Times and life

Reflections on the first day of the Somme

July 1st marks 100 years since the first day of one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Author and historian Daniel Todman reflects on why its opening was such a disaster for the British - and how the shock shaped the way the next world war was fought

Royal Irish Rifles in a communications trench, first day on the Somme, 1916. By Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years ago, the opening of the Battle of the Somme marked a step change in the nature of Britain’s experience of the First World War. British troops had been fighting on the Western Front ever since the war began – and taking horrendous casualties in the process – but even in the desperate battles of 1915 the numbers of British soldiers involved were small compared to the huge conscript armies of France and Germany. On the Somme, the great army of volunteers that Britain had raised at the start of the war went into battle en masse for the first time. The scale of the operation went well beyond anything else the British had done so far. It reflected not just an enormous human endeavour, but also a colossal industrial effort to equip an army capable of playing a meaningful part in continental warfare. British finance and shipbuilding had long been crucial to the fighting of the wider war: now its productive power would be felt in the trenches in France and Flanders as well.

Like most battles, the Somme did not turn out the way that had been expected. It was meant to have been a definitively Anglo-French offensive, but with the French army embroiled in the fighting at Verdun, the British ended up playing proportionately the larger part. Contrary to the hopes of Sir Douglas Haig, the initial British attack did not break through the German lines. Worse, by spreading out the available artillery, the attempt to achieve a deeper penetration of the defences contributed to the disaster on the first day, 1 July 1916, when almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and nearly another 40,000 wounded for scant gains in terms of ground gained. Instead, the Somme turned into a grinding, attritional struggle that lasted for another three and a half months. It wreaked terrible damage on all the armies involved: they suffered between them more than a million casualties. It was a brutal learning experience for the inexperienced British army, which forced the development of new tactics and weapons. Yet the prolonged wearing away of their strength would also force the Germans into still more drastic escalations in 1917 in an effort to win the war before it was too late. 

The scale of the operation went well beyond anything else the British had done so far. It reflected not just an enormous human endeavour, but also a colossal industrial effort to equip an army capable of playing a meaningful part in continental warfare.

The slaughter on the first day might have been avoidable, but the horrific casualties were probably not. They were a product of the capacity of societies across Europe to raise and sustain large armies for a modern industrial war. Given the strategic geography of the conflict and the determination of governments and people to fight to a finish – a motivation only increased by the desire to give meaning to the awful losses – a lot of people were going to die. Because the bulk of British manpower did not arrive on the battlefield until 1916, Britain would actually escape relatively lightly from the war overall. Relative to their populations, both Germany and France suffered much worse losses. Yet the shock of the losses on the Somme and afterwards would help to shape how Britain fought a second conflict a generation later.

Despite British strategists’ eagerness to avoid a repeat of the bloodletting of the last war, once serious fighting began in the West in 1940 the number of British fatalities rose in much the same way as it had done in 1914-16. Following the expulsion of the British army from France and the establishment of German air bases closer to the UK, many of the dead were civilians rather than servicemen. At almost the same point in the second war that the Somme had taken place in its predecessor, however, the German assault on the British home front eased as Hitler’s forces opened their assault on the USSR. Here was a great dividing line between Britain’s experience of the two conflicts. For certain groups of British personnel – bomber crew, merchant seamen, a small number of front-line infantrymen – the middle years of the Second World War would still be very bloody. With no commitment, however, to a drawn out land campaign to wear down the main weight of a continental opponent in the field, the overall British death toll would be much lower. Their relative escape from the blood-letting of the last war was something of which Britons at the time were well aware, and it contributed to the popular sense of respect for and gratitude to the Soviet Union that were such a characteristic part of wartime life. 

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