The first day on the Somme – July 1, 1916



The 1st July 1916 was the opening day of the Anglo-French offensive that became known as the Battle of the Somme. It was the middle day of the middle year of the First World War and is principally remembered as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. On the first day of the Somme 57,470 British soldiers became casualties of which 19,240 were either killed or died of their wounds. It has for many come to represent the futility and sacrifice of the First World War, with lines of infantry walking across No-Man’s-Land into the machine guns of the enemy.

The most terrible battle of the most momentous war in European history began a century ago today. As a pure coincidence, I am reading John Buchan’s Greenmantle, published itself in 1916. From Buchan’s biographical details at the start of the edition I have there is this:

During the First World War he worked as a war correspondent for The Times, before joining the British Army Intelligence Corps and writing speeches for Sir Douglas Haig. His experience of war left him vehemently opposed to armed conflict. He wrote many novels, poems, biographies, histories and works of social interest but is most famous for his Richard Hannay novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle.

In its own way a story that has a modern veneer but you will see why the BBC began and then abandoned a dramatisation of the book in 2007 from this para from the summary of the book on the back cover of my edition of the novel.

The Germans with their Turkish allies are planning to stir up a revolt in the Muslim world that could leave Egypt, India and North Africa in disarray.

The EU was intended to bring such conflicts to an end. History, however, remains open ended as it will and must always be.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail commemorative gallery marking the day in England.Here is how the battle is described:

Synonymous for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men, the Battle of the Somme was one of the most controversial conflicts of the First World War.

The battle took place North of the River Somme in France from July 1 to November 13, 1916.

On the first day alone British forces suffered casualties of 40,000 and deaths of 20,000, with 60 per cent of all of those killed being officers.

Designed to relieve pressure on French forces at Verdun, the Battle was the mastermind of General Douglas Haig and involved 750,000 British soldiers across 27 divisions.

By the end of the bloody and brutal battle Allied forces had managed to capture only six miles of land. The British suffered 429,000 casualties, the French suffered 195,000 and the Germans 650,000.

Prior to the battle the British bombarded German lines with 1.6 million shells in an effort to weaken their resolve, but the Germans were heavily fortified and many of the shells did not go off.

Haig, unaware of his bombardment’s failure, was so confident in his tactics that he ordered his men to walk across the battlefield. As a result many were tragically mowed down by machine gun fire as soon as they left their trench.

The general’s tactics remain controversial to this day with military historians, soldiers and biographers conflicted over whether his decisions were necessary or foolhardy.

If ever there was a war to end all wars, this was it. We now know no such war exists. Those who would live in peace must therefore always prepare for war.

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