1st, marks the 96th 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.
They didn't die for a multiracial
The 36th Ulster Division's sector of
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
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.
Over the top in September 1916 - three
months in, two left
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.
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.
that changed in 1966. In July that year, the
ran a series of features for the Somme anniversary. The flood of
letters and eyewitness accounts altered our understanding of World War
That the Germans
casualties than the British and regard the Somme as a defeat is often
original intention for the Somme offensive was
massive Anglo-French force to storm and capture the German trenches,
following a week's artillery bombardment.
cavalry and infantry would then pour through
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.
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.
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
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
|One of the
stirred the debate
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.
name Somme, as a result of 142 days of
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.
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.
"Pals battalions" from the north of England,
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.
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.
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.
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?
"donkeys" school of historians, led by the late
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.
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.
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
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
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.
shelling of 1916 turned the
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.
MORE BROTHERS' WARS!