July 1, 2016 – 100th Anniversary of the First Day of the Battle of the Somme

On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme during World War I, the British Army incurred its heaviest casualties in its military history in a single day: 52,471, including 19,240 killed. As Andrew Roberts reports in his book Elegy: The First Day on the Somme, by 8:30 a.m. that day the rate of casualties was as high as 500 per minute for the battle thus far. In late afternoon, stretcher-bearers were sent out, and they carried stretchers under fire continuously for the next 24 hours. Back in the trenches, the wounded continued to be bombarded.

British soldiers "going over the top", or leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme

British soldiers “going over the top”, or leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was the major British offensive of 1916. Together with French forces to the south, the British attacked along an eighteen-mile front. The allied forces thought the Germans would be incapacitated and demoralized by the week-long artillery barrage preceding the ground offensive. Instead, the Battle of the Somme came to represent, according to a Cambridge University Library website on the battle, “the ineffectiveness, incompetence, and ruinous wastage of life which characterized trench warfare.”

Siegfried Sassoon, c. 1916

Siegfried Sassoon, c. 1916

The famous WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, best remembered for his angry poems about the meaninglessness – as he perceived it, of the First World War, served in the British Army at the Somme, in and around Mametz Wood, and he kept journals of his experiences. (You an access his journals online, here.) Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare. He described the first day of the Somme as a ‘sunlit picture of hell’.

This poem, Aftermath, is about the Battle of the Somme:

Aftermath – Poem by Siegfried Sassoon

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”

Note: For more about the role that poets played in helping to form the collective memories of World War I, see our review of The Long Shadow by David Reynolds. The book is a masterful analysis of the shifting interpretations of World War I depending on sources and political exigencies.


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