Today, July 1st, marks 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme and one of the bloodiest battles in World War One. British High Command sought to help relieve the French at Verdun by initiating a new active front along the length of the River Somme. In preparation for the assault the British pounded the German lines with the largest amount of artillery fire in history, lasting 24 hours for days upon days. On the morning of July 1st troops from the French and British armies went over the top, confident that the artillery fire had decimated the German defenses. Many of these young men were inexperienced soldiers, having joined up on mass over the previous years and placed within pal-brigades, so that they could serve alongside friends and family. Both British and French Empires stretched across the globe meaning huge numbers of soldiers were also drawn from these dominions such as Australia, Algeria, Canada and India. Unbeknownst to the advancing soldiers, the German trenches were in fact deeper and more well protected than previously thought, allowing them to safely wait out the months of artillery barrage, however when the guns finally stopped they knew something was up. The advancing British were told that resistance was expected to only be minimal and as a result many troops advanced in a almost carefree fashion, some walked and one regiment from Surrey even kicked a few footballs.
The result was a bloodbath
By the end of the day over 57,000 British soldiers had been killed, mowed down by rows of machine guns, marking it as the single largest loss of British troops. Due to the system of pal-brigades, whole communities were devastated with some brigades losing as much as 90% of their men. And this would only serve as the beginning of a battle which would end 4 months later and at the total cost of over a million causalities.
Though I wasn’t able to visit the actual Somme memorial at Thiepval, I did mange to visit both Menin Gate and Tyne Cot. It was a deep and humbling experience to first see the countless name strewn across the walls of Menin Gate, but then also to see the headstones of Tyne Cot, so many thousands packed into the field, like corn.
But prehaps the most memorable experience I had was at the German war graves of Langemark. Unlike the allied countries, the Germany did not have the money to spend on fancy memorial sites, as a result Langemanrk is a much simpler place, with most being buried in a single mass grave near the site’s entrance. It was also quiet, as for many Germans, World War One is greatly overshadowed by the events of the Second World War; leaving memorials like Langemanrk devoid of crowds. The only other person beside myself was a statue of four German soldiers, staring solemnly over the fields of Flanders.