Saturday, July 01, 2006

Today in history: 21,392.


At 7:30 AM on this morning in 1916, the fire of over fifteen hundred British artillery pieces shifted from the ground they had been pounding for eight days straight. Eleven British divisions clambered out of their trenches and, following orders not to run or become disorganized, started walking forward across No Man's Land. Huddling in their bunkers where they had been pounded with almost two million artillery shells for over a week, the German troops knew exactly what that silence meant. They dragged their machineguns up stairways and ladders to firing embrasures, and for the next hours, a thirteen-mile stretch of French countryside became a scene more grotesque than anything Heironymus Bosch had ever painted.

"We were surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before. The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started to fire, we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn't have to aim, we just fired into them." -A German machine gunner
In minutes Haig's planned "Big Push" blew apart in a torrent of Maxim bullets. Wire had not been cut by the bombardment. A British mine that had been dug under the German trenches detonated late, killing British troops that had already advanced that far. The methodical pace and four rank attack, deemed necessary by Haig and his staff due to their professional skepticism regarding the soldiering qualities of the new "Kitchener's Army", turned the mud in front of the German positions into an abbatoir. The British 8th Division, attacking near Ovillers, started with 300 officers and 8,500 other ranks. After two hours, it had been reduced to 82 officers and only 3,226 enlisted. The slaughter was similar all up and down the front. The only gains were made in sectors where subordinates had ignored the plan, either by having their units lie belly-down in No Man's Land before the attack, or ordering them to charge at a run rather than stroll at trenches that were supposedly devoid of life due to the bombardment.

When the sun set on that first day of what history remembers as the Battle of The Somme, the British army had suffered almost sixty thousand casualties, 21,392 of which were dead or missing. A French artillery observer, watching the attack, turned and commented to his British liaison, echoing the same words spoken in the Crimea half a century earlier: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

8 comments:

Rustmeister said...

"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

Does that mean "Time to surrender now." ?

Anonymous said...

"It's magnificent, but it isn't war."

Zendo Deb said...

The British have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory....

Marko said...

It's somewhat puzzling to see that Haig is now considered a hero and a capable commander by many modern-day British military historians.

Personally, I think he was the best field marshal the Germans had.

BobG said...

Actually, when you think about it, the British should have been able to kick our butts during the Revolution; by the standards at that time they were a superior force. We just happpened to adapt our tactics better, instead of using conventional European tactics.

Lizard said...

A wonderfully sardonic look at World War I and its suicidal strategies can be found in the British comedy "Black Adder Goes Forth". It is, I suppose, an interesting and sad fact that the actual war was, in many ways, more ridiculous than a satirical comedy about it.

Perry de Havilland said...

"We just happpened to adapt our tactics better, instead of using conventional European tactics."

Not really. The Americans won by learning how to do things conventionally. Contrary to the popular view the American War of Independence being won by riflemen hiding behind trees, the war was won by increasingly well trained blue-coats standing in lines with muskets.

I have always thought the notion that the war was won by unconventional tactics sells hard work and valour of the Continental Army short because they learned to do things exactly the same way the British did and then beat them at their own game due to determination, the timely intervention of the French Navy and (above all) Washington's superior strategic understanding of what needed to be done.

reflectoscope said...

There exists a book entitled, "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence," and is recommended reading for pretty much everyone. Military, what, everyone? Yes, for the same reason that "The Art of War" is universally relevant.