(Chapter 21 of the new book by Belgian-Canadian historian Jacques R. Pauwels, The Great Class War 1914-1918, published in April 2016 by James Lorimer in Toronto; the book is also available in Dutch and in French.)
The offensive got under way on July 1, 1916. The weather was described as “divine,” but that day would turn out to be the darkest one in the history of the British army. At exactly 7:30, the order was given to the Tommies to “go over the top” or “jump the bags,” as exiting the trenches was called, and move forward through no man’s land as they had been told, the British way: disciplined and dignified, marching slowly, body upright, shoulder to shoulder. In the case of the Surrey Regiment, someone kicked a soccer ball into the direction of the German trenches when the attack began. To the still unexperienced Tommies, all of this created the impression that the situation was under control, that all would be well. Moreover, the officers had assured the men that, after days of shelling, not much would be left of the German positions and their defenders.
The composure and discipline of the soldiers made an excellent impression on the generals. Their feelings were reflected in these lines of a poem entitled On the Somme, in which Charles Penrose, an officer who witnessed the attack, described in a half-serious, half-sarcastic way how well the scenario unfolded on that morning of July 1:
“All across the No Man’s land and through the ruined wiring,/Each officer that led them, with a walking-cane for sword,/Cared not a button though the foeman went on firing/While they dribbled over footballs to the glory of the Lord.”
But Haig had not foreseen that so many Germans, ensconced in solid tunnels and bunkers up to ten meters deep under the ground, would be able to survive the hellish bombardment. As soon as the artillery ceased to fire, the Germans realized that the attack was imminent, so they rushed out of their shelters with their machine guns. They could not believe their eyes when they saw thousands and thousands of British soldiers approaching through no man`s land, slowly, erect, in neat lines. Countless Tommies were mowed down in very little time on that fateful morning. The preliminary shelling, no matter how impressive, had also been far less effective than expected for another reason. The British shells were of mediocre quality, and no less than one quarter of all projectiles fired appeared to be “duds” that did not explode. Whose fault was that? Perhaps the manufacturers, who earned fortunes by producing ammunition, and who sought to increase their gains by using material of lower quality? As far as Haig was concerned, however, there could be no doubt. The culprits were the British factory workers whom he believed to “have too many holidays and too much to drink.” “A notable argument,” remarks Adam Hochschild, “for someone whose family fortune was based on whiskey. Haig suggested in a letter to his wife that it would be a good idea to “take and shoot two or three of them” so that “the ‘Drink habit’ would cease.”
And so the first waves of British attackers were mowed down, one after the other, by the German machine guns. Still, the Tommies kept moving forward. This was the case, even late in the day, for the Newfoundland Regiment, one of the rare British units involved in the battle that were not from Britain itself. (At the time, the great island in the northwest Atlantic was not yet part of Canada, as it is today, but was still a separate British colony.) In the vicinity of the village of Beaumont-Hamel, 684 of the 752 Newfoundlanders involved fell victim to the machine guns of Germans of whom they never even saw one single specimen. But which British general worried about the loss of a few hundred fishermen, miners, and others workers from a distant and insignificant part of the glorious Empire? On this fateful July 1 – later to become a “Remembrance Day” in Newfoundland – the British army lost more men than ever before in one single day: 60,000 casualties on a total of 110,000 men who participated in the attack. The German losses allegedly amounted to 8,000 men. The thousands of cavalrymen kept in readiness by Haig waited in vain for the signal to move forward, as the hoped-for breach in the German lines never materialized.
The British generals were of course disappointed that the attack had not produced the desired result. But they were most satisfied with the way in which the men had followed orders and conducted themselves in such a dignified manner. “Where today we might see mindless killing,” writes Adam Hochschild, “many of those who presided over the war’s battles saw only nobility and heroism.” And with respect to the bloodbath of July 1, 1916, he quotes the report of a general:
“Not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine-gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out…He saw the lines which advanced in such admirable order melting away under the fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. He has never seen, indeed could never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The report that he had had from the very few survivors of this marvellous advance bear out what he saw with his own eyes that hardly a man of ours got to the German front line.”
Two days after the attack, when Haig received a report stating that the losses amounted to 40.000 men – while in reality they were much higher! – he remarked coolly that “this cannot be considered severe, in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.” He found that even such high losses were not very important in the big scheme of things. The death of thousands of soldiers did not cause him any headaches. “We lament too much over death,” he stoically commented on one occasion, “we should regard it as a change to another room.” And he added:
“The nation must be taught to bear losses…[and] to see heavy casualty lists for what may appear to the uninitiated to be insufficient object[s]…Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in so great a cause.”
Incidentally, Haig avoided all direct contact with the ordinary soldiers whom he sacrificed so lavishly on the altar of the Moloch of war. He allegedly never even once ventured into the trenches. And whenever he did come face to face with a soldier, he addressed him like aristocrats had done since time immemorial, namely with a condescending “my man,” to which the subordinate was supposed to respond with a respectful “sir.”
The opinion of the generals was echoed by the media in Britain. A war correspondent over there reported that, “on balance, [it had been] a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.” And the Daily Mirror of November 22, 1916, even justified and glorified the demise of tens of thousands of men with the following description of a dead Tommy:
“Even as he lies on the field, he looks more quietly faithful, more simply steadfast than others. He looks especially modest and gentlemanly too, as if he had taken care while he died that there should be no parade in his bearing, no heroics in his posture.”
The soldiers themselves, however, saw things in a different light. The Somme offensive, Haig’s “Big Push,” was referred to by the men as “the Great F#&* Up,” a term that would eventually also designate the war in general. It was a term with a double edge, reflecting not only the soldiers’ contempt for the generals’ incompetence, but also their perception of being terribly abused by Haig and their other superiors. The latter point, or something very similar, was also conveyed by the German soldiers when they called the war a Schwindel, a “fraud,” “scam,” or “racket.”
The Battle of the Somme started catastrophically on July 1, 1916, and would drag on until November of that same year, demanding many more victims in the process. The allies would register minimal territorial gains, but more important was undoubtedly the fact that Haig’s scheme had provided some much-needed relief for the beleaguered French around Verdun. In any event, as at Verdun, the losses were enormous. The British suffered losses totalling approximately a half million men, including at last 125,000 killed, while the French registered 200,000 casualties. The German losses amounted to about a half million men. To all the forces involved in it, the bloody affair at the Somme cost more than one million killed, wounded, missing in action, and prisoners of war.
(to be continued)