The Battle of The Somme

The First World War has all but passed out of living memory. Yet its hold on the imagination is as powerful as ever. Why is this? The answer may lie in the Battle of the Somme, the engagement that more than any other has come to symbolise the futility and slaughter of the Western Front. On its 90th anniversary, John Lichfield reports from the tiny strip of northern France where a quarter of a million men lost their lives in just four months
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The Independent Online

In the neat, quiet village of Fricourt in northern France stands a stubby street of modern bungalows. You might be in a patch of rural mock-suburbia anywhere in Europe.

The street runs away into a rough farm track between fields of wheat and broad beans. Off to the left is a path of closely mown grass, like a strip of English lawn unrolled in the middle of a French cornfield.

The lawn leads to a walled cemetery, which has seven cherry trees and two yews. In June and July, when surrounded by ripening crops and a scattering of poppies, this cemetery is one of the prettiest and most peaceful places on earth.

There are 208 graves surrounded by a jumble of typical British garden flowers - roses, phlox, peonies, lupins - and more lawns, green and crisp enough to satisfy the Buckingham Palace head gardener.

This place, the Fricourt New Military Cemetery, is a little corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire. Almost all of the young men buried here died on one day - 1 July 1916. Almost all of them died within a few yards of their burial place, which was then in the no man's land between the British and German front-line trenches.

Many of them came from the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, volunteers from Leeds and Harrogate and surrounding towns and villages. Before the war, they were clerks and mill workers, farm boys and solicitors. Wearing flat caps and boaters, they answered Lord Kitchener's call and joined the Army together in 1914. They died together within a few minutes of the start of the Battle of the Somme, at 7.30am 90 years ago tomorrow.

Others are from the 7th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment - many of them friends and neighbours from Hull - mowed down in a second, futile assault in the afternoon. These wheat and bean fields were the bloodiest single section of the most calamitous day's battle in the history of the British Army.

The battle went on for another four and a half months with some local successes, but ended in overall strategic failure. By mid-November, the British and French had advanced the equivalent of 100 yards (the length of a football field) for each day's fighting.

Like Verdun for the French, the Somme has become the abiding symbol for Britain - and the British Commonwealth - of the 1914-18 war. The two conflicts were almost one, 150 miles apart but overlapping in time. There were murderous battles in 1914 and 1915, but in 1916, at the Somme and at Verdun, the power of modern industry was applied in inexhaustible force to human flesh for the first time.

There were more than 1,000,000 casualties at the Somme - roughly 400,000 British and Commonwealth, 400,000 German and 200,000 French. Of these, maybe one in four died. The precise casualty figures are still in dispute but the Somme was the most destructive single battle of that war - or of any war.

Up to 10,000 people are expected to attend the official commemoration of the 90th anniversary this weekend, centring on the Thiepval "Memorial to the Missing", three miles from Fricourt. There will be military bands and flags. There will be veterans of other wars and veterans of no wars at all in smart blue blazers and grey trousers. There will be readings of war poems. The Prince of Wales will make a speech. Henry Allingham, 110, Britain's oldest man, one of the last six British survivors of the war - but not a Somme veteran - is expected to attend. As far as one can establish, there are no living veterans of the Somme. There are no survivors from the 3,000,000 British, French and German - not to speak of Australian, New Zealand, Irish, South African, Canadian, Indian, North African and African - soldiers who fought there between 1 July and 18 November 1916. The battle has passed over the horizon of living memory. Is it therefore time to bury the Somme?

Martin Middlebrook, one of our most humane and influential historians of the 1914 war, says: "After the 80th anniversary in 1996, I would have told you that two things were inevitable: we would see declining numbers of people at future commemorations, and interest in the war would gradually reduce. The opposite has been true."

There are more British visitors to the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in France and Belgium than ever before. The nightly ceremony of the playing of The Last Post at the Menin gate in Ypres - the equivalent of the Thiepval memorial for the Flanders battles of 1914-18 - was attended by a handful of people 30 years ago. Now, there is a sizeable crowd each night. The excellent new information centre at Thiepval recorded more than 300,000 visitors in its first year, which was well beyond expectations.

Fricourt New is far from the largest or best known of the 148 Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries on the Somme. All the same, judging by the official book, it has a steady stream of British visitors. Hardly a day goes by without two or three entries. Some are distinctly 21st century in sentiment and spelling. Others are more traditional.

"It's quite strange to find some1 (sic) the same name as me!" "Found my gran's first husband lying here. If he had lived, life would have been different." "Not lost but gone before." "To Uncle John, you ended your life 1.7.16. You will never be forgotten." "You fighted well."

One of the forces at work here is a rootless, modern obsession with genealogy, with roots. Many of the people you speak to at Thiepval, or elsewhere, say that they have been surprised to discover recently that a great uncle fought or died at the Somme. As each generation goes by, it doubles the number of people with relatives who fought in the battle. Almost all of us have a relative who fought at the Somme.

But there are other explanations - complex and sometimes contradictory - for the increasing interest in a war now almost a century old. Martin Middlebrook says that, for one reason or another, the 1914 war has "come out from behind the shadow" of the 1939 war.


The 20th century saw by far the greatest and fastest advances ever seen in human prosperity and knowledge. It was also the most destructive century in human history (so far).

The Second World War - or at least our part in it - can easily be explained away as a good and necessary war, without which the century would have been even darker. But how did mankind find itself fighting the First World War, the war that set the pattern for the century? That question still gnaws at our guts and our collective memories.

Below the level of colonel, the Somme was largely fought, on the British side, by amateurs. This explains, in part, why the battle has so scarred our national memory. Equally, it helps to explain the catastrophe of the first day - not because the soldiers were incompetent but because the British general directly in charge, Sir Henry Rawlinson, assumed that they were.

The battles of 1914 and 1915 destroyed the small British regular Army and decimated the territorials, or part-time soldiers. The Somme, or "Big Push", awaited in Britain with enormous confidence, was to be the victorious consecration of Lord Kitchener's New Army, the battalions created from the patriotic rush of volunteers in 1914 and early 1915.

Many of them were formed - or formed themselves - into Pals or Chums battalions in which friends, neighbours, workmates, entire amateur football teams, served together.

The greatest historian of the New Army was Martin Middlebrook, in his The First Day on the Somme, published in 1971, now regarded as a classic, and reissued this week. Previous histories of the battle and the war were told from the viewpoint of senior officers. Middlebrook was the first historian to go and interview the ordinary soldiers - British and German - who were then still alive in great numbers.

Another historian, Michael Stedman, says that it was Middlebrook's book that opened the way for the recent explosion of writing about the Great War, in both history and fiction. Stedman believes that this surge in what he calls "people's history" helps to explain the renewed interest in the 1914 war. Faded sepia memories have been restored to full colour.

Middlebrook, in an interview with The Independent, pointed out that, pre-1914, soldiering in Britain had been an occupation for toffs and toughs: for the sons of the aristocracy and the unemployed, especially from Scotland and Ireland. He said: "On the Somme, it is not stretching a point to say that the British middle and middling classes - the clerks, the solicitors, the skilled artisans - went to war for the first time in our history."

The Pals battalions, even their officers, were regarded by Gen Rawlinson as enthusiastic, unskilled civilians in uniform. He laid down a battle plan that denied them any right of initiative. A vast bombardment of more than a million shells would crush the German front line. The heavily encumbered British soldiers (carrying, variously, pigeons, boxes of ammunition, shovels and rolls of telegraph wire) would leave their trenches at 7.30am, in broad daylight. They would walk, not run. They would not attempt to creep up to the German lines while their own bombardment was in progress.

All German defenders would have been killed or cowed. The British would therefore merely occupy the German lines, like pawns moving forward on a chess board.

Rawlinson, unlike his commander-in-chief, Gen Sir Douglas Haig, had little belief in a breakthrough into open ground beyond the mesh of German defences several miles deep. He foresaw the battle as a series of artillery bombardments, followed by a grab at sections of German line: a battle of attrition, but mostly attrition of Germans.

In the event, the British bombardment, though the largest in British military history to that date, was inadequate. One in three shells was a dud. The German barbed wire remained intact in many places. When the Pals battalions and others rose from their trenches, they were mown down by German machine guns that could strike targets a mile away. Some British battalions were destroyed as they left their support trenches, before they even reached their own front line. After almost two years of training and high expectations, the war for many Pals and Chums lasted just seconds.

The areas where the British did capture German lines proved that Rawlinson was wrong. The "unskilled" Manchester and Liverpool Pals had great success at Montauban and Mametz, just east of the 10th West Yorkshire calamity at Fricourt. This was partly because the French artillery helping them was more efficient; partly because they ignored Rawlinson's "walk don't run" instructions. The French, further south, also gained some ground.

Elsewhere, the attack was a catastrophe. The British suffered over 57,000 casualties on the first day, including 20,000 deaths. Many of those who died were friends, workmates, brothers. The first day of the Somme was largely fought by soldiers from Scotland, northern England, Northern Ireland, London and the north Midlands. When the telegrams arrived a few days later, entire districts of northern towns were plunged into mourning. There were 9,000 casualties from Yorkshire; 6,000 from Lancashire. Others - the Welsh, the Canadians, the Australians - gave blood later.

There were some locally successful attacks later that month, and in August and September as the British Army assaulted a series of fortified woodlands - Mametz Wood, Delville Wood, High Wood. Tanks were used by the British in September for the first time. Cavalry, unbelievably, was also used by the British at one point. The tanks, deployed in small numbers, proved unreliable and ineffective after the Germans recovered from the shock.

As summer moved into autumn, the battlefield - still green and forested on 1 July - became a desolate landscape of smashed villages, broken tree-stumps, shell-holes, rotting bodies and mud. In mid-November, the British and French gave up, several miles short of their objectives, and declared a victory.

Some recent British historians have tried to revive the idea of the Somme as a victory. They argue that the strength of the German army was "broken" at the Somme (what about Verdun?). They also argue that the British Army - even its generals - went through a learning process on the Somme and emerged stronger at the end of the battle. Martin Middlebrook has no time for these arguments.

"The German army, 'broken' on the Somme, held back the British advance at Arras in early 1917, drove the French army to mutiny at the Chemin des Dames that spring and held the British for months in the third battle of Ypres later that year. That same Germany army, admittedly reinforced after the collapse of Russia on the eastern front, almost broke through and won the war in 1918 before it was finally worn down by the Allied advance that summer. So much for a victory on the Somme."

And the Somme as a British learning curve? "In truth, little was learnt," Middlebrook says. "Although the calamity of the first day was not repeated, the generals continued to switch aimlessly between attacks on a broad front or a narrow front, without much expectation of a break out... It was not before 1918 that different approaches were finally adopted."

Few British, French or German generals of the 1914 war ever stood in a front-line trench. They deserve the scorn of history. But what else could they have done?

The war, we know, led directly to another, more terrible war. Does that mean that the British and French people, and politicians, were wrong to resist German militarism in 1914? Would the world have been a better place if the Somme had never been fought?

The truth is that the war was still enormously popular in Britain in the summer of 1916. In France, the anguish of the losses of 1914, 1915 and Verdun were beginning to affect political and military thinking. But the possibility of an armistice while the German army stood on French soil was inconceivable. Germany was putting out vague peace proposals - but only if it could keep all of the territory it had captured.

By 1916, the Somme - the first big test of the military and political will of the British Empire - was inevitable. The battle might have been fought with a little more guile and less callousness, especially on the first day. The battles of 1917 suggest that the outcome would have been broadly the same.

The tragedies, and lessons, of the 1914 war go beyond blaming the generals (however stupid) and praising the soldiers (however inconceivably brave).

The 1914 war was the culmination of a 19th century that increased the productive - and destructive - power of mankind beyond the scope of dreams and nightmares. It was a war fought with murderous inventions, like machine guns, high-powered artillery, poison gas, tanks and warplanes. More importantly, it was a war fought with new economic and logistical capacities, from railways to tinned food and the industrial and taxation power of the modern state.

Never before could armies of 3,000,000 men have faced each other in a space of 200 square miles for over three months. To kill 250,000 people takes political organisation and determination, administrative skills and economic power, not just military strength or callousness.

The 19th and early 20th century also saw great advances in political rights, in education, in respect for the humanity of the common man. On the Western Front at least, the Great War was fought by educated men - one of the first generations to be universally educated. On the Allied side, it was fought - not universally, but largely - by men who had the vote. This is what makes the 1914 war so compelling and baffling: even more so, as Martin Middlebrook suggests, than the 1939 war.

Why did a Western world that was beginning, for the first time, to respect and value individuals, pour them into its new mincing machine of military-industrial power? Why did an educated population stand for it?

The answer, in part, is that one of our first uses of mass literacy and mass education was to inculcate an unthinking patriotism and nationalism - in Britain and France, as much as in Germany. The innocence and confidence of the young men in boaters and flat caps who queued to join Pals battalions was born from a Boys' Own Magazine conviction that British-is-best, as much as from a belief in freedom and democracy.

And yet can we confidently deny that they were defending freedom and democracy?

Talking to visitors to the battlefield today, you still find those who believe that the war was a great patriotic and democratic crusade, and those who believe that it was a criminal waste of life. You find many people who - quite reasonably - believe both.

Michael Stedman was a schoolteacher who took scores of school trips to Flanders and Picardy before he became a historian. He said: "The 1914-18 war raises questions that go to the core of mankind's existence. Is it right to fight for what you believe in, even if you know that warfare, with modern weaponry, leads to unimaginable indignity and suffering? At what point do you stand up to evil? How can you distinguish good and evil from nationalistic ranting and posturing? All those questions remain. All are unresolved and perhaps will never be resolved... But I know from the experience of taking school parties to the Somme, that just going to the battlefields forces young people to grow up, to face these questions for the first time. For that reason alone, we should never bury the Somme."

Even such a beautiful place as Fricourt New Military Cemetery - a tribute to the extraordinary work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - raises a difficult question. Should this place be so beautiful?

The French 1914-1918 cemeteries are austere, the German cemeteries sombre. The British cemeteries set out to be pretty and peaceful. They try to capture, simultaneously, the impression of a typical British garden and soldiers on a parade ground, frozen forever in lines of carved, white stones.

Peaceful prettiness may seem like a strange way to commemorate such a hellish event as the Somme. And yet the British cemeteries capture the tragic ambivalence of the war - the sacrifice, the waste, the innocence, the courage, the camaraderie, the futility - more powerfully than speeches or military bands.

Here was a war that set the pattern of a century, which led to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. And yet here also was a war in which - for the first time - individual soldiers were systematically given individual graves.

Britain took this process even further than Germany or France. In French and German cemeteries, each stone usually represents two soldiers, or four, but rarely one. There are relatively few marked graves for unidentified soldiers. Unidentified Germans were buried in mass graves; the French in ossuaries.

France has one famous tomb for all its unknown soldiers. Britain has tens of thousands. In some Commonwealth First World War cemeteries, they represent as many as one third of all the graves. Each was killed in the most obscene mass slaughter the world had yet seen, yet each has been treated as an individual: "A soldier of the great war. Known unto God."

There could be no better expression of the unsolved riddle, the living conundrum, at the heart of the war and at the heart of the Somme.

The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 by Martin Middlebrook is published by Penguin, £10.99

Pilgrimage to the past: Somme visitors' stories

'I have come for my mum, to give her love to her dad'

Janet Mellors has come to France on a final errand for her mother. "She always wanted to visit the place where her dad died. She never made it. I promised her I would do it for her. I have come for my mum's sake, to give a little girl's love to her dad."

Ms Mellors, 61, a retired teacher from Nottingham, has located her grandfather among the 72,000 names carved on Thiepval's Memorial to the Missing. On pillar six, panel D, about halfway up, among other privates of the Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment), is inscribed the name, Cobb W.J.

Private William John Cobb's oldest daughter, Dorothy Alice - Janet's mother - was four years old when he was killed on 24 October, 1916, three weeks before the end of the battle. His bodywas never found.

"My mum hardly remembered him, except as a face in a photograph, but my gran would talk about him often. He was a potter in Dorset. He joined up early in the war, even though there was less pressure to go on the older, married chaps like him.

"I've always wanted to come and be with him for a while."

Travelling with a friend, Ms Mellors has been visiting the parts of the battlefield where William Cobb's battalion - the 7th Queen's - fought in 1916.

Her grandmother cherished the letter that she received later from a 23-year-old second lieutenant, Joseph Russell, paying tribute to William Cobb as a "real Englishman".

A month later, Lieutenant Russell was himself killed. Ms Mellors visited the officer's grave in Buissy.

"If we don't remember them, we will regret it. Just look at all the hatred in the world today. We must remember what they did and do everything we can for a peaceful future."

'In almost everyone's past is a man who fought here...'

When Albert Gerrish was five years old, his father placed him on his knee and told him about his lost uncles, Tom and Joe.

Sergeant Thomas Gerrish of the East Surrey Regiment was killed on 16 August 1916, aged 22. Six weeks later, on 1 October, his brother, Private Joseph Gerrish of the London Regiment, also vanished in the autumn mud of the Somme. Neither of their bodies was found or identified. Both are commemorated on the Thiepval monument.

"My father was 15 when they died. He felt he had a duty to keep their memory alive. After that first time, when I was five, he would tell me about them often. Not to glory in their sacrifice. Not to complain. Just because he thought that we should always remember. His little brother just blotted his older brothers out of his memory."

Mr Gerrish, 76, a retired chartered accountant from Crowhurst in Surrey, first came to "visit" his uncles in 1993. He has made the pilgrimage several times since, this time with his wife and two friends.

"I never knew my uncles but they are still alive to me, from my father's descriptions. Tom, the sergeant, was the serious one, a regular Army soldier, who could have stayed in Britain training recruits but insisted on coming to the front. Joe was one for life. Full of beans. A cheerful lad who liked life's pleasures.

"To me, they are still part of the family. Even when the family history has not been passed down, people want to know. In almost everyone's past is a man who fought on the Somme..."

Pilgrimage to the past: Somme visitors' stories

'Coming to the battlefields helps bring it alive for the children'

Fifty pupils of St Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst, in Lancashire, have come to the battlefields of the First World War on a mission. Each of the 12-year-olds has been allotted the name of a former Stonyhurst College pupil who died in the war.

At the Thiepval Memorial, the children of St Mary's, Stonyhurst's preparatory school, have seven names to find, trace and photograph.

"It helps to bring it alive to them," said their history teacher, Paul Garlington, 48. "They know these young men sat in the same classrooms where they are taught and walked in the same corridors.

"We have researched them and we are now tracing their experiences, visiting where they fought and where they are buried or commemorated."

The pupils have brought a wreath, bearing the school crest designed by a former pupil who died on the Somme. Their behaviour - respectful, interested - does their families and school great credit.

What do the kids make of a battle fought 90 years ago? Thomas, Bradley, Jake, Yoann and Gerry cluster around. "It's sad to see so many graves and so many names... It was such a waste... No, it's not a waste. We had to fight or we would have been taken over by Germany. There would have been no more France... No, the politicians should have sorted it out. That's what politicians are for... But sometimes, you have to fight. We would have been talking German... No, they should have talked. Talking is better than fighting..."