Pointless carnage at the Somme?

Pointless carnage at the Somme?

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Redactie 01 July 2016 31

In late June 1916, the British artillery opened fire on the German lines at the Somme. The shelling continued without interruption for seven days. It was the beginning of a massive infantry offensive. On 1 July, British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and advanced towards the German lines along a front of 30 kilometres. In order to keep in line, the men were not allowed to run or stand still. The artillery offensive had not been as successful as had been hoped, however, and the British were mowed down by German machine guns that were still intact. On the first day of the offensive, the British suffered 58,000 casualties, 20,000 of which died. A sad record. Despite the massive losses, the Commander-in-Chief, General Haig, continued the campaign. They went on attacking the German troops for weeks, until, when autumn rains had turned the battle ground into a mud bath, Haig finally called a halt to the offensive on 18 November 1916. The Battle of the Somme claimed the lives of over a million French, British and German soldiers. The allied forces advanced 12 kilometres into German-held territory.

Though generally condemned as pointless bloodshed today, the battle fits seamlessly into the military tactics of the British armed forces during WWI. After all, penetrating German lines was not the main goal - the British supreme command was in fact focusing on 'attrition warfare', in which enemy forces are battered until they are completely worn out. The crucial thing in such a fight to the death is not how many men you lose, but how many reserves you have. Seen from that perspective, the Battle of the Somme was not a defeat, as it dealt the German morale a very heavy blow. The second aim, distracting the Germans from attacking the French at Verdun, was also realised.

Military views on acceptable levels of loss of life have changed fundamentally in the past century. In today's high-tech warfare, a human life is worth a lot more than it was in the eyes of the conservative British army during the First World War.