The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest offensives of the First World War beginning a hundred years ago today. Between 1 July and 18 November 1916 more than a million men were killed as the French and British attempted a big push to distract the German forces from French held Verdun to the south.
The First Day was the darkest day in the history of the British Army, sustaining nearly 60,000 casualties, with nearly 20,000 of those being killed. In the Pals Battalions the young men of entire communities were wiped out. Kitchener’s army, developed from the recruits he’d asked for after the losses sustained by the BEF at Mons in 1915 at the beginning of the war made their strategic debut. They were inexperienced and ill-prepared for the sort of mechanized slaughter that had developed between the Germans and the French.
Among those who took part in this battle and were deeply affected by it include J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, and Isaac Rosenberg. Their experiences helped to engender and shape their contributions to literature.
At the end of the battle there had been some gains, but the image of Lions being led by Asses had become entrenched in the mindset of the British, with soldiers as simply numbers to be tossed at the enemy machine guns so prevalent in depictions of the war. The cost of the battle, which certainly must have made sense in the planning room were British Commonwealth: more than 419,654 casualties, 95,675 dead or missing; French: 204,253 casualties, 50,756 dead or missing; German 465,000 casualties, 164,055 dead or wounded, 38,000 prisoners. All for the gain of six miles.