The Lessons of the Somme

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”

Shrapnel bursts over a reserve trench during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. (Reuters)

On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.

This one fearful day was the place of origin of so many of our retained memories of the First World War: the whistle summoning men “over the top” of their trenches to be instantly slain by machine-gun fire; mass slaughter for pitiful gains of ground; indifferent and incompetent officers refusing to acknowledge that their plans had gone desperately wrong. And then there was the mud, which also figured as the extra-horrible feature of that other great British and imperial fiasco a year later, the Battle of Passchendaele.

In the past quarter-century, revisionist historians have sought to amend the story of the Somme. They instruct us that the battle lasted not just a single day, but almost five months of continuing British attacks. The German losses over the length of the battle were probably even heavier than the British: more than 450,000 against Britain’s 420,000. The first day of the Somme ended in catastrophe, and the campaign in futility, not because the British commanders were idiots, but because the problems they faced were too new and too hard. All these assessments have been absorbed by specialists, but none has made much impress on the public imagination.

What’s been left behind, instead, is a memory of the Somme as the place—of all places—where the supposedly orderly certitudes of the Victorian era were bullet-riddled and smashed to bloody human fragments.

It was of the Somme battle that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender is the Night:

See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. … This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. … All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love.

The Somme as it was experienced, however, was not the same as the Somme as it is remembered. The psychic, cultural, political, and literary effects would not accumulate until later. At the time, the men at the Somme faced a daunting and terrible array of tactical problems. The ground underneath the Somme is chalky. The distinctive whitish soil is easier to dig—and readier to retain its shape—than the Flanders battlefields where the British had fought in 1914 and 1915. The Germans had exploited this feature of the terrain to dig a network of deep trenches, reinforced with concrete.

The Somme battle had been announced a week early by multi-day artillery bombardment, involving a total of 1.75 million shells: the heaviest fire in the whole history of the world to that point. In Flanders, much lighter bombardments had sliced apart German barbed wire and smashed German trenches. The bombardment had also churned the ground into untraversable muck. The lesson learned from past mistakes: Even more shells should destroy the defense entirely—and firmer ground would bear the weight of massed infantry as it punched through to seize the rail lines behind German lines, forcing a retreat of the German forces supplied by those lines.

The plan went horribly wrong in three deadly ways: As heavy as the artillery was, it was not nearly heavy enough to wreck concrete fortifications well beneath ground level. At the same time, because the fire had been so prolonged, it messed up the ground enough to disorder infantry trying to advance in formation. And because the first-day casualties were so devastating, the British could not recover from their initial mistake, the way, say, Ulysses Grant recovered from his disastrous first day at Shiloh in 1862. There just weren’t enough trained troops surviving unhurt to keep fighting the battle the way it had been planned.

Instead, the British kept pounding away with their superior artillery resources. They succeeded in killing, wounding, and psychologically breaking thousands of the German soldiers opposite. (In his memoir, Storm of Steel, the German writer Ernst Junger would describe the experience of being under artillery fire as alike to being chained to a stake while a hugely powerful enemy swung a heavy mallet at one’s head.) The exact numbers of German casualties at the Somme remain disputed, but virtually all historians agree that the final loss was even heavier than the British—although less than the Allied total, given French losses.

Later in the war, the British and Canadians would crack the First World War tactical code: Fire fewer, but more powerful shells, in carefully aimed and timed short bursts; then send infantry forward in small irregular groups. Easy to say; hard to do. Not until 1918 would the British perfect the techniques for this new kind of war—and by then, they were fighting a German empire weakened, exhausted, and starved—and one that also faced, on the other end of its long line, a mighty new American army as well.

But that was the future. On July 1, 1916, men and boys from across a British world that spanned the planet would step off into the greatest slaughter ever suffered by people who speak English. They fought for a cause they believed in, and continued to believe in. The victory they ultimately won would fail to yield an enduring peace. It would be followed by economic convulsion, revolutions, and then another and even more terrible war. That was not their fault. They did what they had to do, and they did it for the most part with an uncomplaining heroism that baffles us today even more entirely than it baffled F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. The mentality of these men can seem remote from our present world. Is there anything we believe in as strongly as the cause to which they gave their “last full measure of devotion”?