First Day of the Somme

Enemy superiority is so great that we are not in a position either to fix their forces in position or to prevent them from launching an offensive elsewhere. We just do not have the troops…. We cannot prevail in a second battle of the Somme with our men; they cannot achieve that any more.

Generalleutnant Georg von Fuchs, January 20, 1917

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One hundred years ago the British Army suffered the deadliest day in its long history.  Sixty thousand casualties on the first day of the 141-day battle of the Somme, twenty thousand of them killed.  Britain reeled from the casualties they incurred on the Somme, which would total in excess of half a million men.  The German Army however also reeled from the casualties they sustained, the British having commenced the grim, grinding war of attrition that would ultimately cause the German Army to be defeated in 1918.

In World War I the British managed the considerable feat of raising a mass army for the first time in their history, bringing rapidly online new technology of which tanks and fighter planes and bombers were only three examples, and slugging it out with the finest army on Earth. Mistakes were not uncommon in this process, sometimes grave ones, but they learned all the time and by the end of the War had a military force that was able to be the spearhead of the Hundred Days Offensive that broke the German Army in 1918.

I think Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief on the Western Front from 1915-1918, has been badly maligned. Portrayed as a blundering cavalry officer, he was actually an enthusiast for new technology, especially tanks. Considered a completely callous butcher he was anything but. Early in the War his staff had to stop him from visiting hospitals because the sight of wounded and dying British soldiers was too much for him emotionally. When a painter came to his headquarters to do an official portrait of him, he told him to paint the common soldiers instead, saying that they were the ones saving the world and they were dying every day while doing it. He refused to take a viscountcy from the British government after the War, resisting even lobbying from the King, until financial assistance was approved for demobilized soldiers. Without his stand, it is quite possible that the former soldiers would have been left to private charity. He spent the rest of his life helping the men who had served under him and forming the veteran’s organization, the British Legion, of which he was President until his death. When he died at 66 in 1928 endless lines of his veterans filed by his coffin to pay their last respects. British Legion halls almost always had a picture of Haig on the wall.

Haig never deigned to reply to his critics, but his victory dispatch I think is an eloquent defense of what he and his “contemptible little army”, as the Kaiser referred to the British Army at the beginning of the War, accomplished with their French and American allies.  Go here to read it.

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Published in: on July 1, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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