90 years ago today officer’s whistles blown in Thiepval, to signal the start of the Battle of the Somme. By the end of the day over 19000 British soldiers lay dead, - the Army's worst ever losses in a single day. By the end of the campaign in November over a million Allied and German soldiers were killed or wounded.
Prince Charles is attending events commemorating the anniversary today. He will meet Britain's oldest war veteran, 110-year-old Henry Allingham
who served in the Royal Naval Air Service and RAF in World War I, will meet the Prince of Wales at the commemorations. There are now no known surviving UK veterans of the Somme trenches.
The Princess Royal, who is Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, will attend a ceremony at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme. The Newfoundland Regiment sent 22 officers and around 758 other ranks over the top on 1 July - all the officers and around 658 other ranks died. Meanwhile, the Duke of Gloucester, who is honorary president of the Somme Association, will be at "Ulster Tower", the oldest official memorial on the western front dedicated to the 36 (Ulster) Division and other Irish soldiers.
The prime objective of the Somme offensive was to storm and capture the German lines. Allied forces would then pour through the breach, roll up the German line and finish the war. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig threw 14 divisions at the German lines but no breakthrough was made. The, campaign continued for the next four months ending on 18 November 1916, when the 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont Hamel - an objective for the first day of the offensive. Although British and Empires force suffered over 400,000 casualties during the campaign (in addition there were over 200,000 French losses) German losses were even heavier and it is still regarded as a major defeat in Germany.
Amazingly the Somme campaign was largely forgotten until its 50th anniversary in 1966 – Until then Ypres was the name became synonymous with Great War slaughter. This changed when the Times ran a series of features for the Somme anniversary. This changed
Historians immediately concentrated on the quality of British generalship. The view that British soldiers were “lions” led by “donkeys” (as typified by General Melchett in Blackadder goes Forth) originated in the 1960s and may have been as much a reaction to Vietnam as serious historical thought. Currently the general view is that Somme campaign was part of a dreadful learning curve without which the decisive victories of 1918 could not have happened. It should be noted that although their losses were lower than more junior ranks around 0ne British general in ten was killed leading their troops in WWI including three during the first days of the Somme campaign.
The Somme generated an appalling loss of life for little immediate gain. However, the sacrifice of so many men was not in vain. After this the idea of the “big push” was put aside in favour of a more achievable and less bloody “bite and hold” approach. Even so one cannot but meditate upon the carnage of one day 90 years ago and wonder if it was worth the cost.
BBC reports here and here
Battle of the Somme