Friday, 1 July 2016

Deadly centenary

A hundred years ago today, nearly 60,000 British young men – not for the most part soldiers, but civilians in uniform – who had been reasonably fit and well in the morning, were injured or dead in the evening.

Nearly 20,000 of that number had been killed. It remains the worst single day's losses by the British Army in its long and not always glorious, but usually bloody, history. The French, heavily engaged on another part of the front, at Verdun, were less involved but still lost 1500. The Germans, on the other side, lost 10,000 – 12,000.

This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was the British Army’s first massive engagement of the First World War. In the end, the battle would last another 140 days and cost 1.3 million lives. Both the French and the British lost 400,000 and the Germans 500,000.

To set that 1.3 million in context, the English city of Birmingham has a population of 1.1 million, the German city of Munich 1.26 million and the French city of Marseille 800,000. The four-month battle had the equivalent effect of wiping out the entire population of any of those cities, and in the case of France, you could chuck in Lyon too.

Achievements of the Somme offensive
At its greatest extent, the Allied advance was five miles.

It was unfortunate that Lord Kitchener, probably the only British officer whose authority might have imposed a different plan from the one carried out, was drowned at sea. But even Douglas Haig, who had direct responsibility for the offensive, wasn’t anxious to attack on the Somme. He preferred an offensive near Ypres in Belgium, where the Germans were far less well dug in. He got his way a year later, in what came to be known as the Second Battle of Ypres, by which time the Germans had much improved their defences, so the battle was again a massacre and failure.

At the Somme, it didn’t help that the seven-day artillery barrage that preceded the offensive had little effect on the German trenches of even the barbed wire in front of them. Indeed, because the shells cut some paths through the barbed wire, it gave the Germans a clear indication of where to concentrate their fire when the British came.

It also didn’t help that the barrage stopped ten minutes before the assault started. Ten minutes were more than enough for the Germans to emerge from their deep dugouts and be ready to greet the British advance with the deadliest of fire.

Still, the battle wasn’t an entire failure. One of the aims was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, and it achieved that. But did it achieve anything else?

Should the Germans or the British govern Tanganyka? Or isn’t it better to leave it to the Tanzanians?

Should the Germans or the Japanese hold on Tsingtao in China? Or is it best to leave it to the Chinese, so that the only legacy of that foreign occupation is quite a pleasant, light, German-style beer served in Chinese restaurants?

Is it appropriate that a government in Vienna should run Prague? Or could it be left to the Czechs?

For these things, the civilians in uniform died or were maimed. I suspect few people feel today that the cause they died for was worth the sacrifice. And the worst of it is that twenty years later, their heirs were called on to fight out the conflict again.

Leaving the only real lesson to learn today, the hundredth anniversary of that great killing, is that we should never, but never, do it again.

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