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Remembering the 1st July 1916

They didn't fight for a multiracial Ulster

Today, July 1st, marks the 94th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme where over 60,000 British troops were casualties on that day alone. Never before if the field of human conflict has so much been given by so many for so little. The 36th (Ulster) Division, who consisted of mainly untrained volunteers, was one of the first regiment of British soldiers to see action that day and suffered appalling losses in the carnage of this pointless Brothers' war. In this brief report of what happened to them on that fateful day, we salute them and ALL the other European soldiers who fought and died in that winless war of international finance.

The 36th Ulster Division's sector of the Somme lay astride the marshy valley of the river Ancre and the higher ground south of the river. Their task was to cross the ridge and take the German second line near Grandcourt. In their path lay not only the German front line, but just beyond it, the intermediate line within which was the Schwaben Reboubt.

On 1 July, following the preliminary bombardment, the Ulsterman quickly took the German front line. But intelligence was so poor that, with the rest of the division attacking under creep bombardment (artillery fired in front or over men; they advance as it moves), the Ulstermen would have come under attack from their own bombardment at the German first line.

But they still advanced, moving to the crest so rapidly that the Germans had no time to come up from their dugouts (generally 30'-40' below ground) in the Schwaben Reboubt, which was also taken. So successful was the advance that by 10:00 some had reached the German second line. But again they came under their own barrage, not due to finish until 10:10. However, this successful penetration had to be given up before nightfall, as it was unmatched by those at its flanks. The Ulstermen were exposed in a narrow salient, open to attack on three sides. They were running out of ammunition and supplies, and a full German counter-attack at 22:00 forced them to withdraw, giving up virtually all they gained.

The Ulstermen had gained an advantage on the day of battle by not sticking to the rigid orders issued. Both the German and British generals considered the men of the New Army/Kitcheners Men as insufficiently trained in the skills of warfare. Consequently, the battle tactics they were ordered to follow by commanders was more strict and regimented than those of regular army. But the Ulstermen advanced during the bombardment by pushing forward small trenches the depth of a man, then cutting the barbed wire which was 30 inches in depth and height in places (before bombardment). So when the bombardment stopped at 07:28/07:30 the Ulstermen attacked quickly. These Ulstermen were also here by choice. Kitchener himself spoke to the UVF and they arranged the enlistments, they were the only Pal Division to go under no training before entering battle.

Rethinking the Somme

Troops going over the top
Over the top in September 1916 - three months in, two left

What images do you associate with World War I? Trenches and barbed wire, mud, gore, gas and filth? Perhaps the name of a battlefield - "the Somme". It's an emotive word today, at its 90th anniversary, linked in many minds with military slaughter on an industrial scale - but this was not always so.

Until 1966 and the 50th anniversary of the Somme, the place always associated with British service on the Western Front during 1914-18 was somewhere else. Ypres - "Wipers" to the Tommy - in Belgian Flanders. Thousands died there, particularly during the Third Ypres battles of 1917, so the very name became synonymous with death or active service in the Great War.

All that changed in 1966. In July that year, the Times ran a series of features for the Somme anniversary. The flood of letters and eyewitness accounts altered our understanding of World War I forever.

That the Germans suffered heavier casualties than the British and regard the Somme as a defeat is often overlooked

The original intention for the Somme offensive was for a massive Anglo-French force to storm and capture the German trenches, following a week's artillery bombardment.

Allied cavalry and infantry would then pour through the gap, roll up the German line and finish the war. In the event, the date was brought forward and the battle fought largely to distract the Germans from their offensive against the French at Verdun.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig hurled 14 British infantry divisions at the German lines. By the end of the first day, 1 July, the British had lost 57,450 officers and men - 19,240 of them killed, 2,152 missing, the rest wounded.

Public fixation

Nine Victoria Crosses were won on 1 July 1916 and a further 41 during the whole campaign, an indication of the ferocity of the fighting. Nothing on the same scale had ever happened to the British Army before. Tragically, after so much loss of life, no breakthrough was made, but Haig continued the campaign for the next four months.

The Times correspondence gave rise to two well-known books about the Somme battles - Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme (1971), and Lyn Macdonald's Somme (1983). Both have run to many editions, demonstrating a fixation on the hitherto forgotten Somme campaign.

One of the letters that stirred the debate

Whilst Middlebrook and Macdonald both concentrated on the first day, there were 12 separate battles which together constitute the Somme campaign. It ended on 18 November 1916, when the 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont Hamel, which had been an objective on that first day of July.

The name Somme, as a result of 142 days of unrelenting combat, has a special place in British social and military history, as a common experience, shared by millions of Tommies, as well as soldiers from the Empire. It was as significant as Dunkirk or D-Day, and was felt to be so at the time.

The big attack was sold to the soldiers about to undertake it as the last "big push" that would finish the war. Many veterans remembered that they were actually looking forward to it.

French losses

The "Pals battalions" from the north of England, where whole streets or factories of young men enlisted together, were particularly hard hit on the first day. It impacted on tiny communities in a way still remembered today.

In the Somme region there are 243 Commonwealth War Cemeteries containing the graves of some of the 125,000 British and Empire servicemen who died on the Somme in 1916 - whilst another 300,000 were wounded in the campaign.

That the Germans suffered heavier casualties than the British and regard the Somme as a defeat is
 often overlooked. The battle also saw a French army fighting alongside the British, which suffered 200,000 casualties.

Today, we remember that the Somme campaign of 1916 brought excessively high casualties for all the participants, yet failed to deliver victory. More than anything else, the battle polarises modern views on British generalship in 1914-18. But is it correct to label Douglas Haig and his generals as "donkeys", who sacrificed the lives of the "lions" in the British Army?

The "donkeys" school of historians, led by the late Alan Clark MP, emerged in the 1960s and seems to have been as much a reaction to Vietnam and an angry Beatles-generation expression against authority as serious historical thought.

Generals killed

Modern scholars tend towards the view that the Somme battles were part of a painful learning curve whereby the BEF weakened the skilful, courageous and highly professional German army. Without the Somme, argue Professors Richard Holmes and Gary Sheffield, the decisive victory of 1918 could not have happened.

Were Haig and his generals really "donkeys"? The evidence suggests not. Haig lost 58 of his fellow generals, killed or dying of wounds while leading from the front during the four years of war. Three died in the Somme in the first few days.

  Map of the Somme front lines

So the General Melchett image of Blackadder - of arrogant generals safe back at headquarters - is unfounded. They were brave, and their challenge was commanding an army of several million conscripts and volunteers, for which they had not been prepared.

The Somme was a turning point in the war, though not evident at the time. Understandably, the casualties of that first day still distort the achievement of the rest of the campaign for us, which was never as costly or wasteful of lives.

Nevertheless, the awfulness of the campaign has had a profound and lasting effect on Britain. For this reason, historians have concluded that to study the Somme battles is to study British society and the British Army, and how the latter has evolved since.

Just one of many lessons that today's military commanders have learned from the 1916 casualties is to split up recruits from the same town or village, in case of military disaster, to avoid the blighting of small communities.

Although the intense shelling of 1916 turned the Somme area into a muddy, hellish landscape, it has since returned to its pre-war state. Where once there was the thump of artillery, now there is only the chatter of children and coach parties.


© 2011 British People's Party, BM Box 5581, London WC1N 3XX