July 1, 2016

100 years ago today — the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

"The first day on the Somme (1 July) saw a serious defeat for the German Second Army, which was forced out of its first position by the French Sixth Army...."
The attack was made by five divisions of the French Sixth Army either side of the Somme, eleven British divisions of the Fourth Army north of the Somme to Serre and two divisions of the Third Army opposite Gommecourt, against the German Second Army of General Fritz von Below. The German defence south of the Albert–Bapaume road mostly collapsed and the French had "complete success" on both banks of the Somme, as did the British from the army boundary at Maricourt to the Albert–Bapaume road. On the south bank the German defence was made incapable of resisting another attack and a substantial retreat began; on the north bank the abandonment of Fricourt was ordered. The defenders on the commanding ground north of the road inflicted a huge defeat on the British infantry, who had an unprecedented number of casualties. Several truces were negotiated, to recover wounded from no man's land north of the road.
On this one day: "The Fourth Army took 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 men were killed, the French Sixth Army had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army had 10,000–12,000 losses."


Owen said...


damikesc said...

One of the last few major military victories for the French as World War I legitimately seemed to drain their desire to fight.

Owen said...


traditionalguy said...

The British High Command was as stubbornly ignorant then as the Dems in Congress stubbornly are 100 years later that there is a real difference in firepower coming from automatic firing guns and firepower coming from single firing semi autos.

Wilbur said...

Madness ... Madness.

PB said...

A war combining 17th century European military tactics with 20th century weapons.

MadisonMan said...

At that time, my grandfathers were not yet serving. Dad's Dad was finishing up a PhD, and Mom's Dad was only 17. They both ended up in Europe in 1918, Pilot and Ambulance Driver, respectively.

Heartless Aztec said...

My great uncles who served in WWI told me back in the 1970's that they could still hear the stutter of the Maxim machine guns as they sweot the battlefield. Thay also told me of French girls and red wine with a wink. In 1972 I had no idea there was red wine beyond Ripple. Or that stuttering German Maxins were as frightening them as the Viet Cong AK47's were to us.

Balfegor said...

Re: Vance Palmer:

Will they never fade or pass!
The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming
In file through the foul morass,
And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,
And the steel wings drumming.

The hills are bright in the sun:
There's nothing changed or marred in the well-known places;
When work for the day is done
There's talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun
On the old folks' faces.

I have returned to these:
The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing;
But all that my mind sees
Is a quaking bog in a mist - stark, snapped trees,
And the dark Somme flowing

The first day of the Somme cost the British Empire as many men as approximately 60 years of the Iraq War (deaths to date: 4,424). We cannot possibly imagine how terrible a real war would be.

Just an old country lawyer said...

The beginning of the end for Western Civilization. Except for the twenty years post WWII in the US, everything has fallen apart since.

Michael said...

Keep in mind this was just the FIRST day of a 141 day battle.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Numbers like that must produce one hell of an odor.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Yeah sure it's a lot of people, but keep in mind we're only talking about men's bodies, here, not something important like women's privacy rights. Hell, I bet neither side even let openly transgender soldiers serve at all!
Let's remember what's important and worth remembering, ok?

traditionalguy said...

Newt Gingrich likes to tell the story of how his Army officer father took the boys on a tour of that battlefield and the mortuary where a million men killed there for nothing are under the ground.

It makes one take politics seriously.

LYNNDH said...

This account certainly makes it seem that the Germans, with lighter losses were the losers. It took until Nov for the Germans to pull back 25 miles and dig in again. The Germans counterattacked and often pushed the British and French back to their original positions. Remember too that at the time this attack started the French had been fighting several months at Verdun at which the French losses were also enormous.
A friend and I are going on a tour in Sept/Oct that will start in Brussels and end at Verdun, visiting all the major battlefields. And article I just read noted that it will take 500 yrs to clear the battlefield at The Somme of all the unexploded ordinance.

Roughcoat said...

where a million men killed there for nothing are under the ground.

They weren't killed for nothing. That's a cliche, and a myth. On they Allied side, they were killed while fighting to prevent Germany from conquering France and establishing German hegemony over the continent. A very worthwhile cause indeed, especially if you know anything about German plans for France and the rest of Western Europe (hint: their plans weren't too much different from those the Nazis formulated and partially carried out).

They also died to preserve national honor, which had been put under threat by German aggression. Germany had invaded France and seized a large portion of French territory. Would you have had the French acquiesce passively to German conquest? As for the British--they were allies of the French and were honor-bound to come to their aid.

Roughcoat said...

One of the last few major military victories for the French as World War I legitimately seemed to drain their desire to fight.

Also a myth, and a canard. France more than any other Allied nation was responsible for the defeat of Germany. You don't know this because probably because you've only read Anglophone histories of the war, which routinely and ignorantly denigrate or downplay France's achievements.

Graham Powell said...

The Somme was one of he battles John Keegan analyzed in THE FACE OF BATTLE. From his descriptions it sounds pretty clear that no one knew the losses had been so high until the next day. The field was chaotic and communications was practically non-existent.

Also, this is one of the reasons WWI was viewed as worse than WWII, despite the fact the millions more were killed in the second war: the utter futility of the Western Front. Nations not really that different from each other killing millions of their sons for a few square miles of land. Not just a disaster, either, but one that could have been averted.

madAsHell said...

that it will take 500 yrs to clear the battlefield

Every 3 to 6 months, you read about another unexploded WWII bomb found in a German city. They are usually found during construction excavation. Surprisingly, I've never read about fatalities during the discovery process.

Roughcoat said...

Wikipedia is wrong, grossly so. The first day on the Somme was in fact a terrible setback for the Allies, particularly for the British, who suffered their greatest single-day defeat and losses in their history: c. 60,000 casualties, of which c. 20,000 (most of them new-in-service, constituents of the so-called Kitchener Army)were KIA. Think about that for a moment: 20,000 young men killed in the space of a few hours. Because the recruitment of the Kitchener Army was largely territorial-based, entire English villages lost all or nearly all of their young men that day. A tour of cemeteries in remote English villages will often reveal many headstones with the 1 June 1916 inscribed as the day of death.

The battle of the Somme eventually ended as a stalemate, more over less, hence a tactical victory (more or less) for the Germans. However, it has been argued (and I subscribe to this argument) that the damaged the German army beyond repair. Hence it must be considered a strategic victory for the allies. Just as important, it took pressure off the French who were fighting desperately (and bravely and fiercely) to beat back the Germans at Verdun. If Verdun had fallen, Germany would have won the war. So the sacrifices made by the Allies on the Somme were not in vain: rather, they were vital to achieving victory over Germany.

mikee said...

Ulysses S Grant learned at Cold Harbor, and regretted the lesson the rest of his life, even in his autobiography, that no amount of artillery could damage well-entrenched troops enough to prevent slaughter of a direct assault by massed charges of attackers. And that was against defending troops firing only single shot, muzzle loading rifles and canons.

Why this lesson, learned at great cost several times in the US Civil War and again in Europe before The Great War, was not remembered during WW I is a mystery to me.

Roughcoat said...

the utter futility of the Western Front.

The Allied effort was not futile. The Allies won the war, remember? They smashed the formidable German Army and brought down the German polity--a necessary and laudable achievement, given Germany's horrific plans for Europe. The fighting on the Western Front, from the standpoint of the Allies, was certainly difficult but not futile.

Some of you here are recycling cliches, received wisdom--bad/incorrect history--about the war. They are all of piece, created and propagated by a rather small coterie of disaffected leftwing English public school intellectuals (including a number of poets and other writers)in the 1920s and 1930s. Since then this bad history has been accepted as fact and perpetrated by the follow-on generations of scholars.

Etienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

As it eventually turned out, Germany achieved dominance in Europe and Great Britain lost its empire. It was all for nothing. The war to end all peace.

Marc said...

Today's a good day to re-read the English poet David Jones's In Parenthesis. (Iain Bell's new opera based on it is streamed from the Welsh National Opera mid-afternoon Pacific time, by the way.) Requiescant in pace.

Roughcoat said...

It was all for nothing.

The exercise of German economic/political power in the first quarter of the 21st Century in Europe is a far cry from Germany's plans for the effective subjugation of Europe in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Those plans entailed, even before the outbreak of war in August 1914, policies of population engineering that bordered on (and would have surely crossed over into) the realm of genocide and enslavement. Germany hegemony would have been with enforced with military power and that enforcement would have been brutal and cruel as circumstances warranted. The Germans wanted to be Europe's undisputed hegemon and their hegemonic despotism would have surely evolved rather quickly into a totalitarian system. A foretaste of what was to come was put on display during the march of the German Army through Belgium in August 1914 saw the systematic application of the German military's hideously cruel policy of Schrecklicheit ("frightfulness"). This pre-planned policy manifested as mass executions of civilians, the burning and looting of towns and villages, and the ravaging of the countryside. There is no reason or any indication on the part of the Germans that they would have moderated this policy had they succeeded in conquering all of Metropolitan France and, subsequently, the rest of Europe. German plans for Russia and, wouldn't you know, the Jews, were not so very different from those manifested in the Second World War.

This is what the Allies prevented by going to war with and defeating Germany in the Great War. It was not all for nothing.

khesanh0802 said...

@Roughcoat A recommended reading list? Thanks.

Roughcoat said...

The following is a excerpted from an article I wrote and published on the topic under discussion here:

World War I happened because Germany wanted to dominate Europe and be Europe's hegemon and, ultimately, a world power--the world power. Period. Full stop. Germany was willing to go to war to achieve these goals. Germany's plans for the conquered nations of Europe (especially France, Belgium, and Russia) make for hair-raising reading. A German-occuppied Europe in 1915 (had Germany defeated France, Britain, and Russia) would have been every inch as murderous as the Nazi-occupied Europe envisioned by Adolf Hitler.

The First World War was not a tragedy in the strict Classical Greek definition of what constitutes and defines tragedy: it was not a conflict brought about by a series of accidents, mistakes, and blunders. To adopt this view is to buy in to the revisionist history promulgated by, among others, the left-leaning upper classes of Britain and their counterparts in other countries during the interwar period--all that lachrymose "Lost Generation" nonsense.

World War I was neither insane not stupid; far from it. It was a struggle for survival by a coalition of European nations against German aggression and the imposition of German tyranny that would have ensued in the event of a German victory. It was worth fighting: it needed to be fought: there was nothing insane or stupid about the motivations that drove the Allies to fight.

If there is a tragedy in all this it is that the war ended too soon. In fact the Americans had planned on leading a great 1919 offensive into the heart of Germany and the American Expeditionary Forces were expected to achieve a decision in this final phase of the war by direct military action. The Allies should have invaded Germany at the end of 1918 or early 1919 to compel an unconditional surrrender. Germany should have been ocuppied and partitioned between the U.S., Britain, France, and the re-established sovereign nation of Poland. Had the allies done so the world would have been spared incalculable misery in the decades that followed.

The British were right to continue the blockade in the period immediately following the Armistice because the Allies were still technically in a state of war with Germany and the Germans were, quite cynically, playing for time in order to leverage their position in the peace talks. Whether "hundreds of thousands" of Germans "died of starvation" as a direct result of the naval blockade is one of those oft-repeated datum points concerning that period that has never been substantiated--probably because it cannot be verified, probably because it either isn't true or is a gross exaggeration of what actually transpired. Many people died all over the world in the years 1918-1920 due to the Spanish Influenza that was ravaging the planet and it is simply impossible to separate out those in Germany who died as a direct result of the blockade and those who died of the flu. It is useful in this regard to note that some 625,000 Americans died of the flu not because they were malnourished due to a British naval blockade but because they had the misfortune to fall victim to one of the worst pandemics in recorded history. In the event it bears mentioning that the German leadership in 1919 could have spared their people much suffering by admitting and accepting defeat in a war that they had in fact lost on the battlefield.

William said...

There's nothing much to recommend the Junkers, but the Nazis were worse. The Germans didn't repudiate Prussian militarism until after the defeat of WWII. The WWI defeat exacerbated the militarism in Germany.....The Germans defeated the French in Franco-Prussian War. That defeat cost France far less than its victory in WWI........The Germans committed a number of atrocities during their occupation of Belgium, but nothing compared to the horrendous atrocities committed by Belgium during its occupation of the Congo........Bolshevism in Russia. Fascism in Italy. Naziism in Germany. Entropy in France and England. Such were the laurels of victory.

William said...

The French generals didn't want to end the war with an Armistice. They wanted to push on and hold a victory parade in the streets of Berlin. Such a strategy would have cost tens of thousands more casualties. The French generals would have been remembered as butchers, and the world would have been spared WWII....Conterfactuals can dirive you crazy.

Roughcoat said...

@Roughcoat A recommended reading list? Thanks.

Oh, golly, that's a tall order.

Suggest you start with Fritz Fischer's indispensable (albeit controversial) "Germany's Aims in the First World War (1967)."

Read the Wikipedia entry on Fritz Fischer--bearing in mind that it is Wikipedia, with all that implies.

Also, if you can find it, read "Old Knowledge and New Research: A Summary of the Conference on the Fischer Controversy 50 Years On", by Jonathan Steinberg in the Journal of Contemporary History (April 2013).

Read anything on Germany's "Septemberprogramm" starting with the short Wikipedia entry on the subject.

The literature on operations and tactics is vast. But but Bob Doughty's work on the French Army is especially worth checking out. Doughty is the preeminent and most accomplished Anglophone scholar on the French Army.

Michael K said...

"The first day on the Somme was in fact a terrible setback for the Allies, particularly for the British, who suffered their greatest single-day defeat and losses in their history:"

I have a chapter in my medical history book on this battle. The British medical corps did not believe that transfusion was helpful in "shell shock" until Americans and Canadians came over in 1916 and began using transfusion on wounded soldiers. Edward Archibald was a young Canadian surgeon who began to understand that wound shock was from blood loss. It seems archaic to us but casualties were treated with hot water bottles for shock until Archibald, who had spent time with George Crile, at Cleveland Clinic and learned about blood loss in shock, arrived in France and realized the problem. It was after the Battle of the Somme that the British Medical Journal finally changed the recommended treat of wound shock from saline rectal infusion to transfusion with blood. Part of the problem was understanding the use of intravenous fluids.

The deaths at the Somme convinced the young British surgeons in the "Casualty Clearing Stations" that shock was caused by bleeding.

Interestingly, Wiki, in Archibald's bio, completely ignores his huge contribution to military medicine.

MadisonMan said...

One of the last few major military victories for the French

Did you mean French military defeats?

Recalling an excellent google bomb from long ago.

eric said...

If only they would have allowed transexuals in their military, they would have won!

Roughcoat said...

Conterfactuals can dirive you crazy.

Indeed. But they are necessary -- foundational, even -- to practicing historical analysis and interpretation.

I would argue -- in fact, I have argued -- that an Allied invasion of Germany would have been handily accomplished, without too much bloodshed. The German Army in November 1918 was finished -- kaput, if you will. It could barely feed itself, morale was bottoming out, and the sentiment among the troops was that the war was effectively over. The troops just wanted to go home. Germany was starving and it no longer had the material means (munitions, weapons, etc) to fight the war on the vast scale the Allies had achieved (and which was growing). German industry was grinding to a virtual standstill and the economy was collapsing. Most importantly, Germany had run out of young men to fight the war.

The Dolchstoßlegende, "stab-in-the-back myth," propagated by Ludendorff and like-minded elements in the upper echelons of the German military and society (and subsequently endorsed and amplified by the Nazis) was just that: a myth. The German Army was, after November 1918, incapable of meaningful military action.

My grandfather served in Germany in the period immediately after the Armistice: he was involved in the relief effort to rebuild Germany. He kept detailed and extensive journals of his experiences, and his entries describe a nation--and a people--shattered by the war.

William said...

In WWII, Eisenhower stepped aside and kindly allowed the Russians the glory of conquering Berlin. The Russians, if I remember correctly, lost one hundred thousand lives in that campaign. My guess is that there would have been just as spirited a defense in WWI..........Ludendorff had five stepchildren whom he loved dearly. He lost all five of them during the war. The last one died in aerial combat. That son had been severely wounded previously in ground combat. Ludendorff pulled strings and allowed him to become a pilot. That son was subsequently shot down and killed thanks to Ludendorff's efforts on his behalf........Ludendorff would sometimes sit at his desk and start sobbing for hours at a time. Then he would pull himself together and plan the logistics of the next great offensive. I suppose you could say that he showed courage and determination. I suppose you could say the same thing about Foch and Haig, but my visceral reaction is what god damned idiots they all were.

ngtrains said...

Tis nice to have a discussion without the ... "your'e stupid' "No you are really ignorant " confrontations.

I know more about WW II that WW I, but this is good information.

Roughcoat said...

My guess is that there would have been just as spirited a defense in WWI.

No, and for reasons stated/alluded to in my post above. Also in this regard it is important to grasp that by November 1918 the Allied armies were highly mobile and capable of the fluid operations that had eluded them previously. Trench warfare was over, replaced by a war of operational movement. By contrast the Germans had no more more horses, few vehicles, no gasoline to run the vehicles. The Allies possessed these assets in vast quantities. Plus they had huge airpower assets (enough to plan and execute a strategic bombing campaign) and stupendous quantities of light, medium, and heavy artillery. They had massed their tanks in operational-level were prepared to conduct fast, blitzkrieg-style deep-battle/deep-operations advances and maneuvers. The foot-bound, starving, material-bereft German formations that still existed and which retained some semblance of cohesion wouldn't have stood a chance against them. The result would have resembled Wehrmacht operations in the East in the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941: the swift and systematic encirclement and destruction of large troops formations. Even if the Germans had the spirit to continue the fight (but they didn't) they couldn't have continued fighting.

Roughcoat said...

Correction, above: "They had massed their tanks by the thousands in large operational-level formations and were prepared...."

damikesc said...

France more than any other Allied nation was responsible for the defeat of Germany. You don't know this because probably because you've only read Anglophone histories of the war, which routinely and ignorantly denigrate or downplay France's achievements.

Referring to the lead-up to World War II where the French very much had zero stomach left in them to fight. They fought courageously in WW I and were so terrified of a repeat that they refused to do anything in World War II. Even when facing a token German force while Germany was attacking Poland, France moved about 15 miles into Germany...and then quickly and happily retreated. They could've stopped Hitler with virtually no loss of life for years and were too scared to do so.

And now we've seen Germany so cowed by their history that they are willingly committing suicide while STILL trying to control Europe.

Comanche Voter said...

Well it would have been nice if a certain little Austrian corporal had died in a trench somewhere forty miles west of Berlin in February 1919. Might have spared us WW II.

Ropughcoat may contradict me--and if I'm wrong, go right ahead. But a good bit of the French Army mutinied in 1917. I think that, in their own way, the French Army was almost as worn out as was the German army in 1918. The tipping point was the possible infusion of large numbers of American troops starting from May or June 1918 on.

But it would have been a good thing if more young German soldiers had had an opportunity to die protecting the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their Gods in say Brandenburg in 1919.

Sammy Finkelman said...

I don;t knowtoo much about he battles of World War I (or Napoleonor the U.s. Cvil War)

I think I know the important developments - Battle of teh Marne, western front, Gallipoli, and teh name Verdun unrestriced submarine warfare, the 1918 German offensive - maybe more things tahn I think I know.

It got overshadowed by World War II, and wasm't written or didn't become famous by 1938 didn't last in memory. How many more detauls dowe dtill hear and read about World War II?

ngtrains said...

Visit the small towns in France - there are monuments listing the deaths in WW i. They had far fewer deaths listed for WW II probably because in the 20 years since that Armistice, they are not that many boys to fight.

Roughcoat said...

The French Army did mutiny in 1917. The reason not really war-weariness on the part of the French rank-and-file but rather disgust over the incompetence of their top commanders, especially Nivelle. Petain was brought in to redress the situation and to restore order and morale and he succeeded at all these tasks. His success was due in no small measure to the resilience and fighting spirit of the French poilus. French soldiers did not want to quit the war but rather wanted to stop the profligate wastage of their lives by incompetent commanders. They did not want to end the war, they wanted to win it--and they saw, correctly, that they were not going to win it with their present leadership.

Theirs was a pro-war mutiny. This is a very important point to grasp. French soldiers were committed to driving the Boche from French soil and to defeating Germany but they were angry at their military leaders for failing to craft a war-winning strategy and for hurling them into futile battles in which so many of them were killed for little or no gain. Under Petain, and Foch, the French Army quickly recovered and by 1918 it was once again a superior fighting force, as it had been in 1914 when it defeated the almost inconceivably powerful German Army in the Battle of the Marne, one of the most important battles in human history. In 1918 the French Army was measurably superior to the German Army: its artillery was superior; it had developed a highly effective (and less costly, in terms of casualties) battlefield tactical doctrine; and it was making excellent use of tanks in large combined armed formations. Etc.

The introduction of the American Expeditionary Forces to the Western Front (and Italian) battlefields was vital to the success of the Allied war effort, but not for the reasons usually assumed. Americans did not "win the war" for the Allies but they did make it possible for the Allies to win the war.

It is worth noting that the French "schooled" American doughboys in the tactics and methodologies of Western Front warfare (mobile as well as trench) and provided the American armies with the bulk of their arms and equipment. Without the French and the wisdom and experience battle-hardened French veterans imparted to their students, the Americans would not have succeeded on the battlefield; without the Americans succeeding on the battlefields the Allies would not have won the war.

And, too, if the war had continued into 1919, as was expected (and as it should have) America would have assumed the burden of the fighting.

Roughcoat said...

The tipping point was the possible infusion of large numbers of American troops starting from May or June 1918 on.

American ground forces began arriving and taking part in battle on the Western Front as early as October 1917 but the AEF didn't begin major big-unit operations until May 1918, when American forces (Army and Marines) played an important role in halting the German Spring Offensives and breaking the offensive capabilities of the German Army. It is interesting to note that at first the Americans, enthusiastic but inexperienced, committed all the mistakes of Western Front warfare that their Allies had committed in the three years previous. They suffered horrendous casualties as a result. But the French schooled them relentlessly and wisely and helped to forge the American army into a formidable fighting force capable of fighting the Germans on equal terms and defeating them.

Anonymous said...

I read yesterday, forget where, that JRR Tolkien began notes for Lord of the Rings during that battle.

Porchlight said...

Gettysburg also began on July 1.

Etienne said...

One of the things that set the Germans off, was that they had to pay in coal to the French after the war. Finally in 1923 they said bullshit, we aren't giving you any more coal, because we are broke.

So the French invaded the Ruhr. For two years they took the coal by force.

Hitler went to prison after this invasion and began writing a book where he talks about this extensively. He was outraged at his government.

Course, he blamed the Jews and the immigrants.

Michael K said...

The introduction of the American Expeditionary Forces to the Western Front (and Italian) battlefields was vital to the success of the Allied war effort, but not for the reasons usually assumed.

The presence of the Americans was proof that Germany could not match the Allies in 1919.

The unrestricted submarine war was the worst blunder.

The tank was really the war winner. Trenches had made the defense supreme as they were in the American Civil War. Grant could not get through them in front of Richmond. Sherman gave Johnston no time to set up a trench defense.

Comanche Voter said...

RoughCoat, I'd really like to hear your views on Bernard Law Montgomery and his generalship in Northwest Europe in 1944 and 1945. Aside from his ego and his capability of being a monumental pain the in the posterior, he was entrusted with what represented Britain's last remaining army. So he had to be careful about how he spent those men's lives.

OTOH the American Army was in a bit better shape, but by Fwebruary 45 it had used up the last of the infantry divisions it had prepared for the war. Certainly there was sufficient manpower reserves at home to train new units--but that training cycle would take time.

And I agree--it's nice to have a civil discussion where no one accepts that the presumed deadly retort and overwhelming answer is "you're too stupid to understand".

I'll look up Robert (bob?) Doughty's books on the French Army. I'm afraid that I still have a positive enough animus against Le Grand Fromage Charles De Gaulle (and maybe a wee bit of resentment of Napoleon Bonaparte) to fully love the French Army. But if Doughty has something worthwhile to say, well then I'll read him.