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.