Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Somme by Peter Hart

The Darkest Hour on The Western Front
October, 1916

'The infantry were to 'go over' at 3:40 a.m. It was a night of horror. The German's knew something was in the wind and shortly after midnight they opened up their artillery on the British batteries who were harassing them. Their fire, their counter-battery work, was better organized than ours. They would put four or five batteries- two 5.9-in, two 4.2 and a 77-mm all on the same target. High explosive, shrapnel and gas, all at once for ten minutes. Then they would move to a different target. Twice they came on to us that night. A gun was blown up, a small heap of ammunition went up, an NCO killed and several men wounded. We were lucky to get off so lightly.

With our three remaining guns we turned on the intensive stuff at 3:30 a.m. and from then on we lived in one screaming holocaust of light and sound. Sound! Deafening, screaming, shrieking sound, the whole range of the eardrum, like 50,000 express trains tearing through the air- colliding and tearing on again. Orders could only be passed by signals, no one could hear a verbal order however loudly shouted.

It was like daylight. The flickers and flashes as the shells left the guns, not only our guns, but every gun for miles, the yellow flash of bursting shells, the white glare of Very lights and star shells lit up the landscape as in one continuos lightening storm. Indeed man's efforts outdid the worst electric storm I have ever seen both in light and sound- rendering it a puny imitation- yet it is the only thing I know which gives any idea of the sensations of that night.

After only a few days the men's morale was rotting away in the mud, blood and gathering exhaustion. Our senses were become numbed. We only left our guns to go forward to our observation posts. We were never dry or clean, our food was always cold, gritty, out of tins, bread generally wet, nothing ever appetizing, the noise of gunfire continuous so that the nerves were constantly stretched, listening and assaying continuously or subconsciously the depth and nearness of shell bursts.

The Battle of the Somme seemed as if it might go on forever! Shells could not go on missing one forever- the time must come when one would be standing on an unlucky spot at the wrong time- and then? The ever-present unforgettable knowledge that, if not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then some day later, but in any case eventually, your turn would come. That conviction would grow as the stalemate continued, week after week, month after month, world without end, Amen. This is what caused all your pals to get thin in the face, haggard and jumpy. They knew it too; that some day some beer-swilling Kraut would load a shell into a Krupp gun, and an invisible hand would write in invisible ink your name on that shell before the trigger was pulled. And what would it do to you? A clean 'blot out' or blinding insanity, incurable crippling- searing white-hot pain?"

Lieutenant Kenneth Mealing, A Battery, 308th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 61st Division.


  1. In the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1) there were 57,470 causualties of which 19,240 were killed. Overall British caualties for the months-long battle were 419,654 of which 131,000 were dead; 204,253 French casualties and between 450,000 - 600,000 German causalties.

    The lightly wounded would be patched up ready to fight again, but the prospects for the seriously wounded were extremely bleak. There was no underpinning concept of the welfare state. People earned a living or existed in dire poverty. The war crippled, with their prosthetic legs, wheel chairs, missing arms, emasculated bodies and mutilated faces were a nuisance to a society that believed in 'standing on your own two feet.'

  2. The Somme was so awful not because of the venality or stupidity of individuals, but because the leaders of the great Western nations had set themselves to resolve long-standing problems through war, with the active and passive encouragement of much of their civlian populations. War demanded that these nations strain every sinew to defeat each other. War meant the mobilization of all their men and resources: the very power of the European nation states meant that the numbers of armed men and the powers of destruction they wielded exeeeded anything that had been previously dreamed of. As soldiers struck down their enemies, more appeared, springing forwards from the schools and railheads; new weapons took even greater toll on flesh and blood. Killing a few thousand men barely dented the manpower resources of the modern industrial state; millions marched to the drum and millions would be killed and mentally crippled before one side or the other was so worn down they could no longer struggle on.

    Once such a global war had been declare then the future of the generation was handed over to cold-hearted military professionals like Sir Douglas Haig, Erich von Falkenhayn and Joseph Joffre. The fighting was not futile unless the war was futile. The responsibility for all the manifold sacrifices lies not so much with the generals as with the enthusiasm with which the world embraced war in 1914.

    That said, in 1916 there was still no clear realization that the techniques of 'bite and hold' offered the best way forward at this stage of the war: attacking on a wide front, after a devastating short bombardment, using a creeping barrage to chaperone the infantry forward, but only seeking to advance up to 1,500 yards, before carefully consolidating behind a standing barrage wall of shells that could smash any attempted German counterattack. This was the way to kill the maximum number of Germans with a minimum of Allied casualties. But is was slow. It demanded logistical preparations that would have daunted Hercules, the deployment of thousands of guns, the expenditure of millions of shells, and of course it offered no hope of a breakthrough, no hope to an end to war in 1916, perhaps not even in 1917.

    Although Rawlinson in particular clearly understood much of the intellectual argument for 'bite and hold', the British were continually tempted by the chimera of short-cuts and temporary expedience, constantly attempting to cut corners to success and ending up losing their way time and time again. Well into 1917, Haig continued to order attacks that attempted to achieve penetration of all three German trench lines, which in watering down the strength to the artillery barrage on the front line predestined their failure.

  3. AGAIN:

    'The First World War was not the result of the machinations of a few politicians and their 'henchmen' generals. We should never allow ordinary people to abrogate their role in the genesis of Armageddon, either then or now.

    War in 1914 was the near-inevitable result of the frequently expressed wishes and prevailing attitudes of the British population- it was hence a national responsibility. Popular jingoism was certainly stirred then as now, by cynical politicians and morally opaque newspaper proprietors; however, it had its wellspring deep within the dark corners of the popular consciousness. The political imperatives of defending the bloated empire, the endemic racism and the all-embracing casual assumption of moral superiority of the age, the overwhelming reliance on blunt threats to achieve what might have been better achieved by subtle diplomacy- these were part of the British heritage in 1914...

    in truth no one did much to avoid a war that was easily portrayed as a crusade. War was a risk, casually accepted. When it arrived it was not as they had imagined it, but by then it was too late. The remorseless rhythms of global war had already wrapped themselves around the British Empire.