Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, a five-month slog of trench warfare that utterly changed the British view of World War I.
Commonwealth forces entered the battle confident that their military was superior to those of the Germans or the French, which had been tied up in the attrition battle at Verdun, which lasted even longer, 10 months in all.
Unfortunately, the English planning was flawed. It underestimated the depth and strength of German fortifications. The battle plan was understood beforehand by the German commanders. Even the timing of the Allied attack was revealed by field telephone communications intercepted by the Germans.
The battle started with the British launch of more than 1.7 million shells to soften the German battlements. There followed wave after wave of infantrymen who faced German shells and lacerating machine gun fire.
By the end of the day the German forces had been moved back a bit, but nothing had been resolved. More than 19,000 British soldiers had died, and more than 38,000 were injured or missing. The smaller French force, presumably redeployed from Verdun, reported 2,000 casualties.
When all the shooting was over, on November 18, the dead and injured on both sides ran to 1.5 million.
“As a matter of fact we have to take special precautions during a battle to post
police, to prevent more unwounded men than are necessary from accompanying
a wounded man back from the firing line.”
The British Army learned things from the battle, but the improvements in armaments and strategy were paid for with the blood of its soldiers and the disillusionment of citizens aghast at the seemingly casual sacrifice of their children’s lives.
The Germans may have suffered more over the course of the battle because their supply of young men for cannon fodder was less than that of Britain’s empire.
Still, the trench battles continued for another two years.
Below is a pretty good open-source documentary made by the BBC on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and what it has meant to the British ever since.