Capt Eric Norman Frankland Bell, killed on July 1, 1916, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for heroism:
When our front line was hung up by enfilading machine gun fire Captain Bell crept forward and shot the machine gunner. Later, on no less than three occasions, when our bombing [grenade] parties, which were clearing the
enemy’s trenches, were unable to advance, he went forward alone and threw Trench Mortar bombs among the enemy. When he had no more bombs available he stood on the parapet, under intense fire, and used a rifle with great coolness and effect on the enemy advancing to counter-attack. Finally he was killed rallying and reorganising infantry parties which had lost their officers.
The 12th Royal Irish Rifles (Central Antrims) were decimated when they went into battle for the first time on July 1, 1916:
German infantry was now filtering in from the flanks and soon the Ulstermen in both battalions were under fire from both sides and their front. The situation was even worse for those fighting grim little actions in the German trenches – they were also in danger of being totally cut off from their only avenue of escape. Nevertheless, the remnants of the Rifles twice re-formed under fire and renewed the attack. Led by the remaining officers they advanced but as the bodies began to cover no-man’s land, all chances of a successful attack melted way.
The men planning the July 1, 1916 attack wanted to take the pressure off of their French allies, who were being bled to death at Verdun. This was a rational strategic aim. The planning, however, was on a scale and of a complexity that they were not yet equipped to handle. Britain’s Army commander, Gen. Douglas Haig, was unable to provide unity of command or proper direction. The preparation for the attack proceeded in an ad hoc and extemporized fashion:
In the weeks before the assault on 1 July 1916 Haig visited all his divisions as was his duty and right. ? He did not pursue to an issue some of the vital and disturbing insights that he gained from these visits. These were that the quality of the infantry’s patrolling was uneven, that some divisions were aware that the pre-battle bombardment was not being effective in destroying the resistance of the enemy to fighting patrols, that some divisional commanders were concerned about the problem of crossing No Man’s Land despite the bombardment and, lastly, that the wide variation in the artillery plans for the actual assault directly reflected the degree of enlightenment of the several divisional commanders on these questions. ?
Some divisions planned a rapid advance with little hard fighting; others prepared to fight their way through the first German defence system. XIII Corps on the right flank and XV Corps next to them were two corps that treated the German defences seriously. They were the only two corps to achieve success. The former reached all its objectives on 1 July.
(From Fire Power: The British Army – Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 by Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham.) Note that the units that prepared properly succeeded. Those that did not, died in droves, like the Irish troops mentioned above. Unfortunately, at this stage, there was not yet a consensus about what constituted proper preparation, and the administrative machinery was not in place to impose consistency, even if there had been.
People derive various “lessons” from the history of the Somme battle, especially its first ghastly day, on which the British suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners for a total loss of 57,470. (From Wikipedia.) One is that the officers in command were “donkeys”, incompetents, who blundered in ways that common sense could have prevented. We have been taught to shake our heads in disdain at these dunderheaded officers.
The more modern scholarship tells a more worrisome tale, a tragic tale in which the commanders did about as well as they could have. They were not donkeys, they were not particularly stupid or deluded. They were doing, in most cases, what they believed to be right, and they could usually point to some coherent reason for their thinking. And yet they produced a disaster. Why?
They simply did not yet have the skills and knowledge to conduct war successfully under then-prevailing conditions. The senior officers were in the unenviable position of living at the time of technological revolution in military affairs. Moreover, they were the unhappy recipients of a new assignment from their government after the entente of 1904: Continue being an underfunded, all volunteer, imperial constabularly, but also prepare to fight on the Continent against the massive, well-trained, well-equipped conscript army of Germany. Not surprisingly, they did not do well faced with radical change and an incoherent mission. And their failures cost many thousands of lives
However, a forgotten fact is that the British officers, at all levels, learned from the disaster. Within days, even hours, they were performing better ? those who survived. But don’t take it from me. The German memoir writers demonstrate nothing but fear and respect toward the British, especially their artillery. (See, e.g. Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 by Christopher Duffy.) The British and Empire forces waxed mightily during the war after the disaster of July 1, 1916. They were constantly learning and improving in skill and training, and introducing novel and deadly weapons. They had become a formidable force by 1918. It was in the main the British Army which ultimately won the war in a remarkable 100 days of aggressive offensives culminating in the Armistice. This was probably the greatest campaign fought by the British and Empire Armies in their history. No one now remembers that 100 days, or virtually no one. Why?
Because of how the war is remembered. Another purported lesson is that the First World War was in general a stupid idea, a waste, a pointless squandering of lives. This view led to a strongly pacifist stance regarding future military actions. But the men who fought in it did not think they were fools who fought for a worthless cause. They believed in the justice of their cause. The British public shared this view for some years after the war, too, believing that Britain had paid an awful price to defeat a great evil. It took a concentrated and persistent propaganda campaign by the intellectual community in Britain to finally get the idea that the sacrifices were wasted to be generally accepted.
The people who actually fought in it were better judges of its meaning. Opposing the German Empire, which destroyed the long Victorian-Edwardian peace of Europe by unprovoked and aggressive war, justified only by power, was a morally just cause. The cost and the methods employed are other questions. But the British were on the morally right side of the war.
What people believe is determined by who writes the history, and what is taught, and what agenda is being served. The entire history of World War I in the English-speaking world has been presented as one continuous First Day on the Somme. It wasn’t. And the men who died in the battle did not die for nothing, but in the service of a worthy cause.