I meant to post this yesterday.
The Somme -100
July 1-November 18 1916
The Somme, Picardy, France.
One hundred years ago, on 1st July 1916 the ‘Bloodiest day in the history of the British Army’ began. The Battle of the Somme – France. The allies of France, Britain and Russia had been at war with Germany/Austro-Hungary for two years but this particular Offensive was the bloodiest yet. The First World War has been called ‘The War to End All Wars’ – but alas it was not to be so. It was the greatest loss of human life in battle until that date.
Britain and France commemorate the site and the battlefield, but many other countries, including the US, know little of this region and its blood-soaked history. So why was it so awful?
“The Battle of the Somme was fought at such terrible cost that it has come to symbolise the tragic futility of the First World War. Its first day of conflict remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army and it was felt deeply at home.”
F Scott Fitzgerald describes it poignantly, “This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer….. 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 backwards a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.” (Tender is the Night – F Scott Fitzgerald – Chapter 13)
Young men from all walks of life fought, and died that summer. Pals brigades, boys of 14 who had lied about their age, father, brothers, sons, husbands, friends. Death took them without favour. The Grim reaper cares not for ties of family or friendship, and his scythe was busy indeed.
Over 400000 men died in just six miles, and over a million in that battle alone. In the first DAY 19240 men fell in that field. 19420. That’s over twenty men a minute! That is incredible. And so terribly tragic.
‘The official number of British dead, missing or wounded during that period is 419, 654. There were 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died at the Somme with no known graves and whose names are recorded on the British memorial at Thiepval.’
Including Allied soldiers over 600000 died, and half a million Germans.
51 Victoria Crosses were awarded for gallantry. 9 in the first day.
Read more about these men here: http://www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/9vcs.htm
It was believed the weight of the shelling in the week before would reduce the German lines and destroy them before the British even got there. It was a terrible miscalculation. The British shells were not well made, and could not get into the deep German bunkers. The average soldier had to carry 30kg of kit. Many had not seen battle before and were not professional soldiers. They were ordinary men in an extraordinary situation. 90% of a Canadian Battalion died on the first day. 90%.
‘The first day on the Somme began 141 days of the Battle of the Somme and the opening day of the Battle of Albert. The attack was made by five divisions of the French Sixth Army either side of the Somme, eleven British divisions of the Fourth Army north of the Somme to Serre and two divisions of the Third Army opposite Gommecourt, against the German Second Army of General Fritz von Below. The German defence south of the Albert–Bapaume road mostly collapsed and the French had “complete success” on both banks of the Somme, as did the British from the army boundary at Maricourt to the Albert–Bapaume road. On the south bank the German defence was made incapable of resisting another attack and a substantial retreat began; on the north bank the abandonment of Fricourt was ordered. The defenders on the commanding ground north of the road inflicted a huge defeat on the British infantry, who had an unprecedented number of casualties. Several truces were negotiated, to recover wounded from no man’s land north of the road. The Fourth Army took 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 men were killed, the French Sixth Army had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army had 10,000–12,000 losses.‘
At Thiepval memorial site miles of pristine white headstones (British/Commonwealth) and wooden crosses (French) fill the area around and the fields themselves are filled with shell -holes, and replica trenches. There is a cemetery in that region with graves as far as the eye can see. And these were just the graves of the men they FOUND. The memorial itself is the most tragically beautiful thing I have ever seen. I was 16 when I visited that region on a school trip and I can honestly say that I will never forget it. Some of those soldiers were no older than I was then. And they didn’t return. It’s an astonishing place. I remember – we went in winter and it was snowing, bloody cold but we all stood in the snow and just stared that this could have happened. Thiepval commemorates 72ooo men whose bodies were never recovered but lost their lives in 141 days of hell. That’s three times larger than the population of the town I was raised in. More than the current population of British towns such as Shrewsbury, Aylesbury, Crewe, Tunbridge Wells, and many more. It’s more than the total population of Greenland, and twice the population of Leichenstein. That is ONE memorial. Teenage boys, who like to be seen as tough stood weeping silently. I think every British child should visit that site. It’s something that will stay with you.
This year the Royal British Legion are producing poppy pin badges from shell metal actually found in the battlefield. One for every person who died. I am proud to own one – mine commemorates Lance Corporal William Dengate – London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifle – service number 3408.) He died on 1 July 1916. He was from Clapham, in London. He was likely awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk
See his profile here http://www.londonwarmemorial.co.uk/view_profile.php?id=29078&limit=20&offset=0&sort=%20ORDER%20BY%20strSurname%20ASC&a=Lived/Born%20In&f=First%20Name&s=Dengate&r=Rank&u=Unit&b=&d=Date%20Of%20Death#sthash.NfGszhAd.dpbs
So far that’s all I have managed to find out about him, but I’ll keep searching. Who was he? What did he do for a living? What was his age? Was he some one’s husband? Was he someone’s father, or brother.
The Somme Offensive was, eventually, a strategic success – the Germans were damaged and it was one of the factors which brought the USA into the war. And the British began to use tanks from September 1916 – modern warfare was born. It relieved the pressure of the French and Verdun and many argue it was a pivotal battle – but at such a cost.
Remembering the Great War – because the War to End all War didn’t.