The Somme Battlefield: Peter Furtado Introduces One of the Most Traumatic Places in British Military History

By Furtado, Peter | History Today, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The Somme Battlefield: Peter Furtado Introduces One of the Most Traumatic Places in British Military History


Furtado, Peter, History Today


A DRIVE THROUGH THE SMOOTHLY ROLLING HILLS of the east of the Somme department of northern France, between the little towns of Albert, Bapaume and Peronne, might seem innocent enough at first sight, but for the profusion of small, quiet and manicured cemeteries. A closer look at the recently ploughed fields reveals ghostly white lines snaking across the brown earth on the hillsides; while here and there, a rusty shell lies by the roadside, placed there by a farmer for safe disposal. The villages look as peaceful as any in France--though there's little that looks more than a century old. But it wouldn't be easy even with these clues, to work out just what happened here. This is a countryside that needs to be read--and read about--rather than just looked at.

Each cemetery--over 250 in total--marks a point in the battle, the location of a casualty station or a scene of appalling slaughter. The chalk lines are all that remains of the maze of trenches and tunnels frenetically dug by both sides (apart from one or two places where they have been preserved, notably the Newfoundland Memorial Park), while even ninety years on, the fields still yield a constant harvest of gruesome relics of the destruction that took place here. There are a few other, albeit dramatic, relics on the ground--the 100-metre diameter Lochnagar crater, a small rough patch once known as the Glory Hole--but in the main the countryside is restored to human use. A casual visitor would find it hard to trace the complex course of the battle as few places on the battlefield offer more than a discreet plaque about the tumultuous events of ninety years ago, but guides to the key sites and a great deal of other literature on what happened are freely available. The inhabitants of this part of the Somme are well-used to seeing British visitors, and they are bracing themselves for many more, this summer.

The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916, was the largest military encounter in history to date, involving over 1.5 million men. After a year of stalemate, the Allied High Command had met at Chantilly in December 1915 to plan an offensive in the west simultaneous with a Russian attack on the eastern front and an Italian from the south. The 'big push' in the West, along a 25-mile front, would take place in the rolling downland of the Somme Department, an area chosen less for any intrinsic strategic importance than because it was where sector manned by the British Expeditionary Force in the north met with that of the French army, in the south.

The urgency of the offensive rose dramatically in French eyes when the Germans launched a massive assault on the French fortresses surrounding Verdun from February 1916, stretching French resources to breaking point, Marshall Joffre pressed his counterpart, the British Commander-in-Chief Alexander Haig, to begin the attack to the north. But logistical difficulties held the attack back until July 1st.

Haig planned a huge week-long artillery bombardment on the German lines to destroy the German defences and allow a relatively unopposed advance--of thirteen British and six French divisions--along a front sufficiently wide to create an opportunity for the use of cavalry for the first time in the war. A British army of 500,000 men was assembled, with 100,000 in the front line.

But the bombardment made relatively little impact on the German defences, failing to cut the wire as planned, or to dislodge the defenders in their dugouts cut deep in the chalky hills. When the attack was launched, at 7.30am on July 1st, the British infantry proved easy targets for German machine gunners. The result was the worst casualty list in history--19,420 dead and almost 40,000 wounded on that day alone. Yet Haig, and Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the 4th Army which did the bulk of the fighting, felt there was no alternative but to continue the assault, pointing to Allied successes in the south of the line and near Thiepval where the 36th (Ulster) Division had successfully taken their objective, though they had had to fall back later in the day through lack of support.

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