The Battle of the Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War

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9780771035470: The Battle of the Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War
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Every July 1, while Canadians celebrate what they have, Newfoundlanders remember what they have lost: on 1 July 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 733 of 801 men in the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were killed.

From their starting position in a British support trench, the Newfoundlanders had to cross some 230 metres of fire-swept ground before they reached their own front line. In less than a half-hour, it was all over. The Divisional Commander wrote of the Newfoundland effort: “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”

Well might the Germans refer to the Battle of the Somme as das Blutbad – the bloodbath. From 1 July to 15 November 1916, a period of just 138 days, more than 310,000 soldiers from four great armies – the British, Canadian, French, and German – were killed. The German death toll on the Somme was larger than that of all the Allied forces combined. A total of 164,055 Germans died on the narrow battlefield while the total number of Allied dead was 146,404. The Somme cost Canada 24,029 casualties.

The heroism of the Dominion troops moved British prime minister David Lloyd George to write: “The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked as storm troops. . . .

Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line, they prepared for the worst.” This book is an illustration of what Winston Churchill called the “vile and utter folly and barbarism” of war. It also shows war’s incredible patriotism and heroism.

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About the Author:

Martin Gilbert, the author of more than seventy books, is Winston Churchill’s official biographer and a leading historian of the modern world. In 1995 he was knighted “for services to British history and international relations,” and in 1999 he was awarded a Doctorate of Literature by the University of Oxford for the totality of his published work. As a British schoolboy he was sent to Canada to live out the years of World War II in safety. He now divides his time between London, Ontario, and London, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

There was one Dominion force fighting on the Somme on July 1, the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, which formed part of the second wave of attackers against the village of Beaumont Hamel. Because their own front-line trenches were clogged with bodies and debris from the first assault, and because the advance of the Essex Regiment on its right flank was delayed because the trenches in front of them were likewise clogged with the dead of the first wave of attackers, the Newfoundlanders had to cross 750 yards of exposed front without flank support. Many were killed as they clambered out of their trenches. Few reached even to the line of their own barbed wire, which lay 250 yards beyond their starting point.

Those Newfoundlanders who did reach their own wire - four well-laid belts of wire in all - had to follow the zigzag lanes between pre-cut, highlighted gaps, which had been exactly pinpointed by the German machine-gunners. Those who did manage to emerge through these gaps in the wire discovered that at least 500 yards of open ground lay between them and the first line of the German defences. That open ground lay on a forward slope, exposed to German fire from their positions on the facing hill. Near a particular tree half way down the slope, known to the Newfoundlanders as ‘The Danger Tree’, German shellfire was especially accurate and fatal. Today the remains of that tree serve as a stark memorial to those who were killed around it.

Some of the Newfoundlanders were able to get close enough to the German line to hurl their hand-held bombs into the enemy trenches, but most had been struck down long before that point. The official Newfoundland historian writes: ‘Where two men had been advancing side by side, suddenly there was only one - and a few paces farther on he too would pitch forward on his face. A young subaltern looks around him in vain for men to lead. Defiantly he brandishes his field telephone at the German trenches; then putting down his head to charges to his death. The leading man of a pair carrying a ten-foot bridge is hit, and as he falls he brings down with him bridge and partner. Without hesitation the latter gets up, hoists the bridge on his head, and plods grimly forward until machine-gun bullets cut him down.’

Those few Newfoundlanders who reached the German wire were shot down as they tried to cut their way through it with their wire cutters. By ten in the morning every officer who had gone into battle less than an hour and a half earlier was either killed or wounded.

A British soldier, Private Byrne, who was in the text wave of attackers, recalled his first sight of his predecessors: ‘Ahead of me were two Newfoundland blokes — one on the left-hand side was lying well up to the German wire and the other, about twenty-five years to his right, was spread-eagled over the German wire itself. They were quite dead, there was no doubt.’

Of the 810 Newfoundlanders in action that morning, 310 were killed and more than 350 wounded. Only sixty-eight escaped serious injury. Captain Eric Ayre was one of four members of his family to be killed on July 1, including his only brother, Captain Bernard Ayre, who was serving with the Norfolk Regiment near Maricourt, at the other end of the Fourth Army front. Eric Ayre, aged twenty-seven, is buried in the Ancre Cemetery. His brother, aged twenty-four, is buried at Carnoy.

During the afternoon, on the Beaumont Hamel sector as elsewhere, wounded men trying to crawl back across No Man’s Land to their own lines did not know that their tin triangles, meant to be identification for their own artillery during the advance, were flashing continually as they moved painfully across the open ground, signalling their position to the German snipers and machine gunners. The Regiment’s twenty stretcher bearers worked all day under fire to bring wounded men back. When they found Lieutenant Bert Dicks propped up in a trench and prepared to put him on a stretcher he insisted: ‘Take those who are in greater need, I can stick it out’, and he did. Many of the Newfoundlanders who reached the safety of their own lines had only one question: ‘Is the Colonel satisfied? Is the Colonel pleased?’

When the battle was over the commanding officer of the 29th Division, General de Lisle, informed the Prime Minister of Newfoundland: ‘It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.’
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