One hundred years on from the start of the Battle of the Somme it’s almost impossible not to fall into cliches about the scale of the slaughter.
The battle started on 1 July 1916 and was the bloodiest day in British military history with some 60,000 casualties—over 20,000 of them killed. The fighting would grind on until November of that year.
It has become symbolic of the “war of attrition” that characterised the fighting in western Europe.
But the First World War began very differently when it was launched in 1914.
The French army marched off to war in brightly coloured uniforms with bands playing them into battle, looking like something out of a previous age.
German student volunteers marched off arm in arm to a great adventure only to end up in the graveyards that mark the first clashes.
The carnage in the early battles was incredible. Massed ranks of soldiers experienced the horrible reality of 20th century weapons—artillery, machine guns and aimed rifle fire.
Battles in open country came to an end as the year went on. The allies—France, Britain and Belgium—and the German army attempted to outflank each other in a “race to the sea”.
By the year’s end the armies were dug in on a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the French coast.
The small professional British army, usually deployed to police the empire, was all but destroyed in the battles of 1914.
A further reserve of trained territorial divisions was expended during allied offensives in 1915.
Meanwhile volunteers were being recruited in Britain in their hundreds of thousands.
By the spring of 1916 the British army fielded 70 divisions—ten times more than in the summer of 1914.
The British offensive on the Somme was supposed to be part of a coordinated push with the French.
But the German army interfered with their plans. They attacked the French positions at Verdun in February in an attempt to “bleed white” the French army.
The British attack on the Somme was now seen as even more urgent.
The British army was led by Sir Douglas Haig. Historian John Keegan described Haig as a man “in whose public manner and private diaries no concern for human suffering was or is discernible”.
Haig and his generals believed that they had planned the attack down to the tiniest detail.
But the Germans had had two years to dig in on the Somme. Some dugouts had been driven thirty feet down into the chalk, with machine gun nests and acres of barbed wire.
A week long bombardment using over 1 million shells would prepare the way. It was believed that any Germans who survived would be too stunned to put up resistance.
In reality the bombardment made little impact on many German positions and often failed to cut the barbed wire at all. The top brass didn’t really trust the new troops and so decided they would move forward “at a steady pace in successive lines”.
The layout of the neat allied war cemeteries at the Somme give us a clear picture of what happened that day.
For thousands of soldiers lumbering forward under the weight of 60 pound packs the attacks were over in moments.
One young soldier recalled, “The date 1 July is engraved in our hearts, along with the faces of our pals. We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying”.
Only five of the attacking divisions entered German lines. The rest were stopped in no man’s land, many before they had left their own trenches.
A Sergeant from the Third Tyneside Irish brigade described the scene.
“I heard the ‘patter, patter’ of machine guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me.
“By the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself”.
The scale of the disaster was monumental. A fifth of the attacking troops died, with a 50 percent casualty rate. Some regiments simply ceased to exist.
In some areas German troops were so sickened by the carnage that they stopped firing to let the lightly wounded escape to their own lines.
Thousands of wounded soldiers were left out for days in the heat of no mans’ land while thousands more died there.
Unburied bodies lay out in the open for months, resulting in a terrible stench. Huge clouds of flies fed off the bodies in the summer heat.
But the battle didn’t stop then. By the end of July the Germans had lost 160,000 men, and the British and French some 200,000.
By 19 November, when the battle was finally brought to a halt, roughly 600,000 men had been lost on both sides. The Allies had moved forward only seven miles.
Some now argue that the battle of the Somme was part of a learning process that led to future successes. But similar tactics were used throughout the war, regardless of the losses.
The slaughter on the Somme has come to symbolise the futility of “the war to end all wars”. That’s why the whole First World War anniversary period has become an ideological battle ground.
It’s important to our rulers to justify the slaughter, to help shore up support for future wars.
It should be just as important for socialists to expose the awful reality of millions of workers giving their lives in a bosses’ war.
20 million died for a global land grab
The First World War was a land grab on a grand scale with millions of victims, not just in Europe but across the globe.
As the Somme offensive was prepared the war was already in its third year. The death toll was incredible.
By the end of the war there were around 20 million dead—some 11 million of them military personal and the rest civilians.
Years of imperialist rivalry had led to war in August 1914, the spark being the assassination of the Austrian arch duke Ferdinand.
Accident and military mobilisation timetables may have been the tipping point into war. But the conflict was no accident.
Europe had lurched from one crisis to another for decades. This was a war waiting to happen.
As early as 1887 the revolutionary Frederick Engels had envisaged, “A world war of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of.
“Eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts”.
Germany was the most powerful economy in Europe. Its rulers wanted their own global empire.
France and Britain were defending their own enormous empires, with Britain’s held together by the world’s most powerful Navy.
The empires were about expanding and protecting markets for each of the powers’ own ruling classes. The war began as those competing powers ran up against each other.
Russian revolutionary Lenin described the powers as “plunderers armed to the teeth” who had driven “the whole world into their war over the division of their booty”.