Carnage: The Battle of the Somme centenary - men from colleges and towns like Marlborough’s killed in a costly lesson on modern warfare

Written by David du Croz on .

Sir Edwin's Lutyens' 'Monument to the Missing of the Somme' at ThiepvalSir Edwin's Lutyens' 'Monument to the Missing of the Somme' at ThiepvalThe Battle of the Somme began early in the morning of 1 July 1916. It was an Anglo-French campaign fought over four and half months through the summer and autumn of 1916 across a front which stretched some forty-five kilometres from north to south.

During the course of that campaign, British and French armies advanced twelve kilometres at the point of their greatest gain, but still failed to capture either of their two target towns, Bapaume and Peronne.

Casualties (dead, wounded, missing, captured) amounted to about 420,000 for the British, 200,000 for the French, and 580,000 for the Germans.

Those bare statistics contain some figures of local interest. For example, six of the 42 members of St Peter's Parish in Marlborough who died in the war were killed on the Somme.

The numbers from Marlborough College are even more heart-breaking: twenty former members of the College died on the first day alone, and another ninety before the fighting in that part of France was over.

There was not a community in the country left untouched by this Battle.

If the battle failed to achieve the much-heralded "break-through", it did succeed in one of its objectives, namely saving the French at Verdun. During the course of the following winter the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, surrendering five times as much territory as the British and French armies had won the previous year, and adopting an essentially defensive strategy until the spring of 1918.

The Lutyens monument, which sits astride the Thiepval Ridge at a point where the British took three months to advance less than half a mile, commemorates the 72,000 missing of the Somme, those who have no known grave. Ninety per cent of those men died between July and November 1916.

Stone marking Devonshire Trench: buried there are 163 men killed on 1 July 2016 during their attack on Mametz villageStone marking Devonshire Trench: buried there are 163 men killed on 1 July 2016 during their attack on Mametz villageIt is an imposing memorial whose "precise geometry and intellectual imagination subverts and elevates the simple form of the triumphal arch into a meditation on war and loss". Guarded by redoubts - fortress-like entrenchments on the crest of the ridge - thousands of British troops died in the course of wresting Thiepval village from German control.

Further north, other villages made equally impregnable by the steep slopes of the River Ancre's valley, likewise blocked the advance of the British forces.  One village only falling in November and another remaining in German hands after the battle was over.

How the Allied line advanced in the direction of Bapaume (click to enlarge)How the Allied line advanced in the direction of Bapaume (click to enlarge)What success was achieved on this part of the front came largely as a result of the threat to the German defenders of being outflanked by the eventual fall of the village of Pozieres on the Albert-Bapaume road, the capture of Mouquet Farm, and the partial successes of the battle of Flers-Courcelette in late September.

Prior to this it had taken the Australians forty-five days and nineteen separate assaults at a cost of over 27,000 casualties to capture Pozieres which dominated the central part of the ridge against which the British soldiers had to advance across the entire length of their part of the front line from their starting point on July 1.

Despite blowing mines to dislodge the Germans from their strong defensive positions at La Boiselle, progress up both Sausage and Mash valleys either side of the road to Pozieres was slow and costly. Charles Edmonds in A Subaltern's War described the scene at the village of Ovillers just two weeks after the first attack went in: "Among the wire lay rows of khaki figures as they had fallen to the machine guns on the crest, thick as sleepers in Green Park on summer Sunday evenings."

The aftermath of war: the remains of Delville WoodThe aftermath of war: the remains of Delville WoodFurther south and east where the slopes were less steep and the German defences weaker, there had been initial success against other villages, but further progress in this sector was hindered by large thick concentrations of trees - Mametz Wood, Delville Wood and High Wood - where it proved almost impossible to break the German stranglehold on the surrounding land.

At Mametz the 38 (Welsh) Division suffered 4,000 killed or wounded in the course of just six days.  In a similar period of time, three quarters of the South African troops who tried to capture Delville Wood became casualties.  And High Wood survived for over six weeks in German hands despite persistent but limited attacks which feature in Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That.

Beyond Maricourt and Guillemont either side of the River Somme the French were having greater success, thanks to the greater effectiveness of their artillery bombardment, the relative weakness of the German opposition, and the strength, skill and co-ordination of their infantry attacks.

They were, however, somewhat distracted by events at Verdun, and when the Germans brought up additional troops from that battle the French advance slowed. The village of Rancourt, one of the many such places devastated during French offensive and German defensive operations, is now an important site of remembrance, with its vast military cemetery, containing the graves of 8,566 Frenchmen.

Railway Hollow Cemetery with the graves of 107 Commonwealth soldiers (44 of them unidentified) killed in the battle - and two French war gravesRailway Hollow Cemetery with the graves of 107 Commonwealth soldiers (44 of them unidentified) killed in the battle - and two French war gravesThe Battle of the Somme began on a glorious summer day - July 1, 1916 - when in the short break between the lifting of the artillery bombardment and the infantry advance at 7.30am, soldiers reported hearing the skylarks singing - they still do in the poppy-strewn fields where the cemeteries mark out the line that was no-man's land one hundred years ago.

The Battle ended in the dreariness and dampness of a very soggy October and November when those same fields had been reduced to muddy quagmires, when the trees had been smashed to stumps and the villages crushed to piles of rubble.

In popular mythology the Battle encapsulates all that is seen to have been wrong with that war, indeed many wars - pointless but heroic sacrifice under the dubious leadership of at best distant, and at worst incompetent, commanders - the epitome of "lions led by donkeys".

In truth it was the point at which armies on both sides learnt the very painful lessons of this new form of industrial warfare, and began to devise the necessary strategies and tactics both to pursue it and to combat it.

[Photos courtesy of David du Croz - with thanks. Click on photos to enlarge them.]

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