Somme and the Butcher by Bill Urich

On this day in 1916, the Battle of the Somme, Bataille de la Somme, or Schlacht an der Somme ends in stalemate after 140 bloody days. It was intended to hasten a victory for the Allies and was the largest battle of WW1 on the Western Front, with more than three million men engaged and one million killed or wounded.

The opening-day advance in July was a disaster presaging even worse, as six German divisions directly facing the advancing British mowed them down with the dreaded MG 08 machine guns (500 rounds per min.), killing or wounding some 60,000 men before sundown, the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history to that point. Piss-poor planning led to failed pre-attack barrages, faulty fortifications, horrible logistics and lethal chaos.

1st Earl and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, ill-fated commander-in-chief of the BEF, finally called a halt to his folly after 90 separate attacks, costing 420,000 British and 200,000 French deaths and casualties, and netting a total gain of six miles; the Imperial German Army lost up to one-half million of their own. In the aftermath, Haig, who came to be known simply as ‘The Butcher,’ crassly asserted “Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the Western front; and the enemy’s strength had been very considerably worn down. Any one of these three results is in itself sufficient to justify the Somme battle.”

British PM David Lloyd George demurred, holding “Over 400,000 of our men fell in this bullheaded fight and the slaughter amongst our young officers was appalling . . . Had it not been for the inexplicable stupidity of the Germans in provoking a quarrel with America and bringing that mighty people into the war against them just as they had succeeded in eliminating another powerful foe—Russia—the Somme would not have saved us from the inextricable stalemate.”

Said one Capt. Leeham of the BEF, “The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell of the vapor of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils. I would rather have smelt gas a hundred times.”

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