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Remember, Remember 1st July

July 1, 2017

101 years ago today thousands of British soldiers stood prepared to climb out of their trenches and take part in what was hoped to be a decisive attack on the German lines in front of them. Within minutes of the start of the attack many lay killed or injured in what remains, and I hope will always remain, the bloodiest day in British military history.  Of 116,000 British and Empire troops who took part in the battle on 1st July 1916, 57,470 became casualties and 19,240 were killed.

Last year, as part of my Western Front cycle, I spent a couple of days on the Somme battlefield.   The saddle of a bike provided an excellent viewpoint to appreciate the landscape in which so many brave young men were sent to their deaths.  I have also just finished reading Jolyon Fenwick’s excellent “Zero Hour” which describes the story of that day and the countryside in which it was fought with the help of a series of maps, contemporary accounts and panorama pictures from the front line positions from which the attacks were launched.

In only two parts of the front: Mametz and Montauban were the British successful in holding at the end of the day the positions they had set out at the beginning of the day to capture.  Elsewhere the attacks either failed at the outset, driven back by the intensity of the German machine gun and shell fire, or hard won gains had to be abandoned later in the day when the original attackers became overwhelmed and attempts to reinforce new positions were given up.

The underlying story of the day was similar across the front. Generals had been hopelessly optimistic about what the attack might achieve.  The British bombardment, while full of “shock and awe” for those witnessed it was of insufficient intensity to deliver a knockout blow to the German defensive positions which, in any case, were deeper and more extensive than anticipated.  Finally the timing of the British assaults gave the German defenders in many cases a crucial period of time to emerge from their positions and set up a deadly network of machine guns.  As a result in many sectors of the front the British troops emerged from their trenches into a sea of bullets.  In this context the attackers didn’t stand a chance and many were killed before they had even got out of their trenches.  It took months to retrieve the bodies of those who fell and for some no identifiable physical remains were ever found.

The day was full of the most incredible courage. Perhaps nothing epitomises this more than the attack of the Ulster regiments on the Schwaben Redoubt, the strongly fortified German position near Thiepval.  With an element of surprise and through immense bravery they managed to capture the position and open up the genuine possibility of a breakthrough.  However, as was the case elsewhere, it was not possible to reinforce the position and by 10pm it had had to be given up.  A moving memorial marks the position today.

Some of the poignancy of this day related to the nature of the army which took part in it. This was the outing of Kitchener’s New Army, the thousands of young men who had left civilian life at the beginning of the War to meet the call to serve King and Country, driven by both by patriotism and by the wish to escape the mundaneness of everyday life.  The army was full of Pals Regiments; new units recruited from the same place, young men who had joined up at the same time, often encouraged by employers or civic leaders.  Much of the idealism which had brought those young men together was challenged to its roots on that first day of the Somme although what remained was a deep commitment to those sharing that common experience.

News of the conflict in the First World War was heavily censored. “Forward in the West” was the first headline in the Times.  However the news of the scale of the loss could not be kept hidden for ever.  Too many families were affected and news trickled back through and formal and informal channels about those who had survived and those who had lost their lives.  This was one of the first battles in history with some official filming of the action.  Geoffrey Malins film The Battle of the Somme, which included footage of the explosion of the massive mine at Beaumont Hamel, was seen by over a million people.  It opened up some of the reality of modern warfare to the civilian population and established a tradition of battlefield coverage which we now take for granted.

To finish some comment is necessary on the conduct of the Generals and the part they played in such a calamitous loss of life. The First World War brought enormous challenges in effective battlefield leadership, in particular given the absence of voice command, which before and after would allow Generals to direct operations in real time.  In essence once started the Generals were fairly powerless to alter the course of events.  However they could control the strategy and preparations and serious mistakes were made in overestimating the power of the British artillery and underestimating the remaining strength of the German positions.  Most galling was the naïve optimism of some, not all, commanders and the apparent willingness to tolerate such enormous casualties for such small gains in territory or strategic advantage.  The tone was set from the top and Douglas Haig’s comment when notified that casualties for the day had reached 40,000 “This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of the front attacked” illustrates a contempt for the value of individual life which was repeated across military leaders in the conflict.  As we have a taste of today there is something deeply dangerous when such a gap grows up between those leading and those led and where false certainty is imposed on situations where none can legitimately exist.

We may be past the centenary now but the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Somme should be a constant reminder of the horror and futility of war. For many years I sat each Sunday in church near the memorial to Frederick William Wood, son of the vicar of Headingly and member of the Leeds Pals.  The same age as my grandfather he was one of those 19,000 British soldiers who died on that day.  There are days in history we should never forget.  1st July 1916 should be one of them.

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