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Sunday, July 02, 2006

The greatest disaster in modern military history: The Somme


A Canadian on the Somme, 1916

Battle of the Somme: 1 July - 13 November 1916

Intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter, with General Haig's tactics remaining controversial even today.

The British planned to attack on a 24km (15 mile) front between Serre, north of the Ancre, and Curlu, north of the Somme. Five French divisions would attack an 13km (eight mile) front south of the Somme, between Curlu and Peronne. To ensure a rapid advance, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. British commanders were so confident they ordered their troops to walk slowly towards the German lines. Once they had been seized, cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans.

However, unconcealed preparations for the assault and the week-long bombardment gave the Germans clear warning. Happy to remain on French soil, German trenches were heavily fortified and, furthermore, many of the British shells failed to explode. When the bombardment began, the Germans simply moved underground and waited. Around 7.30am on 1 July, whistles blew to signal the start of the attack. With the shelling over, the Germans left their bunkers and set up their positions.

As the 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines, the machine guns started and the slaughter began. Although a few units managed to reach German trenches, they could not exploit their gains and were driven back. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed.

It was a baptism of fire for Britain's new volunteer armies. Many 'Pals' Battalions, comprising men from the same town, had enlisted together to serve together. They suffered catastrophic losses: whole units died together and for weeks after the initial assault, local newspapers would be filled with lists of dead, wounded and missing


No battle, more meticulously planned could have ended in a greater disaster. Ninety years ago today, the wounded were being sent back to hospital as the assesment of the worst battle in modern history took place.

The British planned to use artillery to smash through the barbed wire of no mans land, and send the new battalions raised to fight this war, into the German lines and on to victory.

Instead, the Somme became a charnel house. As Verdun in February had bled the French white, the Somme in July would do the same for the British.

Why? Because the generals planned their war on maps, not on the ground. They had no idea what would happen when they tried to march across broken ground, or what would happen when the German machine guns weren't blown away. The piles of broken, wounded bodies would lay on the ground, many men dying of treatable wounds, bleeding to death.

The Somme changed the war for Britain. More and more of the burden of fighting would fall to the Canadians and the Anzac Corps.The British regiments slowly had their offensive strength sapped, increasingly brutal punishments were used. Executions increased for men clearly too ill to fight. A mutiny would barely be prevented.

The losses of 1916 changed Britain permanently. A generation of men died in the trenches and would not be replaced. By 1944, the British Army would suffer a serious manpower shortage, partly because of the dead of World War I.

The Somme also ended the domination of Britain over their white colonies, especially Australia. If the Australian identity was formed in hills of Gallipoli, it came to fruition in the fields of France. The Canadians and Australians came to be the backbone of the British Army in France. They sat at the table with Britain as equal partners by the end of the war.

The two armies were different creatures, the Canadians and the Australians. The Canadians largely embraced the British way of war, but with a nasty edge. They were tough close in fighters, but they were still seeking british approval and acceptance.
Out of combat, they accepted British discipline, in it, they went their own way.

The Australians, otoh, didn't care much for British discipline. They were the only country to refuse to allow the British to execute their soldiers for infractions. After the unjust shooting of Harry "Breaker" Morant in the Boer War, the Australians ended the death penalty for their men in combat. More than once, the British asked the Australians, only to be rebuffed.

However, in combat, they had superb discipline. They were hardy soldiers, and tough opponents. It was the Australian Corps (formerly the ANZAC, Australian and New Zealand Corps) which stopped the Germans cold in the 1918 Michael Offensive. Their commander, John Monash, was regarded as the finest British commander of the war. Monash was a Jewish mining engineer, later granted a commission, rising quickly to Corps Commander. He is regarded as one of Australia's national heroes.

But it was the Somme, and it's fearful losses, which would start the road to the end of colonial domination, first in the white colonies, then in India. In one day, the omnipotent Britain died in the fields of France and became increasingly reliant on its colonies for its survival.

posted by Steve @ 12:26:00 AM

12:26:00 AM

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