I'll be checking in on this thread now and then and hope I can answer any questions you may have.
From the Balkans to Britain, these battles transformed a continent for years to come.
The centenary commemorations of World War I will undoubtedly concentrate on a trio of well-known battles; Verdun, the Somme and Jutland. All three ended inconclusively, and all witnessed tremendous bloodshed. Verdun and the Somme etched themselves into the national consciousness of France and Great Britain, respectively, while Jutland helped transform naval architecture.
But 1916 also witnessed a number of other, lesser known battles. Although they lack the same resonance in the West, the outcome of these battles helped determine the post-war map of Europe, not to mention the nature of warfare for the next generation.
Although World War I began as a conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, the focus of war quickly spread to the Eastern and Western Fronts, where Germany would struggle to simultaneously defeat France, Russia and Britain. The war between Austria and Serbia would continue, however, with the tough Serbs resisting repeated Austro-Hungarian offensives. The entry of Bulgaria into the war in 1915, however, spelled the end for the Serbs; they lost their supply lines, became overstretched and eventually retreated to Italy.
After the Serbian collapse, only Montenegro remained in the Triple Entente’s corner. Montenegro had joined the war out of pan-Slavic sympathies with the Serbs, then had withdrawn into its own borders after the Serbian defeat. The Central Powers decided to exploit the moment to end the war in the Balkans, and pushed into the tiny country. After a short offensive, the Austrians forces rolled the country up and forced a capitulation. Along with the conquest of most of Albania, this freed up a greater portion of the Austrian military for much more lethal fights against the Russians and the Italians.
The West has almost no memory of fighting on the Eastern Front in World War I. Nevertheless, some of the most innovative tactics came out of the Russian and German experiences of the first Eastern Front. The Brusilov Offensive of 1916 was among the most important of these engagements.
As part of an agreement to launch coordinated offensives against the Central Powers in mid-1916, Russian General Aleksai Brusilov prepared for a massive attack against the forces of the Dual Monarchy in Galicia. The Russians substantially outnumbered the Austro-Hungarians, and had developed innovative new infiltration and shock tactics. On June 4, Brusilov’s force tore into Austria-Hungary’s defensive emplacements along a broad front. The Russians took the Austrians by surprise, employing a brief bombardment to disorient the defenders, then quickly achieving a breakthrough.
The Russians threw the Austrians back and advanced at a pace unheard of on the Western Front. Impressed by Russian success, Romania quickly threw in its lot with the Triple Entente. However, Brusilov had no reserves, and Russian armies on other parts of the front failed to coordinate attacks. German and Austrian reinforcements restored the line, and the offensive exhausted itself by September. The Russian Imperial Army would never mount another successful operation.
Battles of the Isonzo
Our memory of the First World War fixates on the Western Front, where the futility of seemingly endless trench warfare scarred a generation of soldiers from France, Britain, Germany, and (eventually) America. An even more futile, repetitive conflict played out along the Isonzo river valley, where Italy hurled offensive after offensive against prepared Austrian defenses.
Austria and Italy would fight twelve Battles of the Isonzo, the last resulting in catastrophic Italian defeat. Five of these battles happened in 1916. None of them nudged the front more than a few miles in any direction. However, the battles helped keep the army of the Dual Monarchy occupied, relieving pressure on the Russians on the Eastern Front and enabling the Brusilov Offensive. They also contributed to the exhaustion, and eventual collapse, of the Habsburg Empire.
Although ruled by a Hohenzollern king, Romania leaned toward the Triple Entente at the beginning of World War I. Bucharest wanted to acquire Transylvania from Austria-Hungary, but stood in a difficult geographic position; only the Russians could supply much military support, and the Romanians had little trust for Moscow.
In late summer 1916, the success of the Brusilov Offensive (and optimism about the latest Italian offensives along the Isonzo) produced high hopes that Austria-Hungary might simply collapse. Not wanting to miss out on the spoils, Romania joined the Triple Entente in late August, launching its large (but poorly trained) army into what it imagined to be the weak underbelly of the Central Powers. However, the Romanians misjudged both the Germans and the Russians. The Russian offensive petered out, and the Germans had long expected Romanian treachery. A devastating German counter-offensive rolled up most of the country, capturing Bucharest in December and driving the remaining Romanian resistance into Moldavia.
First Battle of Britain
The first Battle of Britain began in April 1915, when German zeppelins bombed Ipswich and Southend. Over the next year, airships operated by the German Army and Navy would repeatedly bomb Britain, as the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service struggled to reply. While the earliest raids did little damage, in 1916 the German attacks began to exact a heavy toll. The British responded with technology and organization; they developed anti-aircraft weapons, better guns on their night fighters and interceptors, and an early warning system that limited casualties. The skies over England soon saw pitched battles between German airships and British fighters, in what amounted to the world’s first concerted strategic bombing campaign.
Although the airships had important advantages, they could not hold out forever against British guns, and British conventional aircraft. Incendiary bullets had a particularly devastating effect, and the Germans eventually gave up on the Zeppelins. Within the UK, however, the attacks galvanized a newfound sense of vulnerability. Finally, an enemy could reach out and touch London; domination of the sea no longer provided a secure defense. In 1917, the Germans would begin to send heavy bombers against London, planes which could outpace the British fighters. The raids eventually resulted in the founding of the Royal Air Force; twenty-four years later, the RAF and the Luftwaffe would replay the scenario, to much more devastating effect.
In all, the battles of 1916 represented an effort, on both sides of the war, to coordinate force and knock particular enemies out of the war. The Germans hoped that Zeppelins would terrify the British public; the Russians, Italians and Romanians hoped that the shaky Austrians would collapse. In the end, however, the Central Powers managed to score real military achievements in the Balkans, while exhausting the Russians. These successes allowed them to continue the conflict for two more years, pushing the British, French and Italians to the brink. More importantly, these battles would foreshadow the tactics (strategic bombing and mobile, “Blitzkrieg” warfare) used by all combatants in the next war.
Much of what we think we know about the 1914-18 conflict is wrong, writes historian Dan Snow.
No war in history attracts more controversy and myth than World War One.
For the soldiers who fought it was in some ways better than previous conflicts, and in some ways worse.
By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.
1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point
Fifty years before WW1 broke out, southern China was torn apart by an even bloodier conflict. Conservative estimates of the dead in the 14-year Taiping rebellion start at between 20 million and 30 million. Around 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed during WW1.
Although more Britons died in WW1 than any other conflict, the bloodiest war in our history relative to population size is the Civil War, which raged in the mid-17th Century. A far higher proportion of the population of the British Isles were killed than the less than 2% who died in WW1. By contrast, around 4% of the population of England and Wales, and considerably more than that in Scotland and Ireland, are thought to have been killed in the Civil War.
2. Most soldiers died
In the UK around six million men were mobilised, and of those just over 700,000 were killed. That's around 11.5%.
In fact, as a British soldier you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-56) than in WW1.
3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end
Front-line trenches could be a terribly hostile place to live. Units, often wet, cold and exposed to the enemy, would quickly lose their morale if they spent too much time in the trenches.
As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system and, of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month. During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.
4. The upper class got off lightly
Although the great majority of casualties in WW1 were from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard by WW1. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.
Some 12% of the British army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils - 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded, and an uncle was captured.
5. 'Lions led by donkeys'
British commanders were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the Army had ever seen
This saying was supposed to have come from senior German commanders describing brave British soldiers led by incompetent old toffs from their chateaux. In fact the incident was made up by historian Alan Clark.
During the war more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured. Most visited the front lines every day. In battle they were considerably closer to the action than generals are today.
Naturally, some generals were not up to the job, but others were brilliant, such as Arthur Currie, a middle-class Canadian failed insurance broker and property developer.
Rarely in history have commanders had to adapt to a more radically different technological environment.
British commanders had been trained to fight small colonial wars; now they were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the British army had ever seen.
Despite this, within three years the British had effectively invented a method of warfare still recognisable today. By the summer of 1918 the British army was probably at its best ever and it inflicted crushing defeats on the Germans.
6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders
Far more British soldiers fought on the Gallipoli peninsula than Australians and New Zealanders put together.
The UK lost four or five times as many men in the brutal campaign as its imperial Anzac contingents. The French also lost more men than the Australians.
The Aussies and Kiwis commemorate Gallipoli ardently, and understandably so, as their casualties do represent terrible losses both as a proportion of their forces committed and of their small populations.
7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. It was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells.
They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, which in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance.
Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy - using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years, also changing war for
8. No one won
Swathes of Europe lay wasted, millions were dead or wounded. Survivors lived on with severe mental trauma. The UK was broke. It is odd to talk about winning.
However, in a narrow military sense, the UK and its allies convincingly won. Germany's battleships had been bottled up by the Royal Navy until their crews mutinied rather than make a suicidal attack against the British fleet.
Germany's army collapsed as a series of mighty allied blows scythed through supposedly impregnable defences.
By late September 1918 the German emperor and his military mastermind Erich Ludendorff admitted that there was no hope and Germany must beg for peace. The 11 November Armistice was essentially a German surrender.
Unlike Hitler in 1945, the German government did not insist on a hopeless, pointless struggle until the allies were in Berlin - a decision that saved countless lives, but was seized upon later to claim Germany never really lost.
9. The Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh
The Treaty of Versailles confiscated 10% of Germany's territory but left it the largest, richest nation in central Europe.
It was largely unoccupied and financial reparations were linked to its ability to pay, which mostly went unenforced anyway.
The treaty was notably less harsh than treaties that ended the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and World War Two. The German victors in the former annexed large chunks of two rich French provinces, part of France for between 200 and 300 years, and home to most of French iron ore production, as well as presenting France with a massive bill for immediate payment.
After WW2 Germany was occupied, split up, its factory machinery smashed or stolen and millions of prisoners forced to stay with their captors and work as slave labourers. Germany lost all the territory it had gained after WW1 and another giant slice on top of that.
Versailles was not harsh but was portrayed as such by Hitler, who sought to create a tidal wave of anti-Versailles sentiment on which he could then ride into power.
10. Everyone hated it
Like any war, it all comes down to luck. You may witness unimaginable horrors that leave you mentally and physically incapacitated for life, or you might get away without a scrape. It could be the best of times, or the worst of times.
Many soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time conditions might be better than at home.
For the British there was meat every day - a rare luxury back home - cigarettes, tea and rum, part of a daily diet of more than 4,000 calories.
Remarkably, absentee rates due to sickness, an important barometer of a unit's morale, were hardly above those of peacetime. Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than in peacetime Britain.
That Dan Snow list is right in many regards, but also misleading in places.
The Spanish Influenza that killed 50+ million was such a pandemic because of the war. It is normal to include deaths through disease in casualties, but because the war ended in 1918, the deaths afterwards are perhaps not being counted here. It was little of a comfort to survive the war and then die (or have family members die) in the year or two that followed.
He makes a reference to tactics etc changing quickly, but then mentions that it took three years to come up with these changes. His sentence is written to suggest that this was quick, but could it have been two years instead? Or 18 months?
The Treaty of Versailles was not harsh? Well, I don't think that it was unwarranted, but it was certainly tough enough to give a real sense of grievance to the Germans. However, I would suggest that this was perhaps more to do with the German people not really feeling responsible for the war rather than it being especially harsh. It certainly seemed harsh though when the Great Depression hit.
"Remarkably, absentee rates due to sickness, an important barometer of a unit's morale, were hardly above those of peacetime"
Good lord. Well, for one, you were perhaps FAR less likely to be shot for desertion during peacetime...
I think I agree with Dan about 75%, but you have to wonder about the other 25%...
During World War I, the Allies engaged Ottoman forces on three principal fronts: Gallipoli, the Caucasus and the Sinai Peninsula. The Gallipoli campaign in westernmost Anatolia was an attempt to seize the Turkish forts along “the narrows,” the narrowest portion of the Dardanelles, in order to clear the minefields and open up the way for British and French naval units to sail up the Turkish Straits and besiege the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. The ground force was made up of a combination of British and French units, with the British contingent drawing heavily from Australian and New Zealand troops. The latter, dubbed the ANZACS, an abbreviation of Australian New Zealand Army Corps, would suffer enormous casualties during the roughly nine month long campaign. The effort ultimately failed and the Allied troops were withdrawn.
The Caucasus campaign saw Russian forces make slow but steady gains in eastern Anatolia. Harsh winters, the absence of roads and the rugged terrain made for slow progress. Nonetheless, Russian troops made significant advances and were on the verge of penetrating into northern Mesopotamia and central Anatolia before the Russian Revolution led to the collapse of Russian forces on the Caucasus Front. As a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed between the Bolshevik government in Moscow and the Central Powers, Russia, it was not yet the USSR, returned all of its Anatolian conquests, as well as territory seized in the earlier Russian-Turkish war of 1877.
Bolshevik government in Moscow and the Central Powers, Russia, it was not yet the USSR, returned all of its Anatolian conquests, as well as territory seized in the earlier Russian-Turkish war of 1877.
It was the Sinai, a theater manned largely by British and Empire forces, which would prove to be the decisive theater in the Allied conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Between 1916 and 1918, British forces would successfully march up the eastern flank of the Mediterranean, reestablishing European control of Jerusalem for the first time since the eleventh century, and reaching all the way to Damascus before the Armistice of Mudros on October 31, 1918, brought an end to the hostilities. In the process, it would pave the way for the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and its subsequent division between Great Britain and France.
The initial Allied strategy had been to simply knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The Gallipoli campaign was seen as the fastest way of doing that. When that campaign failed, an advance through the Sinai and Palestine was seen as the next best alternative. An Ottoman surrender would have opened up the Turkish Straits to Allied shipping, allowed the shipment of critical military supplies to the Russian Army and allowed Russia to deploy more troops on the Eastern Front. In turn, more Allied pressure in the East would force Germany to redeploy more troops there from the Western Front, relieving the pressure on Allied forces in France. It was on the Western Front, the Allies believed, that the ultimate outcome of the world war would be decided.
The strategy of the Ottoman Empire and their German allies was essentially the reverse. By threatening the Suez Canal and British control of Egypt, the Central Powers believed that Great Britain would be forced to deploy more troops in the Sinai. Every soldier deployed in Egypt was one less soldier available for deployment of the Western Front.
The Ottoman Minister for War, Enver Pasha, also believed, or at least hoped, the Ottoman successes against British forces would spark a revolt among Muslims in Britain’s colonies. Such a revolt would tie down additional British forces, potentially lead to the loss of large areas of the British Empire, including India, and possibly pave the way for Ottoman seizure of the Turkic areas of Central Asia from Russian control. Initially, it was the Sinai where these two competing strategies would be played out.
By early 1916, the Ottoman forces in Gaza and the Sinai had been expanded and resupplied and were ready to try again to seize control of the Suez Canal. Following the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli, both sides had redeployed some of these troops to the Sinai. The Ottoman force was reorganized into the Fourth Army of Syria and Palestine. Its six divisions, organized into the VIII Corps and XII Corps, numbered around 50,000 men. With the railroad line between Berlin and Constantinople now open, ammunition and equipment was reaching, the often times German led, Ottoman troops. The immediate objective was to seize control of the Suez Canal and deny its use to Great Britain and the Allies.
To counter the Turkish build up in the Sinai, the British organized the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. They also organized a mounted cavalry force consisting mostly of ANZAC troops redeployed from Gallipoli. In the spring of 1916, the British decided to move their defensive lines forward from the vulnerable canal and deeper into the Sinai. They also continued the extension of a rail line and water pipeline eastward in order to supply the forward positions of British forces. British horse and camel cavalry units were deployed to clear the central trail across Sinai. Approximately 60,000 troops of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), under the command of General A. J. Murray, were stationed in forward positions in the Sinai and along the canal.
On April 23, 1916, Ottoman Forces, under the command of German General Kress von Kressenstein, attacked British forces in the town of Katia in the Sinai. The town was the projected terminus of the Sinai Railroad and its accompanying waterline. British forces stationed there were widely dispersed and proved no match for the attacking Ottoman force. After briefly occupying the town, and destroying anything deemed to be of military value, the Ottoman force withdrew eastward.
The Ottoman Camel Corps at Beersheba
A combined Turkish-German force again attacked the canal on August 3, 1916, before being repulsed at the Battle of Romani. This time, the EEF pursued the retreating Ottoman force eastward back toward Palestine; defeating it at the battle of Magdhaba in December 1916, and the Battle of Rafa in January 1917. These victories resulted in the recapture of substantial Egyptian territory in the Sinai, but were followed by two successive EEF defeats at the hands of the Ottoman forces in the First and Second Battle of Gaza, in March and April 1917, at the Egyptian-Ottoman frontier. Thanks to This Week In W.W.I
The commemoration marked the centenary of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille on April 20, 1916, by a group of American airmen who — almost a full year before the U.S. entered the war — decided to join the fight against the Germans.
“We are gathered here today to remind ourselves that, 100 years ago, France and the United States stood together against the enemies of the free world,” French lawmaker Jean-Marc Todeschini told a crowd of airmen and dignitaries gathered at Marnes-la-Coquette , where the group was first formed.
“A century later, the conflicts have changed, and our enemies have a new face, but we still defend the same values — that of justice and democracy,” he said.
The Lafayette Escadrille, also known as the Lafayette Flying Corps, was named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who arrived in the newly declared United States in 1777 and became a key ally of Gen. George Washington.
Of the nearly 180 pilots who served for France, 68 were killed before the end of the war. Their names are recorded on an arch at Marnes-la-Coquette flanked by French and American flags.
In Northern Ireland, people have been commemorating the suffering of the 36th Ulster Division and the loss of more than 2,000 of its men in the first few days of the battle.
However, thousands of men from what is now the Republic of Ireland also fought for the British Army, in the ranks of the 16th Irish Division, which lost about 1,200 men in a single action in September during the Somme.
The British Pathe news reels from the time do not convey the mass killings of World War One.
It was death on an industrial scale.
There were 420,000 British casualties alone in the Battle of the Somme - the price paid for moving the front line just four and a half miles (7.2km).
'Witnessed atrocities', Inside a public library in Dublin's Pearse Street are the archive files of a soldier with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, to which we have been given access.
An injured Sgt Joseph Flanagan, with a fashionable handle-bar moustache, is seen in one photograph sitting to the right of the nurse with his cap on his lap.
"He was wounded in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, lost an arm and was subsequently discharged," Hubert says.
"The fact that he lost an arm may have made him very lucky, because he lived so long afterwards."
Thomas Kettle, a scholar, a Dubliner and a former Nationalist MP for East Tyrone, was not so lucky.
Kettle was in Belgium at the start of the war to raise guns for the Irish Volunteers and witnessed atrocities carried out by the Germans and that prompted him to join the British army.
Most of the soldiers in regiments from what is now the Republic of Ireland did not get involved in the fighting at the Somme until September 1916 and, like the 36th Ulster Regiment, they too suffered heavy casualties.
The Dubliner was among those who died at Ginchy on 9 September 1916.
Ronan McGreevy, an Irish Times journalist and the author of a book, Wherever The Firing Line Extends, believes Thomas Kettle's life reflects how Ireland was changing at the time because of the Easter Rising.
He says that before he died, Kettle prophesised that if he was killed "he'd be remembered as a bloody British officer while those men who fought and died in the Easter 1916 Rising would be remembered as heroes".
The inscription on the monument to Thomas Kettle is a testimony to the differing reasons why Irishmen went to fight in WW1
Proof of that prophecy, his family believe, is the length of time - 21 years - it took his supporters to get his bust erected in St Stephen's Green in the centre of Dublin.
Declan Kettle, the great-grand-nephew of the former MP, says of his relative: "He made a huge contribution to Ireland and Irish history, not just in politics but in education.
"He was the first Professor of Economics in the National University. He achieved so much in such a short period of time that he would also have been a huge contributor had he lived."
Thomas Kettle's great-grand-nephew, Declan Kettle, said his relative's death in WW1 was a great loss to Irish public life
It is a curiosity of history that a fellow officer, Emmet Dalton, held Tom Kettle as he lay dying and placed a crucifix in his palm.
It was the same Emmet Dalton, who later became an IRA leader against the British in the Irish War of Independence and who also cradled IRA leader Michael Collins and reportedly also placed a crucifix in his palm a few years later as Collins lay dying at Béal na mBláth in County Cork, shot by republican anti-treaty soldiers during the Civil War.
The Islandbridge War Memorial and Gardens along the banks of Dublin's river Liffey are dedicated to the almost 50,000 Irishmen, mainly from what is now the Republic, who died fighting in WW1, including the Somme.
Until relatively recently they were largely written out of Irish history, not least because they died fighting in British uniforms, even though as late as 1924 thousands of Dubliners honoured those who died in the war.
The Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin are dedicated to the memory of almost 50,000 Irishmen who died fighting in World War One
But that amnesia is no longer the case, according to the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.
He says it is important that the Republic of Ireland as a state is now giving "full recognition and careful consideration to the many thousands of people from this island who lost their lives in pursuit of freedom in the First World War".
"I regret very much", he adds, "it hasn't been possible to do so. And we will be acknowledging during July the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division, and it's entirely important and appropriate that we so do."
Also in the coming weeks the French President, Francois Hollande is expected to come to Islandbridge to pay his country's tribute to and to honour those Irish men who sacrificed their lives on French soil.
Shane Harrison's TV report will be broadcast as part of BBC Newsline on BBC One Northern Ireland at about 18:30 BST on Thursday, 16 June 2016. Thanks, BBC.
British troops advance during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. (Handout/Reuters)
By George F. Will Opinion writer
“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.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald,
“Tender Is the Night”
The walk began at 7:30 a.m., July 1, 1916 , when British infantry advanced toward German trenches. In the first hours,
eight British soldiers fell per second. By nightfall, 19,240 were dead, 38,230 more were wounded. World War I, the worst
man-made disaster in human experience, was the hinge of modern history. The war was the incubator of Communist Russia,
Nazi Germany, World War II and innumerable cultural consequences. The hinge of this war was the battle named for “that
little stream,” the river Somme.
The scything fire of machine guns could not be nullified even by falling curtains of metal from creeping artillery
barrages that moved in advance of infantry. Geoff Dyer, in “The Missing of the Somme,” notes: “By the time of the great
battles of attrition of 1916-17 mass graves were dug in advance of major offenses. Singing columns of soldiers fell grimly
silent as they marched by these gaping pits en route to the front-line trenches.”
William Philpott’s judicious assessment in “Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century” is that
the Somme was “the cradle of modern combat,” proving that industrial war could be won only by protracted attrition. And
hence by the new science of logistics. The 31 trains a day required to supply the British at the Somme became 70 when the
offensive began. The romance of chivalric warfare died at the Somme, which was what the Germans called Materialschlacht, a
battle of materials more than men. Geographic objectives — land seized — mattered less than the slow exhaustion of a
nation’s material and human resources, civilians as well as soldiers.
In the next world war, the distinction between the front lines and the home front would be erased. In 1918, Randolph
Bourne, witnessing the mass mobilization of society, including its thoughts, distilled into seven words the essence of the
20th century: “War is the health of the state.” Relations among government, the economy and the individual were forever
altered, to the advantage of government.
Military necessity is the most prolific mother of invention, and World War I was, Philpott writes, “a war of invention,”
pitting “scientific-industrial complexes” against each other: “Gas, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers, sub-machine guns,
trench mortars and cannon, fighter and bomber aircraft, tanks and self-propelled artillery all made their battlefield
debuts between 1914 and 1918.”
Attritional war had begun in earnest at Verdun, which occupies in France’s memory a place comparable to that of the Somme
in British memory. And the Somme offensive was begun in part to reduce pressure on Verdun and to demonstrate that Britain
was bearing its share of the war’s burden.
In December 1915, Winston Churchill, then 41, said, “In this war the tendencies are far more important than the episodes.
Without winning any sensational victories we may win this war.” The war itself may have been begun by a concatenation of
blunders, but once begun it was worth winning, and the Somme, this “linear siege” (Philpott), set the tendency for that.
Germany, trying to slow the transatlantic flow of materiel, resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, which, five months
after the Somme ended, brought the United States into the war and, in a sense, into the world.
Thomas Hardy’s description of the 1813 Battle of Leipzig — “a miles-wide pant of pain” — fit the Battle of the Somme,
where a soldier wrote, “From No Man’s Land . . . comes one great groan.” The Somme ended on Nov. 18, with men drowning in
glutinous lakes of clinging mud sometimes five feet deep. This was the war that British poet Rupert Brooke had welcomed as
God’s gift to youth awakened from sleeping, “as swimmers into cleanness leaping.” By November a million men on both sides
were dead — 72,000 British and Commonwealth bodies were never recovered — or wounded. Twenty-two miles of front had been
moved six miles.
But because of this battle, which broke Germany’s brittle confidence, the war’s outcome was discernible. Not so its
reverberations, one of which was an Austrian corporal whose Bavarian unit deployed to the Somme on Oct. 2. Adolf Hitler
was wounded on his third day in the line.
The Battle of the Somme is, in Dyer’s words, “deeply buried in its own aftermath.” As is Europe, still.
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