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The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War
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The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War

by Martin Gilbert

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"Gilbert has unearthed fascinating details of the campaign . . . An unforgettable read."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

At 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, the first Allied soldiers climbed out of their trenches along the Somme River in France and charged into no-man's-land, toward the barbed wire and machine guns at the German front lines. In the


"Gilbert has unearthed fascinating details of the campaign . . . An unforgettable read."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

At 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, the first Allied soldiers climbed out of their trenches along the Somme River in France and charged into no-man's-land, toward the barbed wire and machine guns at the German front lines. In the months that followed, the fifteen-mile-long territory erupted into the epicenter of the Great War, marking a pivotal moment in both the war and military history as tanks first appeared on the battlefield and air war emerged as a devastating and decisive factor in battle. All told, there were more than one million casualties, with 310,000 men dead in just 138 days.

In this vivid account of one of history's most destructive battles, distinguished historian Martin Gilbert tracks the experiences of foot soldiers, generals, and everyone in between. With new photographs, journal entries, original maps, and military planning documents, The Somme is the most authoritative and affecting account of this bloody turning point in the Great War.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The four-month-long battle of the Somme epitomized the futile bloodletting on the western front, with 19,000 advancing British soldiers killed by the Germans on the very first day. From the impersonality of this mechanized slaughter, Gilbert, dean of First and Second World War historians, strives to recover the pathos of personal experience by spotlighting the exploits and travails of various small units and individual soldiers, mostly on the British side. He brings them to life through firsthand accounts, reminiscences by comrades, poignant letters home and snatches of soldiers' poetry, always ending his vignettes with a notice of where the soldiers discussed lie buried or at least memorialized, since the bodies of 73,000 of the dead were never identified. (Many excellent, very detailed maps of both the battlefield and the resulting cemeteries are included.) Gilbert's approach tends to break up the narrative arc, but then the battle didn't have much of an arc anyway; there were attacks and counterattacks, bombardments and lulls, but the front lines scarcely moved before the fighting finally subsided in mutual exhaustion. His superbly written, absorbing recreations of innumerable small life-and-death struggles makes the book a fitting commemoration of the tragedy. Photos. (July 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Ninety years ago, Allied soldiers clambered into no-man's land and charged the Germans at the Somme; 20,000 British soldiers would die in a single day, and 300,000 soldiers were lost on both sides in the next several months. A noteworthy historian offers what should be the definitive account. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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'Chewing barbed wire'

In August 1914 the empires of Europe embarked on a war that each of them believed would be swift and victorious.

Austria-Hungary was confident it could crush Serbia within a few weeks, avenging the assassination that summer of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria, killed in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist.

Germany, with territorial desires on the industrial region of north-west France, was confident it could reach Paris within a few months and dictate peace terms, as it had done in 1871 - and was to do again in 1940. German reservists leaving Berlin by train for their mobilization depots in August 1914 painted on their carriages the slogan 'On to Paris!'

'I hope we shall get to England,' one German soldier wrote to his landlord on October 20, as he set off for the front; but Adolf Hitler was to be disappointed, both then and in 1940.

France, hoping to regain the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine that Germany had annexed in 1871, was confident it could counter-attack and defeat Germany by the end of the year: French soldiers leaving Paris by train were cheered by enthusiastic crowds willing them 'to Berlin!'

Great Britain was certain that its small professional army, fighting alongside the French - with whom it had signed an Entente Cordiale in 1904 - could drive the Germans from the soil of northern France by Christmas. Britain was also confident it could drive the Germans out of Belgium, all but a tiny corner of which the German Army had overrun on its drive towards Paris. On August 4 Britain declared war on Germany in response to its invasion of Belgium, to whom Britain was bound by one of its oldest treaties of alliance, signed in 1839, and never before put to the test.

Russia - the Empire of the Tsars - whose territory stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, believed it could help its French ally by pressing in on the German Empire from the East. It also saw itself as the champion of fellow Slavs: Poles under German rule in the eastern regions of Germany, Serbs threatened by Austria-Hungary, and the many Slav minorities in Austria-Hungary itself, Poles, Czechs, Slovenes, Slovaks, Serbs and Ruthenes among them.

The Germans were confident that, with the help of Austria- Hungary, with whom they had an alliance dating back a quarter of a century, they could force Russia out of the war and gain control of Russian Poland, with its capital, Warsaw, and its industrial city, Lodz. Germany also wanted to establish control over the Russian province of Courland, including the Baltic port city of Riga, and the land bordering on German East Prussia, including the cities of Vilna and Brest-Litovsk - integral parts of the Russian Empire for more than a hundred years.

The hopes of each combatant for rapid territorial gains and swift victories were illusions. By Christmas 1914, within six months of the start of the war, Germany and Austria-Hungary had both lost territory to Russia on the Eastern Front. On the Western Front, the triumphant German march on Paris had been halted at the Battle of the Marne in mid-September, and pushed back a week later at the Battle of the Aisne.

Following the Battle of the Aisne, the Germans attempted to break through to the English Channel. They were stopped by the end of October, at the first Battle of Ypres, a Belgian town that was to remain within the Allied lines for the rest of the war. Throughout November and December, when winter made fighting almost impossible, the contending armies in the West dug trenches and gun emplacements in a continuous line stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Then, protected by their trenches, they faced each other across the No-Man's Land that separated the trenches.

Briefly, at Christmas 1914, and again on New Year's Day, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons, crossed into No-Man's Land, and fraternized. Some swapped beer or showed each other photographs of their families. Some played football. The higher commands on both sides ordered an end to this intimacy. A year later there were only minor truces.

Hardly had Britain declared war on Germany than the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum - the victorious commander of the forces that had defeated the Mahdi of the Sudan sixteen years earlier - recognizing that war in Europe would require far more than the existing 160,000 men of the Regular Army, cast about for a means to raise volunteers on a substantial scale. His initial aim was an additional army of 100,000 men. Britain, which for the previous century had prided itself on the adequacy of its small, professional regular army, would have to accept that a nationwide effort was needed if the swift German military successes in Europe were to be checked and defeated.

At a meeting in the War Office on 19 August 1914, fifteen days after Britain had declared war on Germany, General Sir Henry Rawlinson - who was later to command the main British and Empire force on the Somme, the Fourth Army - suggested that men would be more willing to enlist if they knew they would serve with those whom they knew: friends, neighbours and workmates. Rawlinson asked a business acquaintance, Robert White, to raise a battalion of men who worked in the City of London. Within two hours of White opening a recruiting office, more than two hundred City workers enlisted. Six days later, the Stockbrokers' Battalion had 1,600 men.

When the Earl of Derby - the dominant political figure in Lancashire - heard of White's success he decided to form a battalion in Liverpool, opening a recruitment office there on August 28. By the end of the day 1,500 men had enlisted. It was Derby who first used the term a 'battalion of pals' to describe men who had been recruited locally.

On August 30, at St Swithun's Church, East Grinstead, the Reverend W. Youard gave a sermon calling on the young men of his parish to volunteer. Youard suggested that all local sports clubs close down so that men would not be tempted to stay behind. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived nearby, joined the campaign, telling the local men, 'If the cricketer had a straight eye, let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb, let him serve and march in the Weld of battle.' In response, Kitchener approved the creation of a Sportsman's Battalion. It included two England cricketers, Patsy Hendren and Andrew Sandham, and the Lightweight boxing champion of England, Jerry Delaney. The Sportsman's Battalion also included artists, authors, big-game hunters, clergymen and oarsmen.

A nationwide effort had begun. Kitchener encouraged towns and villages all over Britain to organize similar recruiting campaigns. Battalions were raised by local authorities, industrialists and committees of private citizens. A typical example was that of several army-age young men who had attended Winteringham Secondary School in Grimsby. They suggested to their former headmaster that he should form a battalion from his former pupils. By the end of October he had recruited more than a thousand former schoolboys into what they called the Grimsby Chums. Other schools, including five of Britain's leading public schools, quickly formed their own battalions. The four Pals battalions recruited in Hull were known as the Hull Commercials, the Hull Tradesmen, the Hull Sportsmen and the Hull T'Others.

In the two months following the outbreak of war, more than fifty cities and towns in Britain formed Pals battalions. Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham were the counties that raised the most. Larger cities formed several battalions: Manchester had fifteen; Hull had four; Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow had three. Many towns were able to raise at least two battalions. In Glasgow, one battalion was drawn from the drivers, conductors, mechanics and labourers of the city Tramways Department.

On 10 September 1914 the British Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, told the House of Commons, 'We have been recruiting during the past ten days substantially the same number of recruits as in past years have been recruited every year.' These men would be needed; at the very moment when the debate in Britain was whether the war would be over before Christmas, or might last as long as the festive season, Kitchener predicted a sustained and harsh conflict that would require, if Germany were to be defeated, the appearance on the battlefield of an overwhelming force of new, well-trained and well-led divisions, able to deliver a decisive blow. The men of the New Army - soon known as Kitchener's Army - were recruited from offices, football teams, cricket teams, coal mines and factories. Post Office employees, railway employees, tramway employees, coal miners, clerks: all clamoured to be allowed to serve. Whole streets of young men rushed to join up in a fever of patriotism that swept both Britain and its Empire.

Typical of the enlisting zeal, on 25 November 1914 eleven football players from the Heart of Midlothian team enlisted for a new battalion in Edinburgh. Two more members of the team joined up on the following day, with seven players from Raith Rovers - the team from Kirkaldy, in Fife - and six players from Falkirk. Then several players from another Edinburgh club, Hibernian, enlisted. It took only ten more days before 1,550 football players and fans had joined up, forming a complete battalion, the 16th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. It was soon known as the Sportsmen's Battalion, the Football Battalion, and, most widely, McCrae's Battalion, after Sir George McCrae, a former Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East, and Chairman of the Local Government Board for Scotland, who gathered its troops, prepared them for war, and was to command them on the Somme. 'If McCrae's are going out', it was said in Scotland, 'the Germans haven't got long to live.'

Because many volunteers were smaller than the Army's minimum height requirement of five foot five, the requirement was reduced to five foot one. Men between five foot one and five foot four were put into self-contained Bantam battalions. Four of these battalions were formed into a Bantam division, the 35th Infantry Division, of 4,000 men. Being smaller than their fellow New Army men, the Bantam soldiers had one advantage: they were less immediately visible to German snipers.

By the end of 1914, half a million New Army volunteers - five times Kitchener's initial target - were under training in England. Those who clung to the hopes that the small, professional army was enough to defeat the Germans called them, derisively, the Featherbed Soldiers, but Kitchener was confident that they could be trained to the highest fighting standards. Central to his plan was that they would enter the conflict as a single entity. To this end he resisted all attempts to transfer the New Army battalions to the battlefield as each one was trained. According to his calculations, they would be ready, as a well-trained, single, powerful entity, by the early months of 1916. He would not allow them to be thrown into the battle before then, either as a complete force or piecemeal.

On 3 October 1914, while the New Army battalions were being raised in Britain, the largest crowd ever assembled in St John's, Newfoundland, the capital of Britain's smallest Dominion, gathered to cheer the departure across the Atlantic of the first contingent of the Newfoundland Regiment: 535 volunteers who were determined to make their contribution to the defeat of Germany. 'You'll be back in six weeks,' called out some of the watching crowd. One onlooker called out in mock derision, 'There goes the picnic party!' A few months later he too volunteered; he was killed on the Somme, at Gueudecourt, in October 1916.

Known as the First Five Hundred, the first Newfoundland volunteers began their training in Britain in the rain, mud and icy winds of Salisbury Plain. A few miles away, men from their neighbouring, larger Dominion, soldiers of the Canadian Infantry Brigade, were also in training. They too would fight on the Somme.

Throughout 1915, the British and French armies attempted to break through the German lines, determined to drive the German troops from north-eastern France and from Belgium. It was a noble vision. The French city of Lille, only seven miles behind German lines, would be liberated. The most productive industrial region of France would be renewed. Brussels, the Belgian capital, would see an end to German military rule, and be restored to its King. None of this happened: the Anglo-French offensives of 1915 were halted by an enemy that had dug deep trenches from which its troops could fight, built fortified strongpoints from which machine-gun fire could be directed against the attacker, and erected barbed-wire defences that could be breached only after facing intense rifle and machine-gun fire.

Along the narrow but unbroken line of the trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the soil, farms and woods of France and Flanders were scarred and ravaged by a year of fighting. Artillery on both sides fired their explosive shells against the facing defenders. Tens of thousands of soldiers were killed in each of the contending armies. At the end of 1915 the line of trenches on the Western Front, with its ever-thickening barbed-wire entanglements on both sides, its ever-stronger machine-gun defences on the German side, and its well-defended artillery positions, was virtually the same line as at the start of the year.

A series of British attempts to break the line, most notably at Neuve-Chapelle in March and at Loos in September, had failed to do so, at heavy cost in dead and wounded. At Neuve-Chapelle, 11,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded. At Loos the number of casualties was 61,000, of whom 7,760 were killed. As the cost in human life mounted, for almost no military gain, British policymakers began to wonder if the stalemate and slaughter of trench warfare was the way to victory. Winston Churchill, whose twenty-eight-year-old cousin Norman Leslie, a captain in the Rifle Brigade, was killed in action in October 1914, was among those in the British government who felt there must be some alternative, as he expressed it, to 'chewing barbed wire in Flanders'.

One such alternative had been found in early 1915: an attack on the Turkish Ottoman Empire. After Germany had won Turkey to its side in October 1914, most politicians and military commanders in Britain and France were confident they could bring the so-called 'Sick Man of Europe' to its knees. Two areas seemed possible points of attack. The first was Turkey-in-Europe, centred on Constantinople. The second was Turkey's vast Near Eastern regions, including Syria, Palestine, the Sinai desert bordering on Egypt, and Mesopotamia (now Iraq), where British troops had landed in October 1914, advancing to Basra, and with their sights on Baghdad.

In April 1915, Italy joined Britain, France, Russia and Serbia - the Entente Powers, soon to be known as the Allied Powers. The Italian government was confident that it would secure large swathes of Austro-Hungarian and Turkish territory the moment these two empires had been defeated. But a two-phased Anglo-French effort to reach Constantinople in early 1915 ended in failure. That March, a naval attack, for which Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was responsible, tried to push through the Dardanelles by ships alone, but was foiled by an undetected Turkish minefield. Sixty-seven British and 600 French sailors were killed in the attempt, which, to Churchill's chagrin, was not renewed, even with increased minesweeping vigilance.

In April 1915 a military landing, for which Lord Kitchener, as Secretary of State for War, was responsible, was made on the Gallipoli Peninsula, which overlooked the Dardanelles. It met with strong opposition from Turkish forces commanded and led by German officers. In the assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula, 34,000 British and Empire troops were killed, including Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) forces who had come by sea halfway round the world, and some of the First Five Hundred from Newfoundland. Also killed were 10,000 French troops and 80,000 Turkish soldiers. But the peninsula could not be taken, and after nine months of intense fighting the Gallipoli enterprise was abandoned.

Churchill, the architect of the naval assault at the Dardanelles, while remaining a Member of Parliament, left the government and went to the Western Front as a lieutenant colonel, commanding a Scottish battalion in the trenches just south of Ploegsteert Wood. Kitchener, the architect of the military landings at Gallipoli, remained in London as Secretary of State for War, preparing for the campaigns of 1916, and for the first appearance of his New Army on the battlefields of Europe.

An Allied army of 133,000 men was evacuated from Gallipoli in three stages, the first two on 20 December 1915, from Suvla and Anzac, the third on 9 January 1916 from Helles. Those evacuated included British, French, Australian, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Indian troops. Among them was a future British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. The evacuation took place without casualties. The troops were available to fight elsewhere, including on the Western Front.

In the summer of 1915 the Austro-Hungarian Army struck at Serbia, which had repelled its first attacks in August and September 1914. To come to the aid of Serbia, British and French troops landed at the Greek port city of Salonika, with its direct road and rail access northward to Serbia. But it was too late. Austro-Hungarian troops, having defeated the outnumbered Serbian Army and overrun Serbia, hurried southward and established an impenetrable line of trenches twenty miles north of Salonika. In a hilly, precipitous landscape, they pinned down the Anglo-French forces into a small perimeter, with their backs to the Aegean Sea.

There was going to be no swift victory - possibly no victory at all - either against the Turks, who were tenaciously defending their positions in Mesopotamia, or against the Austrians north of Salonika: the two fronts so much favoured by those British and French leaders and strategists who were known as the Easterners. The focus of potential victory turned once more to the trench lines on the Western Front.

To prepare for the coming battles, the British Army established, on 14 October 1915, the Machine Gun Corps, to provide trained machine-gunners for every battalion. The Lewis gun, designed by an American Army colonel, Isaac Newton Lewis, was superior to the existing Vickers gun, and would be available in the new year. It could fire up to seven hundred bullets a minute, in short, lethal bursts. It needed only one man to carry and fire it, and a second man to carry the ammunition, as against four men to do the same tasks for the Vickers gun.

Because the Machine Gun Corps did such destructive work, it quickly became the target of every weapon on the battlefield. For this reason its members were known as the Suicide Club. But it was they, and their German opposite numbers, who dealt out the deadly fire, as the infantrymen on both sides were to discover. On the Machine Gun Corps Memorial at Hyde Park in London is inscribed a verse from the Book of Samuel: 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.'

Copyright © 2006 by Martin Gilbert

Meet the Author

Sir Martin Gilbert was knighted in 1995 "for services to British history and international relations." Among his many books are The First World War, The Second World War, The Day the War Ended, and Churchill: A Life. He lives in London, England.

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