NOT SUCH A SENSELESS SLAUGHTER; Ninety Years Ago Today, 20,000 British Soldiers Marched to Their Deaths on the First Day of the Somme, a Battle That Became a Byword for Military Blundering. Now Historians Are Daring to Argue That It WAS a Price Worth Paying

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TODAY is the 90th anniversary of the blackest day in the history of the British Army. On July 1, 1916, 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Many of their bodies were never found as the soldiers were blown into tiny pieces by German mines and artillery.

'That I feel the loss of many gallant men need not be stated,' wrote Captain Thomas Tweed of the 2nd Salford Pals in an open letter to his local paper. 'Most of my men personally persuaded to join the colours, and I felt the burden of responsibility for their welfare - now so many of them have made the supreme sacrifice.' Walter Fiddes, a shop assistant, Thomas Mellor, a travelling salesman, and Stephen Sharples, a builder, were just three of nearly 100 ordinary men - around two-thirds of Tweed's company - who died on July 1.

of dead and badly wounded, seeing flies who 'hurl themselves upon the blood of the wounds and gorge themselves with such drunken frenzy that you could seize them with your fingers or with a pair of pincers before they would consent to fly away and Recruiters for the Pals battalions had encouraged uncles and nephews, cousins and brothers to join up and fight together. As result, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, whole communities in Britain lost most of their men in an instant.

Most of the survivors were traumatised by the experience. 'We were walking on dead soldiers saw poor fellows trying to bandage their wounds... bombs, heavy shells were falling all over them. It is the worst sight that a man ever wants to see,' wrote Canadian soldier Frank Maheux to his wife after the battle.

Georges Duhamel, a Frenchman who worked a stretcher bearer at the Somme, remembered, as he looked at the piles and piles

MEANWHILE, in the field hospital, nurse Clare Gass treated some of the soldiers who had been injured in the battle. 'Some terrible cases, oh so much the better dead. One young lad with eyes and nose all gone - one blur of mangled flesh... All are so brave, and yet those who are not badly wounded are so tired of the war, tired in such a hopeless way,' she said.

Scarcely any wonder then that the Somme has become a byword for military incompetence. It is used absolute proof of the argument proposed years ago by the late MP and historian Alan Clark that the First World War was the story of 'lions led by donkeys'.

It is given as justification for the lampooning of the overall British commander, Field Marshal Haig, the TV comedy Blackadder as blundering old fool who wanted move his drinks cabinet a few feet closer to Germany' over the dead bodies of the flower of Britain's youth.

But, 90 years on, are we right to see the Somme in such a negative way?

A powerful drama documentary, be broadcast tomorrow night on BBC1, and based on the latest academic research, questions the popular assumption that the Battle of the Somme was an unmitigated disaster.

It goes so far as to suggest that the Somme - bloody, wasteful and unimaginably awful as it was proved so pivotal in the development of British warfare that, without it, we may never have won the Great War.

The key to understanding this surprising interpretation of the traditional story is to see the terrible events of July 1 in a broader context, and to appreciate how and why the Battle of the Somme happened.

From his headquarters, 40 miles behind the front line in a French chateau, Field Marshal Haig and his senior officers struggled to devise way of battling through the defensive technological advantages that the Germans possessed. Barbed wire, the machine gun and artillery with action recoil devices all made the prospect of attack daunting in the extreme.

After much consideration, Haig decided that the 'big push' should launched on July 1, 1916, on the River Somme at the point on the Western front where the British and French armies met. …