World War I erupted because Germany, which had invaded France in 1870 for the Franco-Prussian War, wanted to do it again. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, provided the perfect excuse. When Germany started getting belligerent, Russia made obvious moves toward a preemptive strike. On August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. On August 3, they invaded Belgium, heading for France. Britain declared war on Germany and Austria, and started recruiting. One of the big draws was the “Pals” battalions. Soldiers who signed up together got to fight together. Units based on geography guaranteed that many towns lost a generation of young men.
At the Somme on the Western Front, both sides burrowed into an elaborate system of trenches with a no man’s land in between. Britain’s generals, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir Henry Rawlinson, planned a surge to divert German attention from Verdun. They called it the “The Big Push” and set it on July 1, 1916 at 7:30am, giving Germans full light for their aim. Announced in advance with poorly timed explosions and the cessation of a week long bombardment, “The Big Push” found Germans in full battle preparation as inexperienced British troops marched into the shooting gallery. The first half hour claimed 2000. At the end of the day, 21,000 Britons were dead or missing, and 35,000 wounded (Stamp, 2006).
Then both sides settled back into their trenches and continued fighting until winter arrived four months later, with a loss of 300,000 on all sides (Gilbert, 2006). So many died, it was impossible to identify individual corpses due to massive wounds, decomposition, or the lack of anyone left alive to recognize bodies. Ninety years later, skeletons are still found. Seven German soldiers were uncovered during construction of the Thiepval Visitor’s Center, which opened in 2004 (Stamp, 2006).
Despite its huge losses, Britain was declared winner of the campaign. The Battle of the Somme did divert German attention from Verdun, and with American help, France and Britain won the war. Everyone went home and built monuments and rested up.
(The primary resource for this post is The Somme Then and Now: A Visual History, by Duncan Youel and David Edgell, 2006.)