Faith in the wrong weapon leads to disastrous consequences
Second in a three-part series
As Wade Davis notes in his fascinating book, “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest,” Britain’s commander of general staff, Gen. Douglas Haig, continued to believe that the key weapon of the First World War would be the bayonet.
As the author points out, unlike the British, the Germans fully understood the power of the machine gun and the German commanders were knowledgeable and gave much better generalship than the British and other Allies ever produced during that war.
It is an astounding fact that after four years at the head of the largest army that the British Empire had ever placed in the field, the force had suffered 2,568,534 casualties in France and Belgium alone, but Haig never once saw the front, nor did he ever visit his own wounded during the war.
Haig’s plan was for the British side to start a battle with tremendous artillery barrages, which were supposed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German defences. However, the tremendous artillery barrages instituted at Haig’s direction along the front of 27 miles, the length of the immediate German front before the British and Newfoundland soldiers at Beaumont-Hamel, was discovered after the attack to hardly have been cut at all.
In the morning of the Somme attack, the Newfoundland regiment was attached to the British 29th division, one of four divisions making up a corps scheduled to assault the German lines on the three-mile front at the northern end of the battlefield. Anchoring the centre of the German defences was a fortress at Beaumont-Hamel, which commanded the valley across where the British attack would be launched. No man’s land here varied in width from 200 yards in the north to 500 in the southern end of the assault, all of it open and bare, completely exposed.
Due to the lay of the land, the British, including the Newfoundlanders, fought partially blind, unable to even observe sections of the German front to ascertain the extent of the damage from the preliminary bombardment.
The author reports that 66 artillery batteries, undetected and undamaged, laid down a withering fire on the British and Newfoundland infantry masked in the trenches, ready to attack. The lanes cut through the British wire, for the assaulting troops were too few and too narrow. German machine guns rained across each gap in the wire, the bullets butchering the men as they emerged from the trench until the passage through the wire became so choked with their own dead that the following troops had to climb over mounds of corpses simply to reach no man’s land.
At 9:15 a.m. the Newfoundland regiment was ordered to advance, its right flank hung in the air because the first battalion of the Essex regiment, the next unit to them in line, had been delayed reaching the starting point by the sheer volume of dead. The soldiers of the Newfoundland regiment barely got out of their own trench, and when they did they were quickly swept by German machine gun fire.
Over a quarter million shells fell on the German line in the 15 minutes after the initial attack by the British at Beaumont-Hamel. There was no hope of surprising the Germans.
They knew the attack had been launched and were amazed by the British tactics.
In the first minutes there would be more than 30,000 dead and wounded on the Somme. By the end of the day there would not be a British soldier alive within the German wire. Not a village had been taken, not a single major objective achieved. Machine guns cut the men down like scythes slicing through grass.
At the end of the morning on July 1, 1916, the British knew their army was no more.
Next week: thousands wounded,
John Crosbie welcomes your feedback by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.