The events of the early days of The Battle of The Somme are well recorded. In fact to read many articles & reports you would think The Somme was a defeat for the British and her Commonwealth armies. But this is not the case, it was a victory.
All too often a report on the Battle of the Somme, which starts in July 1916, stops in July. Very few reports look beyond the opening days of this World War One campaign, even fewer go on to report a changing British army and a British victory on the Somme battlefield.
I fully acknowledge the horrific losses of 1st July 1916, Black Saturday for the British Army, with some 57,000 casualties; split almost equally between killed, injured and taken prisoner of war.
Then during the coming 140-plus days, we averaged over 4,000 casualties every day until the Somme ended in November 1916. It is with tireless determination a ‘new’ army, Kitchener’s New Army, his Pals battalions, all recruited since the outbreak of war just two years earlier, grind the Germans into submission.
But it is not an easy task on the chalky uplands of northern France as a common pattern emerges. The British attacked but were not able to re-enforce success before a German counterattack drove them back, this forced the Allies to attack again and again the very same objectives; as every yard of ground taken is paid for at a massive cost in human lives.
Such actions see fifty Victoria Crosses awarded during the Battle of The Somme and nine on the first day.
This situation is well displayed in the popular television comedy Black Adder, with the quick wit of Captain Edmund Blackadder speaking to his ever-loyal sidekick Private Baldrick ‘Millions have died, but our troops have advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping’.
As that balmy summer of 1916 draws on, the tide also changes. The ‘new’ army becomes battle-hardened and new tactics are learnt. But the first great change came on 15 September 1916. The ‘Tank’ a British invention, built on the frame of a common agricultural tractor and designed as a ‘land ship’ is used for the first time as a weapon of war. Suddenly the allies now have the luck and with continued grim determination start to take more ground.
The Battle of the Somme comes to an end in the closing winter days of November when we see objectives of day one finally falling, villages like Beaumont Hamel taken by the 51st Highland Division with new tactics and new thinking. At the end of the Somme campaign, we see the British army ‘come of age’ as the infantry start working with the new ‘tank’ and the aircraft flying above. All of which push the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line where they stay for almost two years. So made The Battle of The Somme, the seldom reported Allied victory.
Field Marshal Haig, the Commander in Chief, said of The Somme ‘In the stage of the wearing out struggle, losses will necessarily be heavy on both sides, for in it the price of victory is paid’.
You may not agree with Haig’s comment, especially at the cost of human life. But in November 1916 the Allies had a very different army than the one they had in July 1916. An army better prepared for the subsequent two years of World War One, until November 1918 and the armistice.