Friday, July 1, 2016


JULY 1, 1916

     A hundred years ago today, the British Army, in a desperate bid to divert German forces from the bloodbath they were inflicting on the French at Verdun, finished up the largest artillery barrage in history and sent their troops "over the top" along the Somme River in France. They had fired some 2 million shells into the German trenches over a two week period, thinking that they would collapse the bunkers where the enemy troops huddled underground and demolish the barbed wire that blocked passage into the German trenchline.  Never before had so many shells been fired at such a small area in so short a period of time.  Surely the attack would be virtually unopposed, the British High Command thought!

They were wrong. The German bunkers remained intact, and as the artillery barrage lightened up, the grey-clad Teutons came pouring out of their underground shelters and manned their machine guns. Their intelligence officers knew the hour and moment of the attack, primarily due to the idiocy of a British general who broadcast a motivational speech on the next day's attack over the wireless, unencrypted, the night before!  Forewarned, the Germans were ready to meet the attack.  The advancing allied troops were cut down like summer grass before a mower. Despite the innovation of a creeping barrage that was supposed to stay a hundred yards in front of the advancing troops and move with them, resistance was fierce.   Sixty thousand British soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded that day. SIXTY THOUSAND. Approximately twenty-four thousand of those were killed outright. In one single day! That is more men than America saw killed in all ten years of the Vietnam War.  I live in a town of 26,000 - so basically, the British dead that day equaled Greenville's entire population.  The total casualties equaled the entire population of our county.  The names of the dead and missing would cover page after page of the London Times for the next few months.

And the Battle of the Somme lasted until November. By the end of the battle, the Allies would suffer 623,000 casualties, with roughly 150,000 of those killed outright. The Germans and the other Central powers lost 465,000, with around 160,000 killed. That's over one million total casualties, with about a third of them killed, or missing and presumed dead.  Britain's population, at that time, was 46 million.  By the war's end, three out of four young Britons (men between 18 and 35) would have been killed or wounded in this conflict, and a large proportion of that number in this one, single, awful battle.

      For what it's worth, the Allies won.  In exchange for a generation of their youth, they managed to move the front line forward eight miles. That stretch of the beautiful Somme valley, in 1916, became the most expensive real estate in the history of our planet.  And the Germans?  They fell back and dug more trenches. The slaughter continued for two more full years, until sheer exhaustion, compounded by the intervention of the USA, with its incredible industrial capacity and inexhaustible supply of manpower, forced Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria to surrender.  But some fourteen to sixteen million had died in a little over four years, mostly because they were ordered to charge heavily entrenched machine guns with bayonets.  The machine guns nearly always won.

Was there ever a more stupid war?

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