One Hundred Years Ago Today, the Final 140 Days of the Somme Began
|Vigil at Thiepval Memorial, July 2016|
|Hull Commercial Pals at the Somme, 28 June 1916|
9. The Somme is the Great War's most remembered battle (at least in the English-speaking world). For instance, the U.S. Library of Congress catalog has 289 citations for the "Battle of the Somme" and 161 entries combined for the three biggest American battles of the war, the 2nd Marne, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. I'm sure the ratio would be much greater in, say, the British Library. Why the Somme fascination? Some speculations:
a. It was almost inhuman in scale. Beside the casualties, there is no better symbol of the Somme than the Lochnagar Mine Crater, fired on the first morning of the battle.
b. Much of what we know about the Great War comes from British sources, and the Somme sent shock waves through the British Empire like no other event in history. It affected every level of their stratified society from the working class Pals of Accrington to the "playing fields of Eton." (Over 1,100 Etonians died on the battlefields.) It touched every corner of the empire — Canadians, Anzacs, South Africans, and even Indian Lancers, served and died at the Somme.
c. The Somme marks a literary fault line. The early war poets, like Rupert Brooke, John McRae, and Alan Seeger, wrote of tradition, duty, and sacrifice. Well, Seeger dutifully met his "Rendezvous with Death" at the Somme on 4 July 1916. About the same time, two junior officers of the 38th Welsh Division named Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves were approaching Mametz Wood, where their unit would encounter a brutal fight. They would help initiate what has become the more famous school of war writers, the rejectors of the past, who saw the war as futile and a great betrayal. Graves later wrote, "I found in Mametz Wood a certain cure for lust of blood" and aptly titled his war memoir Goodbye to All That.
10. Final Irony
After all that happened in 1916, what happened next truly must have seemed to have made the whole effort appear futile. The red area marks all the territory captured by British and French forces in the 1916 battle. The green line marks Operation Alberich, AKA, the retreat to the Hindenburg Line (9 Feb – 20 Mar,1917). The Allies were "gifted" with three times the territory they had bled barrels for, and the German's were manning a shorter and much more defensible front line.
Roads to the Great War
Has Much More on the Battle of the Somme
Just enter "Somme 1916" in the search box at the top of the screen and you will find two dozen articles we have presented earlier on the battle.