The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago today: July 1st, 1916. The British took 57,470 casualties the first day, and lost roughly 420K men by the time the battle ended 141 days later. Total French losses were lower, 200K - 250K, but that’s because so much of the French army was busy manning the meatgrinder at Verdun. German losses were roughly half a million.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fighting in 1916. The major European offensives were conceived of as wars of attrition, meant to force the other side to bring in troops from other battlefields where they were fighting other wars of attrition. All of them went on as long as the weather permitted. Verdun was the longest, at 303 days. The Brusilov Offensive was the largest — the Russian army attacked German and Austro-Hungarian forces along a 150-mile front — and killed the most people.
But it’s the Somme that haunts our memories, at least in the English-speaking world. July 01 was the single worst day the British military ever had. Inexperienced troops scrambled out of their trenches, advanced across no-man’s-land, and got mowed down by machine-gun fire.
Some quotes from their commander, General Sir Douglas Haig:
“Success in battle depends mainly on morale and determination.”I dislike Haig. It strikes me as unkind and unnecessary to tell troops their attack will succeed if only they try hard enough. Grit and determination haven’t reliably beaten superior firing rates since the Napoleonic Wars.
“The way to capture machine guns is by grit and determination.”
“The machine gun is a much over rated weapon.”
“The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists.”
Small groups of reenactors — really excellent reenactors — quietly appeared in public places, looking just like they’d have looked in 1916. They didn’t speak, but if approached they’d give you a small card with the name, rank, unit, and age at death of the man they were recalling to memory, 100 years after his death.
Photographs of them have accumulated at Pinterest, and probably elsewhere as well. Go look.