Mud and blood. Uncaring general’s edging their drinks cabinets forwards at a snail’s pace. Thousands of young British men forced to walk briskly into a hail of German machine gun bullets. The Battle of the Somme is a prime example of history become myth; a microcosm of the modern British understanding of the First World War. A complex passage of history condensed into easy to digest soundbites; a gruelling 5-month battle defined by a single day.
Yes, the Battle of the Somme in 1916 was indeed a truly horrendous episode in a truly horrendous war, yet its importance in the wider aspect of the First World War is underappreciated and misunderstood in modern British popular memory and culture. Futile is the underpinning word used to define the battles of the First World War, with much of popular understanding coming from the words of the war poets and the rhetoric of the 1960s. Multiple academics have published works on this topic, so this is not to say that the Battle of the Somme can be regarded as a forgotten piece of history, rather an overlooked area of the First World War that must be brought to the forefront of the modern British understanding of the conflict. The truth of the Battle of the Somme is remembered by many, but not nearly enough.
This series of articles will present a brief overview of the Battle of the Somme, discuss and debunk some of the prevalent myths regarding it, and examine some examples of these ‘myth-conceptions’ as showcased in popular culture.
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In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, the Allied war strategy for the following year was conceived; through simultaneous offensives on the Eastern, Western and Italian Fronts the Central Powers were to be defeated. By synchronising offensives, the Allies hoped to starve their enemies of reinforcements along such a wide frontline of active battle. Britain and France were to co-operate where their lines met, along the River Somme. Sir Douglas Haig, the newly appointed Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, would have preferred a British attack to be made north in Flanders, targeting the German U-boat bases along the Belgian coast, but conceded to the French wishes in February 1916.
The following week, on February 21st, the Germans unleashed hell upon the French fortress city of Verdun, intending to split the British and French by the end of the year, correctly assuming that if they were to survive beyond that point their eventual materiel superiority would spell for the Allies an inevitable victory. Verdun was chosen as the target of the attacks as its symbolic importance to the French meant they would be unwilling to let it fall, feeding their soldiers into the German meat grinder. Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of German General Staff, is famously quoted as having been determined to “bleed France white” through the sustained attack on Verdun, hoping to launch another offensive against the British in the north later in the year to shatter the Franco-British entente altogether.
It was now paramount for a new offensive to be launched to draw German reserves away from the Battle of Verdun, in order to relieve pressure on the French forces fighting there. This duty fell to the British, who were to now fight on the Somme with a substantially reduced allied French contingent focused to the extreme south of the battlefield. The bulk of the British force was made up of volunteers taken from the Territorials and Kitchener’s Armies of 1914, virtually inexperienced soldiers facing their first real test of the war. Haig was all too aware of this, and wanted to postpone the battle for as long as possible. In his second despatch, written after the end of the Battle of the Somme on 23rd December, 1916, Haig described the situation with which he was faced beforehand;
Subject to the necessity of commencing operations before the summer was too far advanced, and with due regard to the general situation, I desired to postpone my attack as long as possible. The British Armies were growing in numbers and the supply of munitions was steadily increasing. Moreover a very large proportion of the officers and men under my command were still far from being fully trained, and the longer the attack could be deferred the more efficient they would become. On the other hand the Germans were continuing to press their attacks at Verdun, and both there and on the Italian front, where the Austrian offensive was gaining ground, it was evident that the strain might become too great to be borne unless timely action were taken to relieve it.
The British attack was therefore to take place on 29th June 1916, and was to be built on the bedrock of a 5-day sustained artillery bombardment on the German lines, aiming to obliterate their defences. Wet weather meant the bombardment was extended to 7 days, and the date of the attack postponed until 1st July. Once the bombardment was complete, the infantry would be tasked with mopping up duties; their aim was to march into the now empty German trenches and turn them around. To do this the British soldiers were loaded with extra pieces of kit, such as entrenching tools and sandbags, that were necessary to repurpose the captured enemy defence lines.
The Germans, in contrast, were also fighting on the Eastern Front against the Russians, and simply did not have the man power to mount sustained attacks. Therefore, they were committed to a policy of ‘unyielding defence.’ Barbed wire belts were increased in size and density, whilst extra trenches were dug, increasing their number from one line to three, with defensive points of significance being reinforced with concrete. With such a formidably fortified defence the German High Command welcomed the oncoming British 4th and French 6th armies, confident they would be repelled with ease. What the Germans were not counting on, however, was the sheer scale and ferocity of the oncoming attack; much like at Verdun, the Battle of the Somme became a materialschlacht, a phrase literally meaning a war of material, meaning the Germans would have to ensure their frontlines were substantially supplied if they were to have any hope of repelling the Allied attack.