Losses were huge, yet the battle started the process that led to an historic victory for the Britishby Robert Fry / April 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
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…