Somme at 100

With a blow of the whistles at 7:30am on July 1, 1916, tens of thousands of British troops went over the top and advanced on German lines in positions abutting the River Somme in France.

In the belief that more than 1.5 million artillery shells over a week-long bombardment would weaken the enemy, many were ordered to walk slowly towards the lines.

It is a hell and shells up into it all day and night.
– Aubrey Wiltshire of the Australian Imperial Force

It has since been calculated it took about two minutes for a machine gunner on the German lines to emerge from their heavy bunkers, to set up, and to ready a rain of hellfire on the approaching human wall.

What happened in the first 24 hours on the Somme’s front lines 100 years ago was aptly described by serviceman JRR Tolkien as “animal horror”. The day is without peer in terms of casualties to British forces in all of history.

“One can hardly take it all in,” says author Anne Powell. Yet we try.

Zero hour

When Anne Powell accompanied her British naval husband to reside at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Brussels in the 1970s, “the First World War for me was a vague jumble of dates,” she says from her home in Portsmouth.

“Highlighted, however, by the knowledge that my grandfather, a Boer War hero, had died commanding his battalion at the battle of the Somme.”

So began Mrs Powell’s 40-year relationship with detailing the first-hand recollections of WWI servicemen and women.

“I am not a war historian,” says the author of A Deep Cry and The Fierce Light. But neither are the millions who pore over the meticulously-kept war records of the era.

In her biographical collections, Mrs Powell’s focus is on the individual stories of WWI soldier poets. In the book A Deep Cry, all had died on the battlefield.

A Deep Cry documents the final moments and words of no less than seven soldier poets killed on July 1.

“I got a feeling each time we went to the cemeteries, where we went so many times in the 1970s, and you saw all those rows of headstones. Absolutely identical headstones,” she said.

“I thought, ‘this is what’s important. If I can gather up even one life from all of these, that’s important’.

It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further.
– Canadian Divisional Commanders’ report of the July 1 advance

It is because one can hardly take it all in at a simple glance at the numbers of Somme casualties.

By the numbers
57,470
British and allied casualties on the first day, July 1, greater than the total of the Crimean, Boer and Korean wars combined.
19,240
British and allied troops killed on the first day.
141
Days duration of the offensive July 1 – November 18, 1916.
620,000
British, French and allied casualties by the end of the offensive.
500,000
German and central powers’ casualties by the end of the offensive.
10 to 11
Kilometres the German lines were pushed forward.

Let alone try to visualise a battlefield with the nearly 65,000 dead and wounded, including the allied French and the 6,200 German casualties, of July 1.

“In one part of the UK, in Northern Ireland, the Somme has an even more important place in public memory,” says Richard Grayson, professor of 20th Century History at the University of London.

“Because of the role of the 36th Ulster Division on July 1 it’s a key reference point for Ulster’s Protestant-unionist-loyalist identity.”

On that first day the Ulstermen at one point moved forward a full 1,600 metres, with Canada’s Newfoundlanders on one flank.

For that short-lived gain the Ulstermen suffered over 4,900 casualties.

Their neighbours, the Canadian Newfoundland Regiment Battalion, sent 880 into battle on that day. Just 68 were available at roll call the next day.

It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.
– Captain Robert Graves on the battle for Mametz Wood

Just as Gallipoli had formed some semblance of identity for Australia, so too did great loss at the Somme embolden other states of the British Empire.

“I knew a fair bit about particularly that first day, and the consternation and disruption it caused back in England and back in Australia,” says Ben Quilty, a former official war artist commissioned by the Australian War Memorial.

“Questions were immediately asked of the British officers that sent these young men to their deaths.”

The earth would have been rumbling. The constant sound that would have gone on for days and days.
– Ben Quilty, on Arthur Streeton painting a battle on the Somme

The artist’s impression

Arthur Streeton’s brief as official war artist, to provide an artist’s impression of war, has changed very little in the century since he founded the tenure.

“Mine was very much about sitting down with young men and women fighting in Afghanistan and learning from them about their experience,” Mr Quilty says.

“What hasn’t changed is the fact that those young men that did survive the battle of the Somme really didn’t speak about their service either, often because it was too brutal to relate.”

By the numbers
23,000
Australian casualties.
6,600
Australians killed.
42
Days duration of their first deployment on the Somme July – September, 1916.

The Australians entered the battle at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm on July 23, where it was as brutal as any other time of the campaign.

In the first 12 days, the Australian casualties were already exceeding 7,000.

Upon being relieved of their station in early September a New Zealand contingent took up the Australians’ position, forging their own identity and ANZAC legend.

So it was that at the beginning of Streeton’s tenure in 1918 he demanded to return to document the war’s final stages.

“The Streeton works of the battle of the Somme are some of the most beautiful and sombre paintings that I’ve ever seen,” Mr Quilty says.

“There’s one in the collection of the War Memorial that shows this very beautiful, serene landscape, but the entire horizon is dotted with flames and flashes and puffs of smoke.

“You can sense in that painting the horrendous piece of human history that was unfolding before him.”

Lt Adrian Consett Stephen

“I must tell you about my Australian,” Anne Powell says, referring to one of the soldier poets in her book The Fierce Light.

Mrs Powell’s ‘Australian’, Lt Adrian Consett Stephen, was the writer of short plays, the editor of two university magazines, and was a member of the University of Sydney Drama Society.

An artilleryman, he also reported from the Somme for the Sydney Morning Herald and across the Western Front. Lt Stephen died there in 1918.

“This bit’s important,” Mrs Powell says, and reads from his account:

The battle was significant, not so much for the ground gained, as for the sudden appearance in the conflict of an element hitherto unseen.
The whole battle of the Somme must be judged from three points of view.
One, strategic progress. Two, materiel progress. Three, moral progress.

Things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect … How impersonal did each new draft seem arriving each month, and all these new-fangled gadgets to master.
– Somme survivor and poet David Jones in the preface to In Parenthesis

There have been innumerable questions regarding military strategy at the Somme. But little doubt about the giant leaps in perfecting killing with regards to modern armaments.

“Morally,” Mrs Powell adds with a touch of gravitas, “we have never obtained a complete mastery”.

Originally at ABC News

You might also like to see my pocket history of great grandfather Henry and his three brothers during WWI.