for King and Country, the Grimsby Pals and the Edinburgh footballers, Lieutenant Tolkien and his Lancashire lads, drove across the Western Front.
The Germans had avoided the worst of the artillery fire, and were already returning to their weapons. Worse, the advancing Britons found the barbed wire still in place. As they tried frantically to cut it or climb over it, to get to the enemy line before the Germans could recover and open fire, they began to fall as sheets of machine gun fire tore into their ranks.
The battalions of Tommies pushed through the fire, and then through the artillery, as they staggered towards the German trenches. Few made it. In some places, the British soldiers achieved great success; the 36th Ulster Division captured the Schwaben Redoubt in a spectacular assault, while the 18th Eastern Division had the benefit of an unusually effective artillery bombardment to help it capture Montauban. But across most of the line, the British assault writhed in agony. For the loss of Britain and Ireland’s finest manhood, only a small bit of ground was gained.
The apocalyptic casualties are their own story. The British suffered 60,000 casualties on the First Day of the Somme, including 19,000 dead – a staggering, shocking number that sent the folks at home into near paralysis. What made matters worse was that many of the “Pals Battalions” had been first over the top and accordingly took the worst of the hammering, to the point where entire communities, schools, or towns had their young men wiped out on that terrible day. The Grimsby Chums lost 502 men on July 1, and only 102 came back alive. About half the Edinburgh footballers of Heart of Midlothian F.C. were gone. The blood of England’s boys watered the Somme.
There is a very good reason that the “Slaughter on the Somme” became a key component of British national myth. The Battle of the Somme would continue for four more months, with the British continuing to suffer unspeakable losses as they ground forward, eventually amounting to around 420,000 casualties in this one terrible battle of a very terrible war. The only benefit the British nation could see was the minor territorial gain of six more miles into enemy territory – the largest Allied gain since 1914, but hardly a sacrifice worth placing the youth of Britain on the altar.
The British experience of the Somme has made its way into the movies, the books, the war poetry and the songs. But two other nations fought on the Somme. The French suffered heavy losses as well, since they also committed an almost equal force to the fight – but they suffered fewer casualties since they used better tactics. On the plus side, the attack on the Somme fulfilled its mission: it forced the Germans to pull major forces away from the Verdun area to reinforce their positions facing the British. In this way, the Somme was a French victory.
But then we look at the other side. The Germans saw the Somme as a defeat. Often forgotten in the popular narrative is that the Germans suffered equal, if not more, losses than the British. The First Day at the Somme was a terrible tragedy for the Allies, but its failure was not repeated, and as they chewed forward into German positions over the next few months their advantages in artillery and assault tactics eventually began to tell. By the end of September, as the British and French clawed into their lines, the German army on the Somme was showing signs of massive strain. Casualties were mounting, and their replacements were increasingly too old or too young.
The German experience on the Somme was, despite popular myth, as bad if not worse than the British. The virtually unending artillery barrages and the rapidly growing expertise of the British soldier wore down the Germans; this was no great victory for the Kaiser’s Army, whatever the British memory of July 1. By the end of the Somme, the Germans had suffered almost 680,000 casualties – more than the British. For a nation that had begun the war outnumbered, this was attrition on the wrong side of the balance sheet.
The reality, too, was that some of the British units on July 1 had gained their initial objectives despite the undeniably terrible losses. The rest reeled back, recocked, and went in again a few days later, much older and at least a bit wiser. The Battle of the Somme ended up as something close to an Allied victory, even if it did not feel like one and would not be remembered as one.
And that’s the real story: myth and memory. It would not be the tough successes and eventual victory at the Somme that would go down in British cultural memory, but the scarring and trauma of that first day, and the losses required to achieve what seemed so small.
Lieutenant Tolkien survived four months on the Somme before being evacuated for trench foot. He may well have been killed himself if not for this; many of his closest school friends had been killed on the First Day of the Somme. His hardship, survivor’s guilt and deep sense of wounding would inform his view of the world, and I personally think did a lot to make Lord of the Rings not a story of triumph and glory, but of good things passing, of friends saying goodbye, and of myth and memory fading in an old man’s mind. “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead,” he would say in a preface to a later edition of Lord of the Rings.
The slaughter on the Somme, whatever its material consequences, was like nothing the world had ever seen before and defined a generation. America has never had a day like July 1, 1916, and I pray we never do.