As I noted in this morning’s Hili Dialogue, today is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a bloody conflict that lasted 141 days—from 1 July to 18 November, 1916. The total casualties of the battle, as you can see below, were over a million, with 146,000 Allied soldiers killed along with 164,000 Germans. In contrast, the number of UK soldiers lost over the entire course of World War II was 373,000, with between 4 and 5 million German soldiers dying from all causes (and on two fronts). On the first day of the Somme, 100 years ago today, nearly 63,000 soldiers of all nationalities were killed, injured or captured; this according to a document sent me by reader Pyers, “The First Day on the Somme,” which he wrote for his job. Over 19,000 British soldiers were killed on that day along with 10,000-12,000 German soldiers. (Note that the ratio of killed to injured was much higher then that it was in World War II or later battles.)
Here are Canadian soldiers going “over the top,” many of them never to return.
Anything I can add would pale before the horrors of what was described by its participants, or even by some of our readers, one of whom, Jonathan Lewis, wrote me this:
For the last 9 hours there has been an extraordinary “living art” memorial to the event covering the UK, with over 1500 young adults dressed in the uniforms of the various regiments that took part in the battle, appearing in silent groups in town centres, railway stations etc. silently handing out “business cards” stating who they represent (these are all real people) and how old they were when they were killed.
The event has affected huge numbers of people, with a massive response on Twitter and Instagram.
Brits should add their reactions in the comments below.
Reader pyers, who wrote the long essay on the Somme that I mentioned above (perhaps he’ll let me send it to readers who inquire), told me that his grandfather was in that battle—and others. When I asked if his grandfather told him about the Somme , pyers wrote this:
Yes he did. He joined the army in 1912, was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. Arrived in France in Sept 1914 and served in such horrible battles as 1st Ypres ( Oct-Nov 1914), 2nd Ypres (Apr-May 1915), Loos ( Sept 1915) and he arrived on the Somme in Aug 1916. He served there until Feb 1917 when he was sent home to become an officer instructor. In Nov. 1918 he was returning to France when the war ended.
He started as a 2nd lieutenant and ended the war as a major, winning a gallantry award (MC) along the way.
Like a lot of soldiers who had been through the war, he didn’t talk about it although he had nightmares that lasted all of his life. On his deathbed, in 1972, under the influence of morphine I guess, he returned to the trenches and he shouted about “whizz bangs“, “Jack Johnsons” (a large, slow moving black artillery shell) and the wire. You don’t get the experience of that out of your life, even at the end.
The Somme still haunts the British, as today’s commemoration shows.
Finally, pyers sent me a poem I didn’t know about. It’s very poignant, because, as much poetry of the Great War, its writer didn’t survive. The man who wrote the poem below, “Before Action,” was William Noel Hodgson (1893-1916). He had fought since 1915, and started writing poetry under a pseudonym in 1916. This poem (read it!) was published on June 19, 1916 in the weekly paper The New Witness.
by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, MC
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
Hodgson was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, within a few hours after action began. That was two days after his poem appeared. He was 23 years old.
Wikipedia described his death:
Having returned to England after the Battle of Loos, he was positioned with his Battalion in the front line trenches at Fricourt in February 1916, before moving a kilometre or so to the trenches opposite the town of Mametz in April. The trench was named Mansell Copse, as it was in a group of trees. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme when attacking German trenches near Mametz. He was bombing officer for his battalion during the attack, and was killed by a machine gun positioned at a shrine whilst taking grenades to the men in the newly captured trenches. The bullet went through his neck, killing him instantly. His servant was found next to him after the offensive had ended. He is buried in Devonshire Cemetery in Mansell Copse.
Let Hodgon’s grave stand for the 30,000 men whose lives were cut short a hundred years ago today: