Friday, July 01, 2016

First Day of the Somme

100 years ago today, the Battle of the Somme began. The results of that first day's attack are what we usually think of when we think of World War I: slaughter, quick and efficient on an unimaginable scale. 120,000 British soldiers attacked: something like 57,000 were killed or wounded, that day; 20,000 dead. Some gains were made, around the edges of the main battle, but nothing much was accomplished by the men who made the bulk of the attack. The Germans lost about 8000 men in the day's fighting. The battle then continued until November, with the Allies moving the lines forward a few miles, and losing another 700,000 or so casualties, to the German's 500,000.

Everything in WWI comes back to this (at least everything on the Western Front.) Individual battles all follow that form - a massive attack, usually unsuccessful, though sometimes with some progress - that always degenerates into a long brutal slog. You come across attempts to explain or justify some of the tactics and strategy of the war, but these all end up being explanations of how things went wrong in such a battle, and how maybe that didn't go wrong in quite the same way in the next one - though it always went wrong. The details are different in how Loos or Verdun or the Somme or the Aisne or Ypres went wrong, but they all went wrong, hundreds of thousands of casualties, minimal change in the fronts, and no change at all in the strategic situation of the war, except t convince the generals that they needed another battle to relieve the pressure of this battle. That's part of the story of the Somme - a massive British attack that was supposed to relieve the pressure from the massive German attack on Verdun. On and on, death breeding death.

So what happened at the Somme? The British blasted the hell out of the Germans for weeks (having learned, from Loos, that preliminary artillery bombardment was crucial) - but they still didn't actually break the German lines. Most of the German soldiers spent the bombardment hiding well below the surface, and popped back out in time to man their machine guns before the British soldiers arrived. The artillery didn't destroy the barbed wire, so the Brits were funneled directly into the field of fire of the machine guns. The bombardment didn't damage any of the German artillery, which responded quickly and to great effect. Etc, etc. And then - horrible as the first day was, the fact is - if the first day had gone differently, the rest of the battle would not have changed. Even had the British broken the German lines on July 1, they would not have been able to move past the battle zone fast enough: they wouldn't have run into more trenches and the rest of the battle would have gone just abut as it did. Until the tanks arrive, there was nothing anyone could do to end this warfare.

But they kept trying. There's not much more to say, besides to look in stunned horror at the stream of battles that look just like this - massive casualties, noting changed - that made up the bulk of the western front in the Great War. Only at the end, with tanks and a completely exhausted Germany, did it change. It's hard to say what anyone anywhere gained from all this death. It's hard to escape the conclusion that both sides could have sat in their trenches and waited for the British naval blockade to destroy the German economy and force more or less the armistice they signed. That might not have worked out so well for France (where all this fighting was taking place), but then again, France also bore unimaginable casualties in all this - it's hard to what they gained by trying to drive the Germans out. Millions dead. That's pretty much all you can say about the western front.

All right - let's move to some video - first, a 1916 Documentary about the battle:

And some music - Fairport Convention's version of The Battle of the Song, set to a painting of part of the British attack:

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