Friday, July 01, 2016

One hundred years ago today...

At 7:30 AM on this morning in 1916, the fire of over fifteen hundred British artillery pieces shifted from the targets they had been pounding for eight days straight. Eleven entire British divisions clambered out of their trenches and, following orders not to run or become disorganized, started walking forward across No Man's Land. Huddled 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 heavy machine guns up stairways and ladders to firing embrasures, and for the next several 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. Barbed wire entanglements had not been cut by the bombardment as expected. 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 abattoir. 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."

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