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The Somme One Hundred Years Later

July 7, 2016

“Battle of the Somme, Attack of the Ulster Division” – notice how the British troops are standing upright as they move forward – Source: Creative Centenaries

Lines of men moving of men moving forward, with rifles sloped and the sun glistening upon their fixed bayonets, keeping their alignment and distance as well as if on a ceremonial parade, unfaltering, unwavering – Colonel Macrory, 10th Inniskillings [1]

On July 1st, 1916, the largest army the British had yet put into the field during World War I went “over the top” in the Somme River valley. One hundred years later we still feel the reverberations of the “Great War.” The First World War unleashed the horrors of the second, the post war divisions of the Middle East are continuing to haunt the world one hundred years after Sykes and Picot drew their “line in the sand.” The Somme is a special sort of horror though. It destroyed – both physically and morally – an entire generation of British people. It showcased in an unnerving way, the futility and brutality of modern war. Remembering the heroism and sacrifice of the Somme is how we can best avoid the mistakes of ever allowing it to happen again. The battle, like many World War I battles, lasted for months – in this case from July to November 1916 – and involved millions of men, therefore I will focus on the first day of the battle and follow the progress of the 36th (Ulster) Division from Protestant Northern Ireland.

I. Background

The year 1916 opened with no end in sight for the horrible war that had ignited in the Balkans a year and half before. The Allied leaders meant in a grandly appointed Chateau in Chantilly, France, to discuss what the coming year was to bring. The French, both as hosts of the conference, and the nation bearing a lion’s share of the current burden, led the proceedings. The plan that the Allies devised for 1916 was a simple one, France, Russia, Great Britain, and Italy would all launch large offensives in close cooperation with one another. With millions of men arrayed against them – thought the Allied High Command – the Germans could not stop offensives in France, Flanders, Poland, Ukraine, and Italy.

The general action should be launched as soon as possible. The Allied Armies will therefore endeavour to hasten the augmentation of their resources in men and material so that they can make their maximum effort as soon as possible. It is very desirable that their maximum effort should materialise at a date as soon as possible after the end of March. [2]

The war would be won this year. Maximum effort would compel the Germans to surrender. These commanders, secluded away, forgot that the Germans got a vote in the conduct of the war. Unwilling to sit idly by while their enemies attacked, the Germans launched a massive offensive towards Verdun, France in February, 1916. The French were stretched to the breaking point by this offensive. They cried to their allies to do something, anything, to distract the Germans away from Verdun long enough to stabilize the situation. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, hesitant to help the French too much, was nonetheless compelled to push forward the idea of an offensive in northern France rather than in Flanders, so as to draw Germans strength towards them. Haig and Marshall Joffre of France decided on July 1st as the beginning of the British offensive. The road to the Somme had begun. [3]

II. Bombardment

Haig and his generals faced another problem aside from French meddling, an army that was untested. The “Pals” battalions of Kitchener’s “New Army,” that made up the majority of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1916 were not professional soldiers, they had little training, and their officers had not been schooled in the complexity of modern war.

The 36th (Ulster) Division was one such formation. Having been raised entirely from Ulster (modern Northern Ireland) and made up exclusively of Protestants, this division was one of the more geographically compact units of the “New Army.” The Ulstermen had begun their military careers as a paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteer Force. Their purpose had been to prevent Irish Home Rule, or “Rome” rule as they saw it. Having been prepared for a civil war in 1914, they readily enlisted in the regular British Army to serve King and Country. They would now be sent into battle for the first time on the Somme. [4]

A battery of British 60 pounder heavy field guns. Each shell they fired weighed sixty pounds, or the weight of the average armchair; batteries like these were meant to clear the way on the Somme – Source: Wikipedia

The British high command, painfully aware of how inexperienced their troops were, came up with a plan to play down their soldiers’ weaknesses. General Rawlinson, commander of the overall attack, planned a week-long bombardment before his troops would go over the top. The plan was for the smaller 18 pounder field guns to cut the German wire, while larger guns, would destroy German trenches, bunkers, and other fortifications. The British had over 1,500 guns, or roughly one per 20 yards of front. These guns would fire about three million shells, most of them from the 18 pounder field guns. The problem that would become apparent on the 1st was two-fold. First, a week-long bombardment signals to the enemy your intention to attack, and the Germans responded by shifting forces to the Somme sector. Secondly, the ammunition that the British fired was ill-suited to destroying either barbed wire, or entrenched enemies, so that for all the smoke and thunder, the British bombardment did little more than deafen and enrage German defenders. [5]

III. Over the Top

Map of the 36th (Ulster) Division’s attack towards Schwaben Redoubt. The 108th Brigade on the left was stopped along the Ancre River, while the 109th Brigade managed to penetrate the position – Source: Wikipedia

The weather on July 1st, 1916 was clear, the men of the Ulster Division rose up out of their trenches and marched across no-mans land toward a position named Schwaben Redoubt. Attacking northeast between the Ancre River on their left and the village of Thiepval on their right, the 36th was tasked with clearing the trenches around this fortress and then breaking into the German rear. On the left, the 108th Brigade ran into intense machine gun fire the moment they got up from their trenches and their attack bogged down in swamps with heavy casualties. Along the Ulstermen’ right flank things went better. The artillery had actually cut the wire, and when the men of the 109th Brigade surged forward, they suffered heavy casualties, but they managed to filter into the trenches in front of the redoubt. By 7:30 a.m. cracks were beginning to form in the German line. [6]

A single company of Bavarian infantry were holding the actual redoubt. Of their 200 men, 187 were recorded as casualties: 57 killed in action, or died of their wounds later, 13 wounded, and 113 taken prisoner. The high number of prisoners demonstrates how quickly the troops of the 36th were able to cross no-mans land and enter the trench system. However, the Ulstermen now ran into a problem; they had outrun their support and the units on either flank of them. To their front was another German defensive line, to their right was the fortified village of Thiepval, and to their left were German trenches and the town of St. Pierre Divion. The third brigade of the 36th Division, the 107th, was sent forward to exploit the breach, but resistance beyond the Schwaben Redoubt was too strong, and before noon, all forward attacks had ended. [7]

IV. Toehold

The fighting had been brutal, it was done at close quarters with rifles, bayonets, greanades, clubs and fists. Men were torn apart by shells, or disembowled, or vaporized. Some troops took no prisoners and killed those who attempted to surrender, while others threatened their own comrades if they thought about mistreating those who had yielded. [8]

The Ulstermen had formed a salient in the German lines that was roughly the shape of a triangle. 1,200 yards at its base in no-mans land, it shorted to 1,000 yards on the north face of the Schwaben Redoubt. The fighting around Fort Schwaben entered a lull between 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. During this time the 36th Division attempted to shore up their lines and resupply, but continual machine gun and artillery fire from their flanks kept runners from moving back and supplies from coming forward.  Around 2:00 p.m. the first concerted German counter attacks began, the Ulstermen fought bravely, but were slowly and surely pushed back further and further, so that by 5:00 p.m. British troops had been pushed out of most of Schwaben Redoubt. One of the trenches near the fort, according to one soldier, had, “a carpet of dead and dying Ulstermen and Germans. Blood lay like a layer of mud.”[9]

However, for the German high command, the British had not been pushed out fast enough. So another round of German assaults began at 6:30 p.m. Being assaulted from all sides, the men of the 36th Division were pushed from trench to trench by bayonet and hand grenade. By 10:30 p.m. the Germans had finally pushed the 36th back across no-mans land. The first day was over and the 36th was right back where it had started. [10]

V. Conclusion

The Victoria Cross – the highest award for valor within the British Army, roughly equalivant to the American Medal of Honor. Four would be awarded to men of the 36th (Ulster) Division on July 1st alone – Source: Wikipedia

The 36th Division had fought valiantly. At least four Victoria Crosses were awarded for valor on July 1st alone. One of those who received the award was Billy McFadzean of the 14th Irish Rifles. In a crowded trench in Thiepval Wood, before his unit went out, a box of grenades fell over. In the process two of them had lost their pins and were about to kill every man in the trench. Private McFadzean leaped onto the box and was blown to bits. He saved every other man in that trench, and his friends wept as he was swept away. It was courage like this that made the failure of the 36th Division all the more sad. Such brave men died, and at the end of the day literally nothing had changed. [11]

After only two days of fighting, the 36th Division had to be pulled out of the line. They had suffered over 5,500 casualties in those two days, nearly half – 2,500 of them – had been killed in action. The division was devastated. The way in which it had been recruited, from various localities meant that some villages in Northern Ireland had lost most of their young men. Once withdrawn, the 36th was put into a quiet sector of the front where they were eventually joined by the 16th (Irish) Division, that is to say a mostly Catholic unit. The two divisions spent a year together in the line, eating, talking, and playing sports with one another. It was said after the war, during Ireland’s upheavals in the early 1920’s, that the course of Irish history might have been different had the war ended in 1917 and all those Irish soldiers – both Catholic and Protestant – had gone home as friends. [12]

I hope you enjoyed this post. and as always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, feel free to let me know, I’ll do my best to answer them as quickly as possible.

Bibliography

Falls, Cyril. History of the 36th (Ulster) Division. Belfast (United Kingdom): McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Ltd. The Linhall Press, 1922.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Marshall, S.L.A. World War I. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.

McDonald, Andrew. The First Day of the Somme: The Complete Account of Britain’s Worst-Ever Military Disaster. Auckland (New Zealand): Harper Collins (New Zealand), 2016.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Strachen, Hew. The First World War. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Notes:

[1] Cyril Falls. History of the 36th (Ulster) Division.  (Belfast (United Kingdom), McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Ltd. The Linnehall Press: 1922), 52.

[2] Andrew McDonald. The First Day of the Somme: The Complete Account of Britain’s Worst-Ever Military Disaster. (Auckland (New Zealand), Harper Collins (New Zealand): 2016), 11.

[3] John Keegan. The Face of Battle. (New York, Penguin Books: 1978), 216.

[4] Ibid., 226-227.

[5] McDonald., 109-110.

[6] Ibid., 187-189.

[7] Ibid., 189-192.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Ibid., 201-202.

[10] Ibid., 203-204

[11] Ibid., 209-210

[12] Irishsoldier.org, “36th (Ulster) Divison.” Accessed July 1, 2016, http://www.irishsoldier.org/history/36th-ulster-division-0

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