The Somme, 1916
Funeral of a great myth
By JOSEPH LOCONTE
At 7 a.m. on July 1, 1916, the British Army unleashed a hellish assault against German positions on the Western Front in France, along the River Somme. The roar was so loud that it was heard in London, nearly 200 miles away. The barrage—about 3,500 shells a minute—was designed to obliterate the deepest dugouts and severely compromise German artillery and machine-gun power. Crossing No Man's Land, that dreadful death zone stretching between opposing enemy trenches, would be a song.
Thus, at 7:30 a.m., nearly a hundred thousand British troops—to the sound of whistles, drums, and bagpipes—climbed out of their trenches and attacked. Like other great battles, this one was supposed to break the back of the German Army and hasten the end of the war. But the Germans had endured the pounding and were waiting, guns poised, for the British infantry. "We didn't have to aim," said a German machine-gunner. "We just fired into them." Before the day was over, 19,240 British soldiers lay dead, nearly twice that number wounded. Most were killed in the first hour of the attack, many within the first minutes.
July 1, 1916, marks the deadliest single day in British military history. Sir Frank Fox, a regimental historian, summarized the scene this way: "In that field of fire nothing could live." The Battle of the Somme would rage on, inconclusively, until November 18, dragging over a million men into its vortex of suffering and death.
Twenty-four-year-old J. R. R. Tolkien, a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force, was among their number—an experience that would shape the course of his life and literary career. Tolkien spent nearly four months in the trenches of the Somme valley, often under intense enemy fire. As he recalled years later: "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel its full oppression." A hundred years hence and the Somme offensive still casts its oppressive shadow across the landscape of the West. It symbolizes not only the human tragedy of an ill-conceived war but the fearsome cost of a mistaken idea: the notion of human perfectibility.