The 90th Anniversary of the Somme


It would be fair to say that I am obsessed with all things related to the first world war. I would be neglecting my own obsession, then, if I didn't mark the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. For those of you who don't know, The Battle of the Somme began with a British offensive designed to capture areas around the River of the Somme that had been held by German forces since 1914. In preparation for the battle, British forces had dug tunnels under the German trenches and laid huge mines there. After a prolonged artillery barage, the mines were detonated at 7:30 am, July 1, 1916 -- except one, which actually detonated early. That one was actually filmed, and the short movie can be seen here.


British soldiers preparing to go over the top at The Somme (from here).

The first day of the battle quickly turned into a disaster for the British, with losses on a scale that is unfathomable to most modern western minds. To understand just how tragic a day it was for the British, consider the day widely considered the bloodiest day in U.S. military history: September 17, 1862. On that day, at the Battle of Antietam, the combined Confederate and Union casualties were over 22,000, with over 3,500 killed. On July 1, 1816, the British suffered more than 57,000 casualties, including almost 20,000 killed. It was the bloodiest day in the long history of the British military.

Ultimately, the battle lasted until November 18, and was an overwhelming success for the British, as well as for the French. The French were holding on by a thread at Verdun until the launching of the offensive at the Somme, which resulted in the diverting of German troops, and ultimately a stalemate at Verdun. In a way, the Somme marked the beginning of the end for the German army. As one German general put it, the Somme battlefield was "the muddy grave of the German field army." But the price was high -- by the end of the battle, almost 150,000 allied troops and more than 160,000 German troops were dead, and total casualties were as high as 1.2 million. As Pound wrote:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

i-8fe79654fddbc28f9ab8133b8e52f3e4-Captured German Trench Somme.jpg

Captured German trench at The Somme.

Once people believed that World War I would be the "War to End All Wars," in part because they honestly felt that no one who had witnessed carnage on the scale of battles like that at the Somme could possibly want to wage war again. Unfortunately, history has continuously proved them wrong.

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Maybe my math is of by a decade or so, but didn't the Battle of the Somme happen 90 years ago? If you want to mark the 100th anniversary you'd better wait some ten years.

Oops, you're right! I don't know why I wrote 100th, especially since I just finished reading an article titled "The 90th anniversary of the Somme"

One of the staggering statistics which quite properly gets attention in the Canadian press is the experience of the Newfoundland Regiment. (The current Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador was at the time the British colony of Newfoundland.)

801 men went "over the top" on July 1. At roll-call on July 2, there were 68 present.

I've read that this was the highest regimental toll of dead & wounded in the war.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 02 Jul 2006 #permalink

Yeah, there were a lot of high regimental death tolls for the allies on the first day. To go with the photo in the post of the Brits about to go over the top, I have a photo of the same company at roll-call on July 2 (it's a company in one of the Royal Fusilier regiments), and there are only a couple dozen men there.

One of the reasons I'm fascinated by this war is because I find it so difficult to imagine going through hell like the first day at the Somme.

Interesting. As those who've followed me blog a while know, I'm fairly obsessed with World War II, particularly the Holocaust and fighting Holocaust denial. However, I'm very much into the military history of WWII as well. Between the two of us, we have both World Wars covered.

Of course, much of the tactics of WWII were informed by the fear of falling into the same sort of stalement trench warfare that predominated during WWI.

A curious statistic I read the other day. The first day of the Somme set a new record for the number killed in one day of a battle. The previous record holder was the battle of Cannae in 216 BC. I am not surew which battle now holds this gruesome record - something on the Russian front during WWII I expect.

By Mark Frank (not verified) on 02 Jul 2006 #permalink

And so you've no doubt read Pat Barker's "Regeneration Trilogy." I mention this only on the off-chance you haven't. And also Robert Graves', Goodbye to All That.

To those who are interested in songs of the Great War. Please listening to a song called CALLING DOON THE LINE by a good freind of mine Mr Alan G Brydon. Go to and search Alan Brydon and click on the link to the Scottish Monument. This song has been adapted as the anthem to the scottish soldiers who fell in the great war.

By Graeme E Tinlin (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

My great, great uncle fought and died in the First World War. I don't know why but i am facinated with Battles of the great war, maybe its due to the fact that it was one of the most brutal Wars the world has ever seen and that there is only a had full of men who fought in the war left alive.

By Ben Hughes (not verified) on 07 Jul 2009 #permalink