Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Somme, the bloodiest single day in one of the most devastating conflicts in human history. In many ways, it was the event that proved that technology and human nature had come together to irrevocably expand the capacity of man to kill man. It was a battle that proved to the world that war could no longer be imagined as a contest of courage or virtue. It was a machine. A mechanized meat grinder that fed on the flower of a nation’s youth and produced only endless suffering.
For the first time, the capacity of mankind to destroy itself came into horrifying focus.
Yet, somehow, it has largely been forgotten here. Americans weren’t involved in the battle, and our national mythology has been spared a devastating dose of reality like the Somme. It allows America to imagine war as something other than it is. In the American conception, our wars allow us to flex our muscle on the world stage. We like to imagine that when America goes to war our victories are not only decisive but largely uncontested.
That’s why days like today are important. They remind us of what the true cost of war is. So, today we examine the horror of the battle of the Somme and honor those who gave their lives that day.
July 1st 1916, The Somme River Valley, Northern France
It’s 7 AM and Alan Seeger of the first regiment of the French Legion Étranger is preparing for roll call. He is an American, born in New York. An intellectual and hopeless romantic, he was studying in Paris when War was declared in 1914. Seeger, wanting to fight for the country he had fallen in love with, volunteered.
The French Foreign Legion was known for attracting all sorts of men. Since the days of Napoleon, murders, thieves, failed revolutionaries, and romantics like Seeger were all famously attracted to the Legion as a place where they might find a new beginning. Most found however, that they could only expect two things. One, that as foreigners, their commanders would be less hesitant to spend their blood than with true sons of France, and two, a hard ration of cold bread.
Seeger didn’t mind the conditions, and by all accounts the life of a soldier and the possibility of a glorious death thrilled him. Even as a Legionnaire he continued to write poetry, including his most famous work :
Seeger didn’t mind the conditions, and by all accounts the life of a soldier and the possibility of a glorious death thrilled him. Even as a Legionnaire he continued to write poetry, including his most famous work I Have A Rendevous With Death:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
One wonders if as Seeger shaved that morning and prepared for battle, he had some sense of how prescient those words would be.
As Seeger presented for roll call, the rolling artillery barrage that had been going on for the past five days would have intensified. Almost 2 million shells had been fired already at the German lines. Hidden deep in subterranean dugouts, they would have been relatively safe from casualties. Of more pressing concern was the possibility of a lucky, or rather unlucky, shell catching someone in the open trenches or a bunker, weakened by constant artillery barrages, collapsing and burying the men inside.
Perhaps the true danger in the trenches was not physical at all. Shell shock was a term coined in World War One to describe the effects that constant artillery fire had on the mental state of the men enduring it. Under the strain of shelling men would come unhinged. Some would wander out into the trenches towards certain death. Others withdrew into themselves or began shaking uncontrollably. At the Somme, as many as forty percent of the men will have this reaction.
Imagine for a moment what being a German soldier trapped under this weeklong bombardment of artillery was like. One day, as you are digging your trench, or perhaps in the middle of lighting a cigarette, you hear a faint screeching. Hardened veteran that you are, your body flings itself into the nearest trench before you are even aware of what is happening on a conscious level. The new recruit you were with a moment ago is not as lucky, and his delay costs him his life when a shell lands in the trench next to him. The explosion of 16 pounds of gunpowder leaves little of him behind. Though you are deep underground, your eardrums are ringing and the shockwave rattles the room. A heavy clump of earth falls through the reinforcing slats above you and lands in your lap. You wonder how long the bunker will be able to hold up. You look around at the solemn faces of the other men, each wondering when the barrage will end and the enemy will swarm over the trenches hoping to dispatch their dazed opponents with hand to hand weapons and grenades.
The shelling picks up momentum. At the height of the Somme, 500 shells were being fired every minute. It’s a constant, pounding sound that runs so close together you can no longer distinguish individual shells. All you know is that every few minutes one hits much closer and louder than the others. The shelling continues into the night as you struggle to sleep. As the shelling continues the sun still rises and sets. Some days it rains, bringing torrents of mud and gore into your dugout. You think it’s been three days, or is it five? You can’t remember.
Alan Seeger waits at the line with his fellow Legionaires. The action on his rifle has been checked and rechecked. Shivs, barbed clubs, and other improvised tools of trench warfare have been rigged up and passed around. Seeger listens as the barrage continues. The Allies have developed a new technique. Rather than stop the shelling while the infantry advance, the barrage will be “walked up” in front of them, keeping the Germans away from their defensive positions until the infantry can close the distance between the lines. It has been determined through experience that 10 percent of the Allied infantry will be killed by shrapnel from their own shells, though this has been judged an acceptable loss for the tactical advantage it gives. Seeger may be thinking about how he hopes he is not part of that 10 percent.
The Germans have been enduring 5 days of the heaviest shelling of the war. As the whistle blows at 4 O’clock precisely and Seeger and his comrades advance over the trench, they try to stay together. Though it would be safer to spread out, without concentrated firepower they have no chance of forcing their way into the German trenches. Though they seem empty now under bombardment, the second it stops they will rush to their machine guns and direct murderous fire into the French and British lines.
Suddenly, in the German trenches, the shelling stops. At first, they likely don’t notice. Their brains have become adapted to expect that the shelling is just a part of reality now. Then they hear the grinding, hand-cranked alarms of their commanders, the sign to prepare to repel the enemy. As the men take position everything is still. They wonder if it’s a trick. The Allies have recently begun stopping the bombardments until they come out into the trenches. It’s an adaptation of a technique invented by the Germans. After a few minutes, the shelling begins again, maximizing casualties. Many are ready to leap back into the bunker at the first sign of trouble. Then the rattle of machine gun fire. Guns all along the line bark into life. The attack has begun.
Seeger advances at a measured pace and towards the German lines. As they come closer and the pace quickens, Seeger holds his rifle in the attack position with its gleaming bayonet outstretched. Men he knows are falling left and right. In the trenches ahead of him, hurled grenades go off in a series of explosions. As he nears the trench he feels a dull blow impact his body. Though he likely doesn’t fully know it yet, he has been struck by several bullets from a machine gun. For a moment, he stumbles, then falls. He struggles to his feet and encourages his men forward as best he can. He takes a few more steps forward and collapses mere yards from the German lines. He will never rise again.
Seeger was one of the first casualties that day, though he was far from the last. The rest of the battle on the first day of the Somme was brutal and took place in the trenches. Hand to hand. The allies made modest gains at first until a series of German counter-attacks drove them back to the first line of trenches. As night fell, they took stock of their casualties. As the dead and wounded were counted up, they got their first indication that something had gone horribly wrong.They had suffered almost 60,000 casualties in the space of a few hours. Meanwhile, the Germans have only suffered 8,000.
The Allies have unwittingly played into the enemy’s hands.