First day on the Somme
In the British imagination, 1st July 1916 looms over the rest of the First World War. Ask someone about the First World War, and if they know anything at all about the war, it is extremely likely that the first day on the Somme is the first thing they think of. It is also reasonably likely that it is the only thing they think of. Or rather, it is a particular sub-section of the first day of the Somme that they think of. It is, to say the least, a very arresting image, and a very easily distilled image, and a very easily understandable image.
However, it is not the entire story. This battle defies easy characterisation when looked at in any detail. So let’s get down to the detail. Let us have, once again, the map, to remind ourselves of what is going on.
From Serre to the end of the French attack front is very approximately 23 miles. General Haig expects that by the end of the day, his men will have advanced to the pink line. This will set up an attack in a few days to break the German Second Line at Pozieres, send the BEF’s cavalry through the gap to exploit it, and capture a critical railway junction at Bapaume.
Meanwhile, the diversions will go on to the last possible moments. All along the BEF front, zero hour at 7:30am will see “demonstrations”; artillery barrages, shouting and whistle-blowing by officers, and other such excitement to simulate an attack and keep the enemy confused as long as possible. And, about five miles north of Serre, there will be a full-scale diversionary attack at Gommecourt. And that’s where we’ll start the first day on the Somme.
There is a small tactical advantage to be had by eliminating the Gommecourt salient, but that’s not what the attack is about. This is about confusing German intelligence for as long as possible, disguising the main thrust of the Battle of the Somme. Even a delay of a few hours could prove important. The men here have been quite deliberately making no attempt to disguise their preparations for attack. This is, bluntly, going to suck for the people who have drawn this shortest of straws and who now are being ordered to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
One of them is Captain Arthur Agius. We’ve been following him on and off since he arrived on the Western Front in January 1915. He was in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and he’s already drawn the shortest straw once already; for the Battle of Loos, he survived being in a diversionary attack at Neuve Chapelle. This, however, is on a completely different scale.
The trouble was that Gommecourt stuck out in the middle of the line and we weren’t to attack it directly. We were supposed to encircle it and link up behind. But what we didn’t know is that the Germans had manoeuvred and organised their line that this part which we weren’t to attack was really their strong-point. They simply had a clear field of fire on either side and nothing to bother about in front. The shellfire was appalling. We just couldn’t get across. We didn’t even get as far as [the jumping-off trench]. There was no trench left.
We got orders to turn and try to make our way back to the village. One of my subalterns was newly out. [He] jumped out of the trench to try to organise the men, and he was promptly killed. Just disappeared in an explosion. So many gone, and we’d never left our own front-line trench. And then we found we couldn’t get back. We were simply treading on the dead. Eventually my Sergeant and I got out. I heard a shell coming. It burst just above my head. The Sergeant…was killed. I don’t know how I got back. It was murder.
A few brave/lucky souls have managed to make it into the German trenches, but they’ve been quickly cut off. Nobody can cross No Man’s Land to reinforce them. German artillery has cut all the BEF telephone lines, and once again the generals who are supposed to coordinate the attack have absolutely no idea what’s going on. The end of the day sees the last stragglers dragging themselves back across No Man’s Land to the BEF’s lines. Arthur Agius has somehow found his way to Battalion Headquarters, where he is now sitting quietly in a corner, sobbing uncontrollably. In good time he will be invalided out as a shell shock casualty.
Attacking battalions at Gommecourt are lucky if they’ve only lost 50% of their men killed or wounded. So this is all horrible and disgusting and bloody. But it’s the diversionary attack. Just in planning the attack they convinced the Germans to send a division away from the main battle to reinforce Gommecourt. If we can show that it came to something positive…
So this is where we are as now we turn to the main battle. I will now take it from south to north. And that means starting with the French contribution. The map’s just up there a bit; and so far it is completely unchanged. Won’t be for long, though!
The French Army on Day 1
This is because the French Army has achieved complete and total success. Taking a considerably more pessmistic view than the BEF, Generals Foch and Fayolle have planned a more cautious, step-by-step advance. The French contribution to the Somme is extremely shabbily treated in the English-language history, so about all I’m able to say is that south of the River Somme, the French are doing extremely well.
The infantry advanced hard on the heels of a well-planned rolling barrage, they walked almost right through the German First Line without much resistance, and by the end of the day they’re digging in for the next bit. The Second Line will not be attacked until everybody is ready, and it will come after another extensive prepatory bombardment, in accordance with the new French doctrine. On top of that, because of their total air superiority, enforced by plentiful Nieuport Bebe fighter planes, their pre-battle fire has paid far more attention than at any time before to counter-battery fire, the fine art of using your artillery to shoot the enemy’s artillery.
The men have consequently been able to advance almost unmolested. With the big guns destroyed by French artillery, and the machine guns suppressed by the rolling barrage, the French have done exactly what the BEF was hoping to do. They’ve just walked across No Man’s Land and taken possession, and been happy with that and not tried to accomplish too much more. North of the River Somme the story is mostly the same. Although here the counter-battery work has been less successful, the French attackers have benefited from an extensive early morning river mist. They’ve captured the First Line, and come the end of the day they’re digging in and another lot are looking forward to the hard work of marching on the Second Line.
And there’s even a nice human moment to transition into the first BEF sector. Over the last few weeks, Commandant Le Petit of the 153rd Regiment has become rather friendly with his left-hand neighbour, Lt-Col Fairfax of the 17th King’s Liverpools. Perhaps it was not an accident that brought them together in the last moments before zero hour. Arm in arm, the two men lead their battalions over the top and across No Man’s Land in perfect order at a steady walk. The men have rifles slung over their shoulders, many of them are smoking, and they cross No Man’s Land mostly without inconvenience. Johnny Crapaud’s done his bit; over to you, Tommy Atkins.
This covers the southernmost part of the BEF’s attack, centred on Montauban, which sits between the First and Second Lines. This is the sector where Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has been stationed. The British artillery, with considerable French assistance, has been firing a relatively advanced version of the creeping barrage to support the advance. They’re assisted by two large mines under a pair of German strong-points, and the relatively incoherent state of the German defences in many places owing to intense mining and counter-mining earlier in the year. Fraser-Tytler:
The line advanced steadily, scarcely meeting any opposition in the [German First Line]. By 8:20 the formidable Glatz Redoubt was captured. The infantry reported that the maze of strong-points, machine-gun emplacements, etc. had all been swept away, and that the trenches were crammed with dead. …[They] then continued the attack and captured the whole village of Montauban by 10am. … In the afternoon Hun shelling increased slightly, but he appeared to be completely demoralised and, for the moment, shaken out of his wits.
After dinner I went round to “swap lies” with the Brigade Commander of the 75mm batteries behind us. He said he had been twice at Verdun, but even there he had never seen such an intense bombardment. … We were sitting, cups in hand, when we saw three French gunners trolleying down the little railway line which runs through all the positions. A stray shell landed exactly on the trolley, which simply dissolved away. Some more men of their battery then collected any scraps [of human remains] they could find, butting them into different sandbags, amidst heated arguments as to which was the proper one, etc.
This reference to confusion among the German artillery is critical. The British counter-battery fire was not nearly so accurate as the French, but the German guns are mostly without orders or observation posts. German telephone wires are not immune to being cut, after all. This is where the men threw footballs over the top and found it very useful in calming their nerves as they walked across the open ground. There is one other personal account to bring in at this point. This is from Albert Andrews of the 19th Manchesters, shortly after entering the German trenches…
[We] turned round to go along the trench, when three fine Germans came running towards us with their hands up. They would be about 20 yards away. We both fired and two fell, my mate saying as we let go, ‘That’s for my brother in the Dardanelles!’, and as he fired again and the third German fell, ‘That’s for my winter in the trenches!’ We walked up to them and one moved. My mate kicked him and pushed his bayonet into him. That finished him.
This kind of thing was going on all along the line, no Germans being spared. Wounded were killed by us all. We hadn’t exactly been told, ‘No prisoners!’ but we were given to understand that that was what was wanted.
This is, of course, a war crime. Sad to say, stories like this are pretty much ten-a-penny from both sides when there’s a major offensive on. So too are stories of other men going out of their way to take prisoners. Andrews had himself just a few minutes before spared a shell-shocked German who he could easily have shot down. The perfect Balanced Sample? After securing the trench he and some mates attempt to settle down to some light looting and are then intercepted by their captain with more orders. “You all look very nice, but get some fucking digging done.”
Wise words. Here then is the south of the Battle of the Somme at nightfall. It’s all going quite well. There’s a couple of attempted German counter-attacks, but they’re beaten off by artillery fire and a little rifle fire and there is plenty of time to get some fucking digging done. It’s not quite as good as it might have been, but it’s still a good day, and one that mostly runs completely counter to the common picture of the Somme. They’ve achieved just about everything that they were supposed to and are in a good position to push on tomorrow.
Mametz and Fricourt
Moving west. Fricourt is where Bernard Adams was stationed until he was wounded a month ago. This is a nasty little part of the line. Fricourt and Mametz themselves are now gigantic fortified super-pillboxes, with a series of inter-connected dugouts running beneath them. The German fire trenches have been carefully laid along the winding hillside to create a number of miniature salients, with barbed wire entanglements designed to direct attackers into the teeth of machine-gun nests.
Against this, we have the BEF’s jumping-off trenches. They’ve dug some of the best prepatory trenches in the battle, and almost all of them are the recommended 100 yards away from the enemy. XV Corps has also taken a lot of care over its artillery preparation, conducting several useful experiments (of which more later) with different counter-battery techniques. While not approaching French levels of success, they’ve still put a serious dent in the Germans’ artillery capabilities. They’ve also enthusiastically adopted the creeping barrage along strict French lines, and battalion commanders have been emphasising the need to stay close to it, however silly it sounds.
Things have got rather difficult here. The early going is decent enough; No Man’s Land is short, and the creeping barrage somewhat effective in suppressing German machine-guns. The trouble begins once the first wave has crossed without trouble. They’ve done a poor job of “mopping up” the trenches, the act of completing the equation of attack by killing Germans in their dugouts. Now they’re spewing grenades as they come up to make a fight of it. Men are slipping through the Tommies in their trenches and manning the machine guns to shoot down the second and third waves who are supposed to be pushing on while the first wave consolidates. Private Burke of the 20th Manchesters:
Then the hand-to-hand fighting started. It was Hell. Bombing was the star turn; many of the Devils were taken unawares and were asleep in their dugouts. We threw bombs of every description down, smoke bombs especially and as the hounds came up, crawling half dead, we stuck the blighters and put them out of time. In one dugout there were about twenty-five in there and we set the place on fire and we spared them no mercy, they don’t deserve it.
They continued sniping as we were advancing until we reached them and then they throw up their hands, ‘Merci, Kamerad!’ We gave them mercy, I don’t think! We took far too many prisoners, they numbered about 1,000 and they didn’t deserve being spared.
And all this trouble is throwing the artillery timetable out of sync. The creeping barrage is creeping off into the distance, and now the men are too busy fighting to send messages back to the rear. The Germans bring up reserves, and are sometimes able to feed them directly into the trenches. By the end of the day the attackers have captured most of the First Line, and Mametz itself. However, they’re well behind schedule; a few parties have attempted to push towards the Second Line, but have run into intermediate trenches and taken heavy casualties. Importantly, Fricourt itself and Fricourt Wood just behind are still in German hands. We’ll finish with an observation from 2nd Lt Probert, an artillery officer who spent most of the day watching the battle from an observation post.
The 2nd Gordons were deepening the communication trench … but we had to stop here some time as the sniping was continuing. One captain was sitting in the front line eating his lunch with one hand and shooting the snipers with the other as they came out to surrender. I thought that rather rough as some had their hands up, but he said that he had had several wounded Jocks shot on their stretchers.
War crimes for war crimes. Yay. This is still not the popular picture of the Somme, though. This is still success. It’s limited, hard-fought, bloody success; and they’re not at the Day 1 objective, but they are going forwards. Let’s stop and see the map again.
Ovillers and La Boisselle
Ovillers and La Boisselle guard the Albert to Bapaume road. They’ve been fortified and incorporated into the First Line. They’re supplemented by two redoubts, the Schwaben Height (not to be confused with the Schwaben Redoubt a little further north) and Sausage Redoubt (why not just call it “Huns-R-Us”, guys?) The one-size-fits-all solution to these problems appears to have been “a bloody big bang”, with vast amounts of underground explosive being brought in. This is possibly the most critical sector of all.
General Haig’s immediate objective is a breakthrough at Pozieres, a few miles up the road, and then cavalry exploitation and the capture of Bapaume. This has to be done before the Germans realise what’s going off and dispatch reinforcements to strengthen and occupy their Third Line. The attackers are on a serious timetable here; the men need to at the very least replicate the success at Montauban, if not exceed it. And now, here is where the stories start to sound depressingly familiar. Corporal James Tansley of the 9th York and Lancasters:
We had been told, ‘There’s no need for this short rushes and getting down on your stomach, go straight over as if you were on parade. That’s the orders, there’s no fear of enemy attack, that’s been silenced by the British guns’. Up we went through the lanes cut in the wire, spread out and tried to follow this instruction. Myself, I was a bit sceptical about it. I and my section made for this slight ridge marked by an old farm implement. Looked around for where the line was, they seemed to disappear. Lying about on the ground. There was a severe machine-gun fire coming from the region of Pozieres, half-left.
The machine guns cut down Tansley and a friend. The friend dies; Tansley lies in No Man’s Land for about seven hours, with his finger stuffed deep into his wounded groin to stop the bleeding. Then he crawls back into the BEF trenches and almost falls on top of a stretcher bearer. Meanwhile, Private Harry Baumber, 10th Lincolnshires, advancing on La Boisselle:
Line behind line of steadfast men walking grimly forward and wondering what was in store. We soon found out. I noticed men falling thick and fast about me and all the time the tremulous chatter of machine guns. It was akin to striding into a hailstorm and the further you went the less and less became your comrades. Jerry had not been obliterated, his wire had not been destroyed and we had been called upon to walk 800 yards across No Man’s Land into Hell. A far cry from the walkover we had been promised.
Baumber is exaggerating about the distance he had to walk, but he arrives at the German wire to find it almost completely uncut; or possibly cut and then repaired. At any rate, he and his mates soon realise that they will have to spend 12 hours or more lying in No Man’s Land until darkness, when they might be able to sneak back. Many more are spotted and shot or grenaded as they try to keep a low profile. 2nd Lt John Turnbull is trying to exert some command, but there’s a problem. Either he’s got lost, or the exact location of the Lochnagar Mine was told wrong to him.
Very puzzled with the rotten crater, which was in the wrong place. Used it to screen us from La Boisselle, got as far as the ridge, and goodness knows how many machine guns opened up on us. We all dropped, and I started to crawl to the crater to see who was there, when I got hit in the back. Corporal Turton helped me in. Unfortunately I couldn’t move about much, and felt very dazed.
JRR Tolkien has a friend in all this mayhem. Lieutenant Rob Gilson is attacking the Sausage Redoubt, and he dies within minutes of going over the top, hit by a shell almost immediately after taking emergency command of his company. Of the 16 officers in Gilson’s battalion, only one returns unhurt. Two thirds of the men are dead or wounded. G.B. Smith is luckier, over on the far left, and he escapes unhurt for now, with his battalion only having taken one-third casualties.
At nightfall, we have a picture of almost complete failure. Artillery fire was, apparently, inadequate. Wire was not cut. Machine-guns were not suppressed. The enemy had plenty of warning of the attack. There are a few men clinging to a few shreds of trench, and the new Lochnagar Crater is British. For whatever that’s worth. Which isn’t much at all. The line of the Albert to Bapaume Road is where the Somme that everyone knows about starts to happen.
And on we go further north.
This sector is dominated by Thiepval on top of its ridge, the Leipzig Ridge just to the south, and Schwaben Redoubt just to the north. Here we have a clear case of Staff Officer Optimism. The objectives are simple, in theory; capture the First Line in the morning and attack the Second Line in the afternoon. By the timetable it’s just about possible, as long as no German in the sector offers more than token resistance, but it’s going to be an enormous ask. It starts well enough; the German fire trenches are protected by up to sixteen rows of barbed wire, but a little luck and a little skill with the guns has cleared plenty of it away.
Then something odd happens. Attacking the Schwaben Redoubt is an Irish division. Benefiting from an extremely successful smoke deployment, they haul themselves and their 60 pounds of kit across No Man’s Land in double-quick time, and through the trenches before the Germans know what’s hit them. Messages for defensive artillery support go astray, and well ahead of schedule, the Irishmen are pushing the Germans out of the redoubt. An inspirational battalion commander pushes the attack home, and then, mostly on his own initiative, orders another advance up towards the top of Pozieres Ridge and the German Second Line.
Quite how they didn’t all die in the attempt, I’m not quite sure. It soon becomes obvious to the few men who made it all the way that they are utterly isolated, and need to fall back into the Redoubt. Into the afternoon and evening, there are lots of awkward looks from the Redoubt across at Thiepval. The two positions are deeply interlinked. One position can be reinforced from the other, or attacked from the other. Thiepval also holds a dominating view of the route BEF men must take to come up and reinforce the newly-won trenches.
Thiepval is now one gigantic machine-gun nest. Even with the barbed wire mostly cleared, the battalions thrown directly at Thiepval at zero hour have all but ceased to exist. To their right, the Scottish battalions attacking towards Leipzig Redoubt managed to get across No Man’s Land (including the 17th Highland Light Infantry, who also crossed while kicking footballs). Then their troubles begin. Some battalions ran into trouble, as we’ve seen, because they broke into a trench, but didn’t spend long enough “mopping up” the Germans still alive down in the dugouts, and then started getting shot in the back.
These men are now having exactly the opposite problem. They’ve done a good job of work mopping up, but it took so long that the Germans have regained local command and control. Machine-guns from Thiepval, Leipzig Redoubt, and Wundtwerk Redoubt to the rear are now firing on them from three sides as they attempt to push towards the Leipzig Redoubt, and Thiepval and Leipzig are also raking No Man’s Land at will. Private Bentley Meadows, 17th HLI:
The machine gun swept us down outside the Leipzig Redoubt. It became evident that we, who were working up between two communications trenches, after two or three rushes, that further advancing was impossible without support. We waited for our own reserve waves and the Lonsdales who should have come on behind. But no reserves reached us and we saw our only hope lay in the fact that they had rushed one of the communication trenches and might manage to bomb out the machine gun. But the bombers were checked out of the range of the gun.
I at length found myself the only living occupant of that corner. About twelve o’clock I managed to leap the parapet without being hit. I found my platoon officer, Lieutenant MacBrayne, lying shot through the head. Of the others of my platoon I could get no news, except those I saw lying dead or wounded
Another officer appears and leads a last, futile charge that ends in the order “Every man for himself”. They cling on to a few German trenches until a counter-attack at 5pm encourages them to leave. One of the men in this bit of fighting is Private Eversmann, who gave us a German perspective during the barrage. His body was never found; his diary was taken from the trenches by a Scotsman and sent back to Blighty.
The position at the end of the day; the Irish have been evicted from Schwaben Redoubt but are holding a few German front-line trenches; the Scots are still clinging on by their fingernails to half a trench on the edge of Leipzig Spur. Nobody’s anywhere near their objectives. I would describe it as complete and total failure, but there is still one more northward jump for us to make. Let’s have the small map again, though.
Serre and Beaumont Hamel
And so we arrive at Serre and Beaumont Hamel. This is where, almost unbelievably, it has been decided that the supporting mines will not be blown at 7:30am, precisely at zero hour, but at 7:20am, ten minutes before the infantry are due to go over the top. And, on top of that, some idiot has told the artillery that the meen will also be going over at 7:20. There will be ten minutes of unmolested silence for the Germans to leave their dugouts and prepare to be attacked, terrible rolling barrage notwithstanding. Private Pearson, 15th West Yorkshires, who is attacking Serre:
Every man climbed out of the trenches at the whistle of the officers and not a man hesitated. But I was lucky. I was in a part of the trench where the parapet had been battered down as Jerry sought for a trench mortar. When I ran up the rise out of the trench I was under the hail of bullets which were whizzing over my head. Most of our fellows were killed kneeling on the parapet. There was nobody coming forward, only one man, the reserves had been shelled in our lines and blown to smithereens.
I noticed higher up the trench one of our chaps laid there with a baulk of timber across his leg, one leg had been cut off—severed. This baulk of timber had cut across his leg and acted as a tourniquet and stopped the bleeding.
Private Glenn of the 12th York & Lancasters was supposed to be in one of the supporting waves.
The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk. It appears they lay down because they’d been shot and either killed or wounded. They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened. You were just trying to find your way in amongst the shell holes. You can imagine walking through shell-pitted ground with holes all over the place, trying to walk like that. You couldn’t even see where you were walking!
When you got to the line you saw that a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones who got through and got as far as the German wire. The machine-gun fire was all trained on our wire. Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.
It is possible that despite this utter ridiculousness, about 200 men may just have broken all the way through, taken a few lucky turns, and then blundered into Serre village itself. It would explain the messages that General Rees, he of the lack of optimism from a few days earlier, was receiving.
An aeroplane reported that my men were in Serre. The corps and the division urged me to support the attack with all the force at my disposal. I was quite sure that we had not got anyone in Serre except a few prisoners, but the 93rd Brigade on my right reported that their left had got on, whilst the 4th Division beyond them again claimed the first four lines of German trenches and were said to be bombing down our way. It was obviously necessary to attempt to get a footing in the German first trenches to assist these two attacks.
The hostile barrage had eased off by now and was no longer formidable, so I ordered two companies of the 13th York and Lancs to make the attempt. I did not know that the German barrage was an observed barrage, but as soon as this fresh attack was launched down came the barrage again.
There are no accounts of what might have happened in Serre. If anyone ever did got in, they just disappeared into the war. At Beaumont Hamel, German observation has prevented anyone digging trenches closer than about 500 yards. There is a general shortage of stories of Beaumont Hamel and the attack on Hawthorn Redoubt, for obvious reasons. The ones we do have are by this point familiar; confusion, barbed wire, shells, machine-guns, hiding in No Man’s Land for hours until darkness. Men going over the top long after it should have been obvious that the attacks should be called off. And death, death, death, death everywhere.
And this is where our correspondent 2nd Lt Malcolm White is, right between the two strong-points, leading the 1st Rifle Brigade over the top like a good junior officer should. The good news is that we have an account, of sorts, of what happened next; although, as you’d expect, it is rather confused and lacking in crunchy detail.
The Battalion went into action in front of Mailly-Maillet. White was hit [presumably by bullet or shrapnel] in advance of his men. His servant, who had followed him in the attack, reached him, and asked if he was badly wounded. He said, “I’m all right; go on.” At that moment a shell burst near them. His servant remembers nothing more till the time when he was in hospital.
The bad news is that it is not from Malcolm White. When the 1st RB drags itself back to the rear and takes a roll call, he will be missing, and reported to his family as such. It can take a month or more for prisoners’ identities to be sent to Britain via the Red Cross, but. He will remain officially missing for about ten months. Then, after the war has finally moved away from Beaumont Hamel and Serre, there will be a pioneer battalion clearing out some disused trenches. The shell took White’s life; however, it did not take his identity disc.
So he has a grave of his own, and he does not appear among the 72,246 names on the British Memorial to the Missing, whose bodies have never been found or identified. The Memorial to the Missing, by the way, is at Thiepval. I hope now it is clear why they put it there.
The General’s view
Generally speaking, ahaha, the easier it was to advance, the easier it was to get information back to the rear (for a given value of “easy”; reports are still taking hours to reach anyone who can pass them back via field-telephone). The moment we get north of Thiepval, we find British command and control once more breaking down almost entirely. General Reed gave us a taste of the picture being painted to the rear. Sometimes there are spurious reports of men in places they never reached. More often, observers are unable to tell the difference (at several thousand feet’s remove) between men who have easily captured a trench, and men who are having a bloody difficult time of it.
And then there are the runners. Signaller Dudley Meneaud-Lissenburg has one more story for us, as he sits in his OP in the old front line in front of the Hawthorn Crater (nee Redoubt). A knot of men has reached a sunken road unhurt. They send a man back to report that it’s completely impossible.
I watched a lone figure, a runner no doubt, coming back towards our lines, dropping every now and then into shell holes for cover. On reaching our barbed wire he was about to jump into the trench when a shell burst at his feet and blew him sky high.
The picture filtering back to General Haig is extremely murky and full of half-truths and exaggerations and the odd piece of completely unrealistic bullshit. He’s got some decisions to make, though; there’s been success in the south and he does know about it. But I’ve talked far too much about this one day; time to see if it can be encouraged towards a conclusion. We’ll go into the BEF’s strategic thinking tomorrow.
There is chaos. Let us try to bring order to it. Here now is the full map at nightfall.
Never mind the north. The north we know about. Look at the south! The south has moved! At its furthest point, this is the biggest advance for the BEF since the Battle of Loos. You’d need a tape measure to tell whether they got further than the French did in some parts of Second Champagne, or in their attack today. And this is why it is wrong and inaccurate and incomplete to speak of the Somme simply in terms of Thiepval, Ovilliers, and Serre. This is even why it is wrong just to say that the BEF has lost near as dammit 20,000 dead and 37,500 more wounded as though it speaks for itself. (The French lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, attacking with much more caution.)
Well, okay. It stands if you just want to step back and think about the July Crisis, and the insane series of diplomatic pratfalls that made this stupid war happen in the first place, and go “it’s all bonkers”. It stands if you want to think of a particularly bloody single day of war. It stands as a profoundly traumatic moment for Britain; the casualty figures exceed those sustained in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean Wars put together. More than half the men who attacked and three-quarters of all the officers are casualties.
And, of course, this was the day that the BEF used a large number of its Pals battalions all at once. Men recruited from the same village, same street, same workplace. They’ve gone over the top together and died together. In a few hours of fighting, the heart has been ripped out of entire communities at once, and they don’t even know it yet. Working-class communities sent to their deaths by, and in the company of, the upper classes. It’s huge and heartbreaking and overwhelming and yet there is more to the story than just that. However callous it may seem, there is still a war tomorrow. We can’t just write it off as senseless butchery.
The BEF has done something positive, for given values of “something” and “positive”. And it won’t be until tomorrow, as the battle begins to take shape, that we can put our fingers on why. Time to put this day in the books and move the hell on. There’s a chance here. A small chance, and one that’ll be very hard to take advantage of. But there is a chance.
I think that’s all for today.
One more thing
There is one more perspective that we now must take advantage of, a question far too often overlooked. What about the Germans? What do they think has just happened to them, in front of them, around them? Due to the way German casualties were reported it’s impossible to know how many there were on the first day. Prisoners are also not included in that total, and there’s been plenty of German prisoners taken, despite the bloodthirsty stories above. Reasonable estimates are in the region of 10,000 to 15,000.
I think the best description of German higher command in the evening is “equally confused, but in a different way to their opponents”. It’s hard to say, but from the reaction it’s very probable that General von Falkenhayn saw this as 1915 all over again; a French attack with a British supporting component, and it’s been launched far to the south of where it should have been. Hold that thought a few days for me. Why are the French attacking when they’re taking a kicking at Verdun? It makes no sense. Perhaps this is just a limited offensive and the BEF is going to do the real attack somewhere else tomorrow, or the day after.
It must have been an extremely odd picture to make sense of. In the north of what appears to be the battle front which appears to be the wrong place, you’ve shot thousands and thousands of enemy troops down in No Man’s Land. In the south, General von Below has been worried enough to commit his three reserve divisions down there, but the picture of where exactly the enemy attack is and what exactly it’s achieved is highly unclear. It’s like trying to repair a burst water main while wearing a blindfold.
Once you get to division level or lower, second and third-hand reports of what was going on seem all very panicky. No orders from on high, and they’ve been blown right out of the First Line. Of course, the Germans aren’t paralysed; officers are encouraged to use their initiative, but that’s not always a good thing. Some have used their initiative to order immediate counter-attacks. Some have used theirs to order a fall-back to the Second Line. This is not going to last for long. However, for the time being, part of von Below’s army is pulling on the same rope from opposite directions.
And that is all.
Henri Desagneaux is very relieved, thank you very much, to be out of the Battle of Verdun.
After being relieved, we are quartered in the same camp where we stopped on the way here. We arrive at 2pm, exhausted. We fall into bed and sleep like brutes.
There is always, always, always something else going on. Fleury is changing hands at Verdun once more. The Sharif of Mecca has just met up with a British artillery battery which promises to turn the tide of the Battle of Mecca. The war continues.
Actions in Progress
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
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