Why we still don’t understand the Somme

Losses were huge, yet the battle started the process that led to an historic victory for the British

April 11, 2016
British troops moving up to the attack during the Battle of Morval, 25 September 1916.
British troops moving up to the attack during the Battle of Morval, 25 September 1916.
Read more: A drama never surpassed

Last week the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, joined with the Royal British Legion to encourage the nation to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on 1st July. In addition to formal commemoration in state venues like Westminster Abbey, the idea is to hold local vigils to recognise the legacy of the 141-day battle, which took place between July and November 1916. The figures are stupefying: nearly 57,000 British men dead, wounded and missing on the first day and 480,000 lost during the course of the battle, for marginal territorial gains. It was also the event that caused Wilfred Owen shell shock, turned Siegfried Sassoon against the war and inspired David Jones’s epic poem “In Parenthesis”. Its mark is as visible in British 20th-century culture and folklore as in our historiology, perhaps best summed up by Philip Larkin’s line “never such innocence again.” But how well do we understand the Somme's context and the conduct of those who fought in it, buried as it is under a century’s worth of mythology?

A good place to start is the second Chantilly Conference held by the Allied nations in December 1915, where it was decided that France, Britain and Russia would all conduct offensive operations against Germany and Austria in 1916. In the event, Germany beat the allies to the punch and attacked the French army at Verdun in February 1916. This was followed by a Russian offensive in June and the attack on the Somme in July. If ever a battle etched itself on the soul of a nation it was Verdun and France. The declaratory German aim was “to bleed France dry” and, between February and December, they very nearly did.

The Russian operation is known by the name of its commander, Aleksei Brusilov. The eponymous offensive is one of only two battles in the First World War to bear the name of its author, the other being the ineffectual Nivelle Offensive in 1917, which broke the heart of the French army and led to a series of mutinies. In contrast, Brusilov succeeded in making one of the most murderous attacks in military history. Between June and September, the Russians inflicted a barely comprehensible 1,325,000 casualties on the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, fighting across what is now the Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Germans in the West fared little better, with the Somme being described as “the muddy grave of the German army.”

Against this background, it becomes clear that any sense that the British endured a unique horror is quite wrong. That general error is further revealed when British losses throughout the war are compared to the other major combatants. Remarkably, British fatal casualties were only accurately nailed down as late as 1986 when the American social historian, Jay Winter, placed the figure between 772,000 and 772,785. This represented 16 war dead for every 1,000 head of British population. The equivalent figures for Germany and France are 30 and 34, while the luckless Serbs endured 57, or 25 per cent of their adult male population; no Russian record survives. Moreover, by the standards of European warfare, 1914-18 was no aberration to a continent habituated to loss by the Thirty Years’ War (where Germany lost almost half its population of 15m) or the Napoleonic Wars (where half a million French soldiers marched into Russia and died there). Finally, reductions in child mortality and an end to mass emigration to the Dominions had, by the mid 1920s, substantially replaced British war losses.

Something unique—and truly historic—started on 1st July 1916, but it was not the scale of the loss. It was that, for the only time in the modern era, Britain fought their enemy in the main theatre of a major conflict, and won. During the Napoleonic Wars we used insular geography, the Royal Navy and a subsidiary land campaign in Portugal and Spain to avoid directly confronting Napoleon. When Wellington finally faced Napoleon at Waterloo his army had as many Dutch, Belgian and German soldiers as British, and the decisive intervention was made by Marshal Blucher’s Prussians. In the Second World War, Britain’s achievement was to avoid defeat, not gain victory. It was the Russians on the Eastern Front and the Americans in the Pacific that eviscerated the Axis powers.

The start of the Somme is significant because it marks the point at which the British took over the main burden of the war against Germany from an exhausted France, a role we continued to play until the end of the conflict. Indeed, in the titanic battles of the last 100 days of the war, the British army took more ground, German prisoners and military equipment that the French, Belgian and American armies combined. How fascinating that we have spent most of the century that followed luxuriating in a mythology of loss rather than celebrating an epochal victory.

Now read: 1916: A Global History