On the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme


Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14-17 July) – photo credit: Imperial War Museums

After almost five long months of battle, the Battle of the Somme ended on 18 November 1916.  The battle began with artillery bombardment on 24 June before the infantry assault was launched on 1 July.  On that day, the British army suffered its heaviest ever casualties in a single day: 57,470, with an additional 2,152 missing.

From 1 to 3 July, the 36th (Ulster) Division on its own lost 5,500 killed, wounded, or missing, out of a total of 15,000 men.  This helped the Battle of the Somme become a symbol of Ulster sacrifice for the Union with Great Britain.  On the other hand, the southern Irish and nationalist participation in the war has historically tended to be hidden and erased.

As the late Keith Jeffery explained in his 1916: A Global History, “There are very good reasons for the privileging or ‘foregrounding’ of the 1 July attack, both at the time and in the subsequent literature…. The desperate heroics and catastrophic casulaties of that day make it a rightfully irresistible human story.” But in his geographically and chronologically arranged book, Jeffery placed the Battle of the Somme later in the year.  “The almost slavish concentration on 1 July to the exclusion of the broader context, and the actual beginning of the offensive almost a week earlier, seriously distorts any proper understanding of the battle,” he explained.

Surmising the scope of the entire five months of the Battle of the Somme, for the British “perhaps the single most iconic engagement of the First World War,” Jeffery wrote, “From the beginning the cost was horrific, and over the whole battle British and French formations fought along a twenty-mile stretch near the river Somme, sustaining some 623,000 casualties, of whom 420,000 were British.  The Germans suffered something between 500,000 and 580,000 casualties.  During the battle the Allies advanced no more than ten miles, and the Somme has come above all to exemplify a perception of the fighting on the Western Front as unremittingly costly and essentially futile.”  The Battle of the Somme encompasses everything from frustrations, costs, catastrophies, and futility to heroics and honored memory of the First World War.

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