Battalions attacked in four or eight waves, not more than 100 yards apart, the men in each almost shoulder to shoulder, in a symmetrical well-dressed alignment and taught to advance steadily upright at a slow walk….[E]ach man carried about 66 lbs, over half his own body weight, which made it difficult to get out of a trench, impossible to move quicker than a slow walk or to rise and lie down quickly…even an army mule, the proverbial natural beast of burden, is only expected to carry a third of his own weight.
If there is one battle that shaped the image of courageous men being led by inept generals – the infamous “Lions led by Donkeys” interpretation of the Great War – it was the Battle of the Somme, launched on July 1, 1916.
The Somme is an important battle for many reasons, chief among them the incredibly high number of casualties suffered by British and Empire troops. On the first day of the attack alone, the British Army suffered more than 57,000 casualties, all for a mere 3 square miles of gained territory. This was the single most costly day in the history of British warfare. It is perhaps not surprising that, given this steep cost, an analysis of the battle focusing on outmoded tactics and callous leaders developed. Nevertheless, while there is no denying that the battle was extremely bloody, the popular image of the Somme, cemented by the likes of Basil Liddell-Hart in passages like the one above, is over-simplified. As one recent work on the Somme has argued, the image of men serenely advancing in tight formation as they were scythed down by the Germans is inaccurate.
Whatever the reasons for the attack’s ultimate failure, the casualty figures are staggering. Still, the eagle’s eye view does not always do justice to the carnage. Sometimes a narrower focus hits home more effectively. This is illustrated by the fate of the 1stNewfoundland Regiment, which fought on July 1. Back then, Newfoundland was not part of Canada and so its soldiers fought separately, under the British. The Newfoundland Regiment suffered what can only be termed horrific casualties on the first day of the battle.
Near the tiny village of Beaumont Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment moved into the firing line on Easter Eve, April 22. Some 300 to 500 metres distant, down a grassy slope, lay the German front lines. These German positions were occupied by the men of the German 119th Reserve Regiment, tough and experienced; they had turned the natural defences of a deep Y-shaped ravine into one of the strongest positions on the entire Somme front.
At 9:00 p.m. on June 30, the regiment turned out for the final time: 25 officers, 776 NCOs and other ranks. Among the young men preparing for their first experience of going over the top there was little evidence of foreboding. “It is surprising to see how happy and light-hearted everyone is,” Lieutenant Owen Steele noted in his diary. He added: “The climax of our troubles will be reached within the next few days after which the day of peace will quickly draw near.” He was dead six days later.
The July 1 attack of British forces (intended to relieve pressure on the French, who were locked in a battle to the death at Verdun) was launched as planned. Immediately, the opening phase of the attack faltered under withering enemy fire. Confusion was exacerbated by poor communication. General de Lisle mistook German flares for a signal of early success and therefore ordered the 88th Brigade made up of the Essex and Newfoundland Regiments to attack “as soon as possible.” But the Essex soldiers were unable to leave their trenches because of the large number of dead and wounded
As a result, the Newfoundlanders moved off alone at 9:15 a.m., their objective the first and second line of enemy trenches, some 650 to 900 metres away. They moved down the exposed slope towards No Man’s Land, the rear sections waiting until those forward reached the required 40-metre distance ahead. No friendly artillery fire covered the advance.
A terrible cross-fire tore into advancing columns and men began to drop, especially as they approached the first gaps in their own wire. Doggedly, the survivors continued on towards enemy. “The only visible sign that the men knew they were under this terrific fire,” wrote one observer, “was that they all instinctively tucked their chins into an advanced shoulder as they had so often done when fighting their way home against a blizzard in some little outport in far off Newfoundland.”
The few men who did manage to attain the objective of the German lines were confronted with a chilling discovery: the artillery barrage prior to the attack had not cut the German barbed wire. The night before, a report by a Newfoundland reconnaissance team had alerted commanders to this fact but they had been ignored.
On the night of July 1, the search began for survivors. When the roll call was taken, only 68 men responded. The full cost would not be known for several days. The final figures revealed that the regiment had been virtually wiped out: 710 killed, wounded or missing. Most were struck down before they reached beyond their own front line.