One hundred years ago, during the summer and fall of 1916, the immense, gruesome and generally futile Battle of the Somme was fought in Northern France. For a great many, the Somme has become an epic symbol of the incomprehensible horrors of trench warfare during the First World War.
The Battle of the Somme commenced on July 1st, 1916 with one of the greatest artillery barrages and frontal assaults in history. More than 1.5 million shells were blasted at the enemy lines. Then hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops ‘went over the top’ and attacked the highly fortified German trenches, dugouts and bunkers.
By every measure, the first day was a disaster. The British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead. It remains the worst one day loss of life in the history of the British Army. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was particularly hard hit. Of the 800 men who went into battle near the village of Beaumont-Hamel, 664 became casualties. When asked why the R.N.R. was not proceeding forward, a senior office replied that ‘dead men can advance no further.’
Despite the phenomenal disaster, the British High Command did not reconsider their plans. That was largely due to a refusal to admit that they had been wrong on such a massive scale. Furthermore, the Somme offensive did not have strategic objectives usually associated with great battles.
One of the key goals was to distract the Germans and thereby help relieve the brutal losses the French armies were suffering in their defense of Verdun. Moreover, as the horrific losses mounted, the British High Command touted the idea that since there were more British and Allied soldiers than Germans, they could absorb the incredible loss of life much better than Germany could.
In other words, they claimed that in a war of attrition, the Germans would be ‘bled white’ first, thereby causing collapse of the enemy forces from exhaustion. Final ‘victory’ in the war could thereby be achieved.
By the end of summer, the British and Allied Forces were themselves showing serious signs of battle exhaustion. However, instead of calling off the offensive, new troops, including the Canadian Corps, were put into the front lines.
The initial Canadian objective was to capture the village of Courcelette and surrounding area. Their efforts in early and mid-September resulted in one of the best successes of the Somme offensive. However, those gains were still very limited. The front moved only a few hundred metres. The number of casualties incurred were staggering – an estimated 7,000 men.
The Canadians had been bolstered by two innovations of the war. One was the creeping artillery barrage which pounded enemy positions immediately in front of the advancing troops. The other was the introduction of the tank.
The tank showed great promise as a weapon of war. However, it was put into battle before many of the technological problems had been ironed out. The tanks frequently broke down. Some literally ran out of gas. Others got bogged down in the mud. Many were taken out by shellfire. Hence, the benefit to the Canadian troops proved tragically limited.
Soon the Red Deer newspapers were full of the accounts of local men being killed and wounded at the Somme. As the battle dragged on through the fall, nearly 50 young men from Red Deer and area lost their lives and roughly three times that number were wounded. By November, Corporal William Richards, of the local ‘C’ Squadron of 12 Canadian Mounted Rifles, reported that his unit had suffered such severe losses that he was the only surviving non-commissioned officer in his platoon.
Finally, on Nov. 19th, 1916, the onset of winter finally brought the Battle of the Somme to an end. The British and Allied forces had suffered more than 1,000,000 casualties, including 24,029 Canadians. The net gain of territory captured was less than 4.5 kms. Most tragically, the Great War was to drag on for another two years.