Saturday 15th September & Sunday 16th September 2012.
Last Sunday morning at 7:30 am, John Cameron-Webb, Jan and Gale Bakker and myself rose up from a WW1 trench, fueled by a spoonful of rum, and were immediately mowed down by the entrenched German machine gun cross fire.
[vimeo 50082182 w=500 h=313]
A sadly familiar scene during the first moments of the Battle of the Somme. Luckily for us it was almost 100 years later. The Germans had months to prepare, finding the best high ground and get themselves well and truly dug in and protected. We had mistakenly expected German resistance to be crushed following a week-long preliminary bombardment of the German lines, but instead found machine-gunners awaiting our infantry advance.
The German Army, on the defence, held the high ground and were aware of the intended attack; they had been practically unmolested since October 1914, which had allowed the time needed to construct extensive trench lines and deep shellproof bunkers. British intelligence had underestimated the strength of the German defences. The German bunkers were up to thirty feet deep and could resist artillery fire
The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, took place during the First World War between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on either side of the river Somme in France. The battle saw the British Army, supported by contingents from British imperial territories, including Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Canada, India and South Africa, mount a joint offensive with the French Army against the German Army, which had occupied large areas of France since its invasion of the country in August 1914. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the war; by the time fighting paused in late autumn 1916, the forces involved had suffered more than 1 million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded.
The losses where appalling. Some 60,000 on the first day alone.
The opening day of the battle saw the British Army suffer the worst day in its history, sustaining nearly 60,000 casualties. Because of the composition of the British Army, at this point a volunteer force with many battalions comprising men from particular localities, (The Hull Lads, for example) these losses (and those of the campaign as a whole) had a profound social impact.
The conduct of the battle has been a source of controversy: senior officers such as General Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force and Henry Rawlinson, the commander of Fourth Army, have been criticised for incurring very severe casualties while failing to achieve their territorial objectives. Other historians have portrayed the Somme as a preliminary to the defeat of the German Army and one which taught the British Army tactical and operational lessons.
The German perspective
Having heard numerous accounts of bravery and losses from our side of the barbed wire, I was curious to hear the German perspective.
A quick search unearthed this account from Crown Prince Rupprecht, who was promoted to Field Marshal in 1916 and given command of the northern group of armies in August, ‘Army Group Rupprecht’, spending the remainder of the war on the Western Front.
The Battle of the Somme by
Our losses in territory may be seen on the map with a microscope. Their losses in that far more precious thing – human life – are simply prodigious.
Amply and in full coin have they paid for every foot of ground we sold them. They can have all they want at the same price. We have a reserve, constituted of trained officers and trained men, which has not yet been drawn upon. We are not, like the Entente Generals, forced to throw raw, untrained recruits into the very front of the fighting.
Whether this will be the last effort we cannot know. We have taken measure of their strength at its maximum tide and are prepared for anything they can deliver. For the sake of the thousands whom new attacks will slay in vain we hope they have learned a lesson. So far as the interests of the Fatherland are concerned, we are indifferent; indeed, inclined to welcome any further folly they may indulge in.
It saddens us to exact the dreadful toll of suffering and death that is being marked up on the ledger of history, but if the enemy is still minded to possess a few more hectares of blood-sodden soil, I fear they must pay a bitter price.
It will now be useful to examine briefly what has been achieved.
Though on a front of about 28 kilometres they have driven a wedge of about four kilometres depth, they themselves will not assert, after their experiences of July 10th, 22nd, 24th, and 30th that the German line has been shaken at any point.
This success cost the English, according to careful estimates, a loss of at least 230,000 men.
For an estimate of the French losses in this fighting no definite basis is at our disposal, but, as they had to bear the brunt of the battle, their losses must also be heavy, in spite of their greater military skill.
The total losses of our enemies must, therefore, amount to about 350,000, while ours, though regrettable, cannot be compared with theirs so far as numbers are concerned.
Click on any image to activate slide show