7.30 a.m.: a time of hope that became an execution hour
It was to be the big breakthrough following an annihilating bombardment that roared day and night for more than a week and could be heard in London. It was meant to last a month and would end by ‘seeing off’ the German armies towards the east. Five months later the big push was bogged down in its own mud. And the best part of a generation of young men went down with it. The Battle of the Somme happened fifty years ago. Today, a famous writer remembers it in penetrating detail.
7.30 a.m.: a time of hope that became an execution hour
The Battle of the Somme, which was joined by the new and mainly untried Fourth British Army with the Second German Army on July 1, 1916, was planned to break into and hold the German First Position; to gain and hold the Second Position by mid-July; and to ‘see off’ the Germans eastwards by the end of the month.
The British plan of attack was based on an annihilating bombardment during the week preceding the assault on a front of twelve miles. Thirteen divisions were to be used in the attack. More than a million and a half tons of high explosive shells would totally destroy the German defences and their garrisons.
The British bombardments roared by day and by night for a week and more; and by the moonless night of 30 June-July 1 sixty-four battalions were in the jumping-off trenches. Behind them were an equal number of support troops, comprising, in all, six ‘waves’ of infantry. At 6.35 a.m. of a brilliant summer morning the last great crashing bombardment opened up. It was heard, dully, in London, on high ground around Sydenham and Hampstead. At 7.30 a.m. of that day of July 1 nearly 150,000 men of Great Britain advanced to the assault.
Within a few hours nearly 58,000 were either killed or wounded. Despite local successes – particularly at the south of the British line – the assault had failed. Not only were the Germans not ‘seen off’ by the end of the month, but by November 1916 sectors of their Second Position – a mile or two behind the First Position – remained to be taken.
In the meantime, upon the grey and water-pale morasses of that downland battlefield, streaked at night in reflection of magnesium flares, those lilies of the dead ever rising in the darkness, together with red and green SOS rockets calling to the artillery of both sides for help, more than 600,000 men of Great Britain and the Empire, including poilus on the French right-wing of the Fourth Army area, had become casualties. The German losses were 680,000.
And ever since, a few surviving scarecrows from those 60,000 acres of chalky loam have shared a secret called The Somme.
On the table beside me, as I write in my hut on a Devon hilltop, lie some books. Here is a volume of the History of the Great War, based on official documents, which declares
No braver or more determined men ever faced an enemy than these sons of the British Empire who went over the top on July the First. Never before had the ranks of the British Army on the field of battle contained the finest of all classes of the nation in physique, intellect and education. All these were volunteers, and not conscripts . . . courage is sometimes the only substitute for the skill which comes of experience.
Another book by Colonel Gudmund Schnitler, Norwegian attaché with the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies during the war, Der Weltkrieg in Umrissen [translates as The World War in Outline].
The enormous tension on all the fronts compelled the German Supreme Command to leave troops in the line until they had expended the last of their strength, and to throw divisions time after time into the same battle . . . the demand for self-sacrifice greatly exceeded what could be expected of the average man, with the consequence that the fighting was largely left to the best of the troops, and not least the officers. The result of this was again a terrible death-roll of the men fully trained in peacetime and the finest soldiers, the replacement of whom was impossible. It is in this that the roots of the tragedy of the battle lie.
A German writer, Captain von Hentig, of the General Staff of the Guard Reserve Division sees the tragedy of the Somme from the other side of No-man’s Land.
The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army, and the faith in the infallibility of German leadership, dug by British industry and its shells. The most precious thing lost in the Somme was the good relationship between the leaders and the led. The German Supreme Command, which entered the war with enormous superiority, was defeated by the serious technique of its opponents. It was compelled to throw division after division without protection against them in the cauldron of the battle of annihilation.
One of General Rawlinson’s thirteen divisions, which by its fighting can be called immortal, was the 36th (Ulster) Division. The directive from Fourth Army, based on ‘total annihilation of the enemy defensive positions’ by bombardment, was a slow advance at Zero Hour, when the British guns lifted, across No-man’s Land. Each infantryman carried 66 lbs of clobber – petrol-cans of water, ammunition, barbed wire, picks and shovels, etc. There were six ‘waves’ in the assault, 100 yards between waves. But a small item of intelligence (known to many raiding parties during June) never got back to Corps or Army HQ: that the German dugouts were 30ft deep in chalk, with forty wood-encased steps leading down to safety.
There was no ‘total annihilation’ by zero hour on July 1. German machine-gunners practiced rapid ascents from below, flinging themselves into shell-holes in No-man’s Land and firing along pre-arranged corridors of cross-fire which penetrated all six British waves as they slowly went forward.
The Ulstermen of the 36th Division abandoned this plan. They rushed the German front line. They bombed and shot and bayoneted their way eastward through a maze of deep trenches for some miles until they reached the German gun-pits. During this joy-ride they were shot at from all sides and from behind. A few swelled and limping survivors trickled back to their own trenches at night.
It has been said more than once that something was lost on the Somme, for Britain and indeed for Europe, for ever. After the war the survivors of the Western Front were a phoenix generation. They were scattered. The flames they had passed through cast an enduring shadow within.
Often to my mind comes a sentence from one of the letters I received from ‘T. E. Lawrence’, the finest man of many fine men I have known.
We learned a lot in those years, which makes us immemorially older and wiser that the old or the young.
I cannot end my threnody without one further quotation, this time from an American writer of genius. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a penetrating, that is poetical, summary of the Somme that, to my knowledge, has hardly been surpassed. Here speaking is Dick Diver, a clinical psychiatrist visiting, in 1925, the battlefield near Thiepval overlooking the Ancre stream. (It was here that the Ulstermen, in a narrow penetration on July 1 saw from far behind the German lines a train in the Ancre valley bringing up the German reserves.)
Dick Diver is speaking to Rosemary Hoyt, a young film-star with whom he is guardedly in love.
‘It took the British Army a month to walk to that little stream – a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backwards a few inches every day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. . . . You had to have a whole-souled equipment going back further than you remembered. You had to remember Christmas, and post-cards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence, and beer-gardens in the Unter den Linden, and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers . . . why, this was a love battle – there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle. All my beautiful lovely, safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high-explosive love!’
I knew that ‘little stream’, I saw some of the ‘bloody rugs’ of fifty years ago.
But all was, and is, not lost. The experiences we endured together became, after the Armistice, for some of us a secret brotherhood. Those of us who met our opposite numbers at Ypres, on the Somme, and later at the Siegfried Stellung (Hindenburg Line) felt a warmth of generosity uprising that can only die with us. The soul knows great poetry, and one there was in the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] who, though killed a few days before the Armistice, saw this in pre-vision. I refer to Wilfred Owen, whose Greater Love enshrines this feeling, and contains the ethos of another old soldier’s vision which came after the second German war – ‘Europe a Nation’. The Somme was and is not wasted: that soil is watered by heaven’s tears.
This article was first published in the Evening News on Monday, 4 July 1966, introduced by the heading and illustration used here. The illustration is attributed just to 'Mackenzie'.