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WW1: The continued pain of the battle of the Somme

British soldiers negotiate the Winter landscape along the River Somme in late 1916 Photo: PA

No single battle defines the First World War for Britain more than the Battle of the Somme.

125,000 soldiers from Britain and its empire died across the Somme’s bitterly contested landscape between 1 July and 18 November 1916. Nearly 300,000 more were wounded, some lightly, others never to recover. ‘The Somme’ seeped into the consciousness of Britain and all the nations of the Commonwealth. It has never been truly forgotten.

For most people today the Battle of the Somme seems totally futile. It is hard to get past the bleak statistics of the fighting. 141 days of battle that led to an advance at its greatest point of seven miles. Weeks of effort and bloodshed appear to have led to little gain.

More so even than Passchendaele and Gallipoli, the Somme now represents the nadir of the First World War.

Two guardsmen bring in a wounded comrade on a stretcher at the First Battle of Passchendaele. Credit: Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

Lining up along the trenches as zero hour approached were legions of men who had joined up in the powerful waves of enthusiasm that had swept the nation in 1914. They had seen their collective values, the British way of life, as being under threat from the growing might of Germany and had joined up to defend them.

Many had gone forward together in battalions of ‘Pals,’ the pride of their communities.

The scale of this disaster has cast a shadow over any deeper understanding of the war. Yet, on the opposite end of the battle, where the British line joined that of the French, objectives were taken and the line advanced. Another unit of northern Pals, the 30th Division from Manchester and Liverpool, with better artillery support and more imaginative tactics, captured Montauban. This achievement showed that Kitchener’s men were not poor soldiers but, given a fair chance, could fight well.

Video report by Paul Davies.

The stark contrast between the failure at Serre and the success at Montauban is little remembered today. Yet it represents the beginning of a process of growth and development for the forces of Britain and its Empire that stretches through to the end of the war and ultimate German defeat

The battle last 141 days, and led to an advance of no more than seven miles. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

In February 1917 they began to fall back towards new, strongly built defensive positions known to the British as the Hindenburg Line. The ground taken as they withdrew was as direct a result of the Somme as the hard won gains taken in the battle itself and only with the capture of these positions did the fighting really end.

The pace of this growth rolled on throughout 1917. At each stage British and Imperial forces operated with a stronger, more professional edge. Even when the Germans turned the tables in the spring of 1918 with a series of massive attacks up and down the front, strengthened by American troops the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) defended with great determination.

British troops coming out of the trenches at Guillemont, Battle of the Somme. Credit: Topham/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

By 8 August 1918, the British and Imperial soldiers had become ruthlessly efficient. Battle hardened and experienced, they launched their own counter-offensive on the Somme drawing months of experience into a new ‘all-arms’ battle that began to wear down the increasingly exhausted Germans.

At the end of September ordinary soldiers from Britain led the way into and through the Hindenburg Line, using skills they had first learned two years earlier on the Somme. The momentum continued inexorably. With the German army unable to halt the advance, an armistice was sought and on 11 November the signing of this finally brought the fighting to an end.

For historians this is a clear story of steady progress and gradual improvement. The BEF ascends a steep but ultimately successful ‘learning curve’. From the inexperienced, naïve force of 1914, it becomes a hard-nosed professional army. This process began on the Somme in 1916. Yet for ordinary people this argument remains unconvincing. In Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester they still grieve for their men.

The Somme may indeed have laid the groundwork for Britain’s part in the Allied victory two years later. But this fails to explain why, after almost 100 years, the pain of the Somme still aches so deeply.

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