24 Hours at The Somme
24 Hours at The Somme
War remained popular away from the front in 1916 but 1915 had been a complete victory for defence, barbed wire, the machine gun and artillery. The conflict was not going well for the Allies. Verdun in early 1916 was bleeding the French Army white. Kitchener’s ‘New Army’, the ‘Pals’ battalions, recruited in the first flush of 1914 enthusiasm was filling in the line along the Somme. They replaced skeletal regular and Territorial Army battalions, decimated by two years of western front stalemate. The plan was to overcome the impasse with combined Allied offensives from west, east and south, but ‘The Big Push’ had to be prematurely launched by the British to relieve the French crisis at Verdun. Kitchener’s un-blooded recruits were prematurely hurled at the German Western Front through a storm of machinegun and shell-fire against intact barbed wire before they were ready. On the 1st July 1916 more than half the size of the present day British Army perished in the first 24 hours at the battle of the Somme.
This iconic day transformed the prevailing opinion in Britain that one ‘Big Push’ mounted with spirit, patriotism and guts would see the end of the war. It was a day when hope died. The British General staff placed its faith in an optimistic concept that concentrated artillery fire would clear the way for Kitchener’s untrained army to conduct a ‘cake-walk’ through the German lines.
24 Hours on the Somme describes that catastrophic day hour by hour through the differing perspectives of both sides. The British trench view is juxtaposed against the German parapet and dugout alongside the backdrop of their staff commands, who, ensconced in chateaus to the rear, could see nothing. Staffs on the western front were not soft hearted. Planning and decisions were to decimate 75 British battalions, the equivalent of six divisions of infantry.
No single battle has had such a widespread emotional impact on the psyche of the British public. Two hours of the 24 decided the battle. By nightfall 57, 470 men lay dead, wounded or were missing at a cost of just 6,000 German dead. They encapsulated the cream of British volunteer manhood. Relatives from these casualties would have numbered some 6 millions from a population of 43 millions, so that 13% of the island community was affected by one day’s events. Entire districts and streets in major cities and rural village communities retired behind dark curtains having lost their menfolk that day. A documentary film was made and released even before the battle had finished four months later. It is estimated that within six weeks of its release 20 million people had viewed it at 1,500 movie theatres across the country. Men were seen to fall on screen as they clambered out of their trenches on that July day, bringing home the horrors of war to cinemagoers for the first time. ‘Oh my God, they’re dead!’ cried out one woman in the audience. Almost half the population queued to see The Battle of the Somme, a box-office success that has never been equaled. More British soldiers died on 1st July 1916 than were lost in the Crimean, Boer and Korean wars combined.
The day begins with optimism and expectation in the crowded British trenches. Nothing they are convinced could have survived the seven-day artillery concentration preceding the attack. But the Germans secure in their deep dugouts have survived. They are veterans.
I have to date avoided writing about The Great War. Two questions have posed an enigma. As a former serving soldier, it is immensely difficult to rationalize what motivates simple soldiers to advance to certain death in the face of intense machine gun fire and battered by overwhelming artillery fire. They volunteered to do this, following impractical orders, even though the carnage of the leading waves was strewn about the ground before them. How could this happen?
The second conundrum is that senior officers, probably more intellectually gifted than you or I, sent them on their way. How could this be so? These are the fundamental questions that underpin this account.
24 Hours at the Somme charts this dreadful day through the eyes, ears and senses of the soldiers themselves, through eye-witness accounts, diaries, unit logs and a mass of supporting material exhaustively harvested from across Europe. Château generalship is juxtaposed against the trench parapet view.
It attempts to offer some answers by using the words of the soldiers themselves to explain what happened. The reader may judge.