Praetorium Honoris

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Somme

British soldiers go "over the top" at the Somme. (Source)
On this day in 1916, one hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme began. Three Allied armies, one French and two British, launched their attack against a single German army. The attack spanned the area from Foucaucourt, south of the Somme River, northwards to Serre, north of the Ancre River and at Gommecourt.

The British Fourth Army took 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were killed.
The 29th Division attacked towards Beaumont-Hamel. Part of the attack was filmed and showed the detonation of a 40,000-pound (18,000 kg) mine, beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt at 7:20 a.m., ten minutes before the infantry attack began, which alerted the Germans. British troops failed to occupy all of the mine crater before German troops arrived and took over the far lip. Many troops of both brigades were shot down in no man's land, which was dominated by Redan Ridge and then caught by German artillery barrages. German white signal rockets were seen and taken for British success flares, which led the divisional commander Major-General de Lisle, to order the 88th Brigade from reserve, to exploit the success.

The 88th Brigade included the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, which advanced on open ground from reserve trenches 200 yards back from the British front line, to avoid the congestion of dead and wounded in communication trenches. Many of the Newfoundlanders became casualties to German small-arms fire while still behind the front line; some of the Newfoundlanders got across no man's land near Y Ravine but were held up by uncut wire. Most of the German shelters and Beaumont-Hamel were demolished and shell-craters overlapped. Reserve Infantry Regiment 119, who had been sheltering under the village in Stollen survived and with other units at Leiling Schlucht ("Y Ravine") and the Leiling and Bismarck dug-outs, engaged the British troops from the wreckage of the trenches. The Newfoundland Battalion suffered 710 casualties, a 91 percent loss, second only to that of the 10th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, which lost 733 casualties at Fricourt, south of the Albert–Bapaume road. The 29th Division lost 5,240 casualties.

For Newfoundland, the first day of battle changed the course of the island's history, ending any hope of independence. After the war the Newfoundland government bought 40 acres at the site of the battalion's attack and created the Newfoundland Memorial Park to commemorate the dead, which was opened by Haig on 7 June 1925. Although the rest of Canada celebrates Canada Day on 1 July, it remains Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador. W
The British Plan (Source)

I read an article not too long ago about Newfoundland's role in World War I. At the time, Newfoundland was not actually part of Canada but was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. You can read more about the role of Newfoundland and Labrador during the Great War here.
In proportion to wealth and population, Newfoundland's contribution in the First World War was outstanding. Approximately 8,500 men were enrolled, nearly 7,000 in the Newfoundland Regiment and Forestry Corps, the remainder in the Royal Navy. Casualties were extremely high. In the Newfoundland Regiment about 1,300 were killed and over 2,300 wounded; of those who enlisted in the Royal Navy about 180 lost their lives and 125 were invalided home.

Of the men in the Naval Service, the Cambridge History of the British Empire says: -

The seamen of Newfoundland had long been known in the Navy as efficient and resourceful, but the end of the War left them with a greatly enhanced reputation. They readily undertook almost impossible boarding operations in wild seas which others would not face. Nothing but praise was accorded by the Fleet.

The great test of the Newfoundland Regiment came at Beaumont-Hamel in the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916. They went into action 753 strong; only 68 answered the roll call next day. A memorial to the fallen stands on the field of Beaumont-Hamel and on Commemoration Day  the people of Newfoundland gather at their war memorials in remembrance. (Source)
The Somme Offensive lasted until the 18th of November of 1916. Allied casualties numbered 794,238, of which 481,842 were from the British Empire (United Kingdom, Australia, Bermuda, Canada, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia). The French lost approximately 250,000 and German losses were 236,194. (Those figures are from the Wikipedia article cited above.)

But on the very first day, one day mind you, 57,470 men of the British Empire fell in battle. Of those, 19,240 were killed outright, no doubt many of the wounded later died of their wounds or carried the scars of those wounds, mental and physical, for the rest of their lives. A very good post about the Somme, The day Sussex died, written by the Brighton Pensioner can be read here. I highly recommend it.

Also recommended is a very good photo essay by The Telegraph here.

19,240 dead. That's not just a number. Each of those men had parents, a home town, dreams for the future. All of that ended, on a July day in France. One hundred years ago today.

In 2010, the town where I live had a population of 22,954. Puts things in perspective it does.


  1. The British Empire lost Eau Claire on the first day, and Milwaukee, over the course of the offensive, while the Allies as a whole, lost Minneapolis/Saint Paul.

  2. I wonder how many of the Tommies going over the top in the first picture were still alive 1 minute later.

    Never visited the Somme, but did walk a bit of the battlefield at Ypres. The sheer number of regimental cemeteries, with their closes order drill of headstones was sobering.

  3. Just for fun, start counting people from the moment you leave the door this morning.

    Great post.

  4. I was gonna mention BP's post.
    Yours is up to the usual standard, as well.

    1. An article I read on Beaumont-Hamel got me thinking, BP's post triggered the need to post this.

      Thanks Skip.

  5. Excellent post - please don't take this as criticism. When I read these types of accounts, I always take the mindset of the private going over the top and feel the righteous anger towards the cool "professionals" safely in the rear assessing the situation. Probably the main reason I did one enlistment and got out.

    1. No offense taken, I know exactly what you mean WSF.

  6. Great post. I shall read the assignments, but later as I have an appointment soon.

    Paul L. Quandt

  7. In an intellectual sense, I've known for many years now the profound cost paid by the citizens of the British Empire in the Great War. But actually being here, and seeing the memorials in practically every town---even the small ones in the Orkneys---drives it home in a way I still can't find the words to describe. I don't honestly know that we Americans really have a frame of reference for that kind of loss.

    One could not turn on the television or radio today here in the U.K. without hearing mention of it. Walking the streets in Stromness this morning, it was on the lips of many passers-by. Touring Skaill House this afternoon, I heard an elderly woman informing a young relative about what his ancestor had done in the Great War as we walked room to room. Yet most of us in the States have probably never even heard of the Somme (or Verdun, or Passchendaele, or Ypres, et al., for that matter), much less tell you what it was about. But for these people, the Somme is still very relevant, and very real.


    I had a thought today ( and no, it didn't hurt ), Hillary Rodham Clinton-HRT-Hate Related Crime.

    Paul L. Quandt

  9. The Somme is sobering to consider--but then so is Ypres, Verdun, and way too many other meatgrinders of that & other wars. On the other hand, soldiers are soldiers:
    Look at the first picture. The cheeky bastard second from the camera is thumbing his nose at the enemy lines. He's dead now either way, but I can't help but hope that he made it safely home & lived most as long as he cared to.
    There's always one. We've all known that one, maybe several. Some of us are that one.
    Rest in peace, soldiers, all of you.
    --Tennessee Budd

  10. I've often wondered if todays more hedonistic Western societies could sustain such casualty rates without totally disintegrating...WW I was especially horrid in that most of the tools of modern war today were used back then when the state of medicine was still in the stone ages--no aspirin, penicillin, sulfa drugs, x-rays MRIS etc. Not much better than the Civil War era when gauze bandages dipped in garlic were used to prevent infection was about the only thing they had--not to mention no MEDEVAC helos and MASH units.

    1. I wonder the same. There are some who could take it. Many just don't have the sand for it. Sad to say.

      Come on Millennials, prove me wrong.

    2. I don't think my generation could prove you wrong. Certainly not on that scale, anyway. Our culture is simply incapable of producing that level of devotion to duty, and unthinking self-sacrifice.

      Even those in the wake of that war doubted whether it could be done again. F. Scott Fitzgerald, himself a serviceman (though the war ended before he got a chance to see combat), wrote eloquently about it in Tender is the Night.

      “See that little stream — we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

      “Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco —”

      “That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

      “General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty- five.”

      “No, he didn’t — he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle — there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

      “You want to hand over this battle to D. H. Lawrence,” said Abe.

      “All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,” Dick mourned persistently.

    3. Fitzgerald makes some good points. The way I see it, it was industrialized warfare with a generation still living in the past. The lessons of our Civil War were lost on the Europeans. The advent of the machine gun and ever more efficient artillery almost guaranteed that level of slaughter.

      Many of today's youth are far too self-centered to even contribute in any meaningful way to society, at least so it seems to the older generation.

      I'm sure the old folks in ancient Greece said the same thing. Not to say that this is just a generational thing, but to say that the glory of Greece was lost. As was the glory of Rome.

      The young content to live in the shade of those things their elders built with no thought to the need to maintain those institutions.

      It's why we're in this current mess. Unless things change, and soon, we are doomed.

      Good points David, very good.


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