“ What a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter. I just cannot find the words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful.”
- Albert Joubaire, French Soldier, Verdun, 1916
Total War - The Writing on the Wall at the Somme
‘The First World War gave rise to an epoch of worldwide historical change and revolution. What began as a European conflict ended as a global catastrophe: it led to the eclipse of three great empires - the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman - and cleared the way for the United States to become a world power. It unleashed the Russian Revolution and made possible a Communist breakthrough worldwide. Neither the rise of Italian Fascism nor German Nazism would have occurred had it not been for the First World War’
- Scorched Earth, Irina Renz, Gerd Krumeich, Gerhard Hirschfeld.
The French and British attack at the Somme River was planned in December 1915 but the German attack on Verdun in February 1916 changed the plan dramatically. The losses in just one battle at Verdun was horrifying and drained the army reserves on both sides. To put this in to perspective, in the five major battles of 1915 (Neuve-Chapelle, Ypres, Artois, Champagne and Artois-Loos) there was a total of 696,000 French, British and German losses. In just one battle at Verdun there were 715,000.
Verdun is a fortified city in northeast France, on the banks of the Meuse river. Close to the German border and the gateway from Luxembourg to north east France. A ring of three protective forts, Douaumont, Vaux and Thiaumont, surround the city on both sides of the river. Douaumont being the largest, and outer, fort. French commander General Joseph Joffre, unaware the Germans were planning a huge attack and confident that the forts were enough to protect the city (which was considered strategically unimportant by the French at that time) had their defences dismantled and their guns removed just prior to the attack. The fort was protected by just 56 elderly reservists. This gross underestimation coupled with a huge German offensive led to one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The plan of German General Erich von Falkenhayn was to try to bleed the French army dry and on 21 February 1916 the Germans bombarded Verdun with 1 million shells. Within four days the city was a burning mangle of rubble. Many of the buildings were wooden and the fires raged for days. German flame throwers fired jets of flame as far as 41 metres. On 25th February the French ordered an evacuation of Fort Douaumont and it fell to German hands.
Between February and November of 1916 attack and counter attack raged on. Two hundred and fifty-nine of the French infantry divisions were drafted in and entrenched in the carnage. Nine of the surrounding villages of Verdun were completely destroyed and have never been rebuilt, the scene of devastation so great. The open ground was so exposed that corpses were left where they fell. The forts were riddled with tunnels and vicious hand to hand combat was common place. By June, Fort Vaux was over run with Germans and Fort Vaux and Fort Douaumont were retaken by the French in November. This was an important turning point for the deadlocked battle as the French had regained the most important area of ground lost in the previous ten months of fighting.
The final battle for Verdun took place in August and September 1917. The French made huge advances and gained eleven miles of land including Hill 302, Camard Wood, Fosses Wood and Beaumont Wood.
The countryside around the city was hilly with many streams running down to the River Meuse. The heavy rainfall and constant artillery bombardment turned this area in to a bloody mud slide which became known as the Ravine of the Dead. The final attack of the German line was on September 8th and the French were successful in repelling the Germans from the city. The losses on both sides were catastrophic.
The Somme is a river in Picardy, northern France. In December 1914 the British and French had planned to heavily bombard the German front around the River Somme. The German offensive at Verdun changed these plans entirely. Following the huge slaughter at Verdun, the French role had to be cut by 50%. Rather than an attempt to wear down the German army, it became an attempt to draw German troops away from the battle at Verdun. The immediate objective of the Allies was to take a ridge just past German lines, a line drawn west to east from Thiepval to Morval, on the northern bank of the river. The taking of this ridge, and the higher ground, would put the Allies in an advantageous position to descend towards Bapaume. The plan was troubled from the start. The heavy losses in the first half of 1916 had meant that a trained and professional British army of 150,000 that existed before the war started had all been wiped out. Kitcheners Army of 2,000,000 million home grown volunteers was now in full force but most of these were young and inexperienced. General Haig and General Rawlinson had strong opposing views as to how the attack should proceed, and two very different battle plans lead to disorder and confusion.
General Rawlinson favoured heavy artillery bombardment, followed up by the infantry. General Haig favoured an infantry breakthrough followed by cavalry advance. In the eight days prior to July 1st 1916, 1.5 million shells were dropped on enemy lines by the Allies. It was assumed by General Rawlinson that this heavy bombardment would wipe out most of the opposition. At 7.30am on 1st July the first 100,000 troops were sent over the top in to no-mans land. Assuming they would be met by little resistance and heavily weighted down with equipment for consolidating enemy trenches, General Rawlinson had advised his troops to walk. Met with an unexpected hail of enemy fire, with little protection, line after line of troops was slaughtered - it is the worst day in the history of the British Army. By night fall 20,000 troops were dead and another 40,000 wounded. Half the troops that had attacked that day became casualties. The Germans had been hugely underestimated again. Sophisticated trenches and barbed wire defences had protected them from artillery fire and with the millions of shells now needed, many of the shells used by the British were of bad quality - it has been estimated that up to 1 in 3 failed to explode. In the first four weeks of July, 5 million shells were discharged. Hundreds of thousands of troops were sent over the top in the following six months and all met with the same grizzly death.
Kitcheners Army was joined by the small but highly efficient contingents provided by Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Their demise was equally rapid and horrifying. Delville Wood, which would later become known as “Devil Wood” by the soldiers who fought there, was situated at the southern end of the British line. 3,000 South African soldiers occupied the wood and on the 15 July a fierce attack by the Germans, lasting five days, left only 143 South African soldiers remaining.
The battle raged, on a 15-mile front, until November and still the Allies had made little advance. 613,000 men were killed or wounded - 419,000 of them British. The Germans had suffered equally heavily. After a million dead and wounded on all sides, by the end of the year, they were simply in no fit state to carry on with the offensive and the Germans retreated in early 1917.
War propaganda had become vitally important and, in 1916, 20 million British people (from a population of 43 million) watched the war film ‘The Battle of the Somme’. The first viewing was 10 August 1916 at The Scala Theatre, Soho. The film depicts the early days of the battle at the River Somme. The British public had a huge desire to see images and receive news from the front line. This was the first feature length film about war but it was really made to encourage civilian support - especially in the production of munitions.
On July 1st 2016 it was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of The Somme. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and was unveiled in 1932. It is a war memorial to the 72,246 British and South African servicemen who died at the Battle of The Somme between 1914-1918, with no known grave.