Military history


PREPARATIONS FOR THE Somme offensive were already at high pitch when the first group of British conscientious objectors forcibly transported to France were taken to an army camp parade ground with other soldiers and given the order "Right turn! Quick march!" The other troops marched off; the 17 remained in place, unmoving. The army fined them five days' pay, something that amused them, since on principle they were already refusing to accept any military pay. There was little else to laugh about. Periodically they were summoned to hear announcements of men sentenced to death for desertion or disobedience. And, of course, they knew that in Ireland the Easter Rising leaders had just been shot by army firing squads. At times, they could hear the rumble of artillery from the front.

They refused to do any work. Angry sergeants punished them by administering what was known as Field Punishment Number One, which meant being trussed to a fixed object like a gun carriage wheel or prison fence for two hours at a time, arms spread-eagled in crucifixion position. "We were placed with our faces to the barbed wire of the inner fence," recalled one CO, Cornelius Barritt. "...I found myself drawn so closely to the fence that when I wished to turn my head I had to do so very cautiously to avoid my face being torn by the barbs. To make matters less comfortable, it came on to rain and the cold wind blew straight across the top of the hill." But the men's spirits held, for when officers weren't looking, ordinary soldiers showed them unexpected kindness. One gave his dinner to CO Alfred Evans, and when his superiors were gone for the evening, a sergeant of the Irish Guards spent his own money buying cake, fruit, and chocolate for the whole group at the post canteen. Evidently worried that the men's pacifism might influence the troops, the army moved them off base, to a fish market on the docks of Boulogne that had been turned into a punishment barracks. There, they were locked in group cells with no sustenance but water and four biscuits a day.

The men in one cell could talk to those in other cells only through knotholes in the wooden walls. As best they could, the entire group—which included a schoolteacher, a watchmaker, a student missionary, several clerks, and a Catholic from a trade union family—held debates: on Marxism, Tolstoyan pacifism, and the merits of the invented international language Esperanto. The Quakers among them held a Quaker meeting. For some, religious conviction had put them behind bars; for others, a belief in socialism; for many, both. The songs they sang included both Christian hymns—

Trusting Him while life shall last,
Trusting Him till earth be past

—and the famous labor song "The Red Flag":

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.

"Rats were not infrequent visitors," remembered Barritt. "They would sit on the edge of a fire bucket to drink the water and occasionally run up one's back during a meal.... There were now eleven of us in the one cell.... We could just lie six a side with our feet almost touching; but it was a problem to find room for the bucket placed in the cell for 'sanitary' purposes. The cells measured 11 feet 9 inches by 11 feet 3 inches."

Unable to comprehend so many people acting according to conscience, the military at first decided that Barritt and three other COs were the ringleaders responsible for the larger group's disobedience. They were court-martialed and found guilty. None of them knew whether the messages they had smuggled out had reached England—or would have any effect. On June 15, 1916, just two weeks before the Somme offensive was scheduled to start, the four "ringleaders" were taken to a nearby army camp for sentencing.

"I cast many a glance in the direction of the white cliffs of Dover," recalled one, "for this might be our last opportunity." They were brought to a large parade ground, and several hundred soldiers were assembled on three sides as witnesses. A command rang out for silence. "As I stepped forward I caught a glimpse of my paper as it was handed to the Adjutant. Printed at the top in large red letters, and doubly underlined, was the word 'Death.'"

As each man stepped forward, the adjutant read out his name and serial number and the charge, and intoned, "Sentenced to death by being shot." There was a pause. "Confirmed by General Sir Douglas Haig." Then a longer pause. "And commuted to ten years' penal servitude."

In the days that followed, while trains and truck convoys all around them sped last-minute supplies to the front for the great offensive, a total of 34 British COs in army camps in France were told that they had received the death sentence, commuted to ten years' imprisonment; some 15 others were given lesser sentences. None of them knew of the visit Bertrand Russell and others from the No-Conscription Fellowship had paid Asquith, but it was crucial in saving their lives, for immediately afterward the prime minister had sent a secret order to Haig that no CO was to be shot. Two weeks after the first sentences, the COs were returned to England and sent to civilian prisons—as would happen with all COs refusing alternative service from then on. Jeering bystanders threw eggs and tomatoes at them when they landed at Southampton. But the men knew that they had stuck to their beliefs even when threatened with death. "As I stood listening to the sentences of the rest of our party," one CO said later of that day on the parade ground, "the feeling of joy and triumph surged up within me, and I felt proud to have the privilege of ... testifying to a truth which the world as yet had not grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance."

Throughout the British Isles, millions of people waited tensely for news of the great attack. "The hospital received orders to clear out all convalescents and prepare for a great rush of wounded," remembered the writer Vera Brittain, working as a nurse's aide in London. "We knew that already a tremendous bombardment had begun, for we could feel the vibration of the guns.... Hour after hour, as the convalescents departed, we added to the long rows of waiting beds, so sinister in their white, expectant emptiness."

Haig waited anxiously in his forward headquarters at the Château de Beauquesne, ten miles from the battlefield. As dawn came on July 1, a Royal Flying Corps observer found himself looking down on a fog-bank that covered part of the front, on which "one could see ripples ... from the terrific bombardment that was taking place below. It looked like a large lake of mist, with thousands of stones being thrown into it." Then, after five days of nonstop explosions, the British barrage abruptly ceased, and silence settled over the battlefield.

When whistles blew at 7:30 A.M., the successive waves of troops began their planned 100-yards-a-minute advance. Each man moved slowly under more than 60 pounds of supplies—200 bullets, grenades, shovel, two days' food and water, and more. But when those soldiers actually clambered up the trench ladders and over the parapet, they discovered something appalling. The multiple belts of barbed wire in front of the German trenches and the well-fortified machine-gun emplacements dotted among them were largely intact.

Officers looking through binocular periscopes had already suspected as much, and a handful of German deserters who made it through the barrage to the British lines reported the same. Plans for any attack, however, have tremendous momentum; rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is catastrophically awry. To call off an offensive requires bravery, for the general who does so risks being thought a coward. Haig was not such a man. The whistles blew, men cheered, Captain Nevill's company of East Surreys kicked off its four soccer balls. The soldiers hoped against hope to stay alive—and sometimes for something more: troops of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment knew that a prominent young society woman back home had promised to marry the first man in the regiment to win a Victoria Cross.

The bombardment, it turned out, had been impressive mainly for its tremendous noise. More than one out of four British shells were duds that buried themselves in the earth, exploding, if at all, only when struck by some unlucky French farmer's harrow years or decades later. Two-thirds of the shells fired were shrapnel, virtually useless in destroying machine-gun emplacements built of concrete, steel, or stone appropriated from nearby houses. Nor could shrapnel shells, which scattered light steel balls, destroy the dense thickets of German barbed wire unless they burst at just the right height above the ground. But their fuses were wildly unreliable, and often they exploded only after they had plummeted into the earth, destroying little and embedding so much metal in the ground that soldiers trying to navigate through darkness or smoke sometimes found their compasses had ceased to work.

The remaining British shells were high-explosive ones, which could indeed destroy a German machine-gun post, but only if it was hit with pinpoint accuracy. When guns were firing from several miles away, this was almost impossible. The many photographs from the Western Front of geysers of earth lifted skyward by a shellburst are usually evidence that the shell rammed itself into muddy ground and spent its energy pointlessly blowing dirt into the air. German machine-gun teams were waiting out the bombardment as much as 40 feet below the surface in their dugouts, supplied with electricity, water, and ventilation. For them, being underground for nearly a week, largely sleepless and at times in gas masks, had been grossly unpleasant but seldom fatal. In one of the few places where British troops did reach the German front line on July i, they found the electric light in a dugout still on. And when, after tens of thousands of British deaths, more of the German front-line trench had finally been captured, a soldier reported, "I did not come across a single dugout which had been broken into from the roof by our artillery fire."

Unaccountably, an underground mine exploded beneath the German lines ten minutes before zero hour, a clear signal that the attack was soon to begin. Then, like a final warning, the remaining mines went off at 7:28 A.M., followed by a two-minute wait to allow the debris—blown thousands of feet into the air—to fall back to earth before British troops climbed out of their trenches to advance. Those two minutes gave German machine-gunners time to run up the ladders and stairways from their dugouts and man their fortified posts, of which there were roughly a thousand on the sector of the line under attack. Ominously, during the two minutes, the British could hear bugles summoning the gunners to their positions.

Even before the British left their trenches, some machine guns had begun firing, streams of German bullets knocking bits of dirt and grass into the air as they grazed the tops of the British parapets, a horrifying warning that the five-day artillery barrage had been for naught. Elsewhere the Germans held their fire as the British moved forward. With some exceptions, the attacking units had been ordered to walk, not run. "They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches," recalled a German soldier facing them. "...When the leading British line was within 100 yards, the rattle of [German] machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line.... Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in [the] rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines." The Germans, like the British, had plenty of artillery pieces; these were under camouflage netting and had not been used during the weeks leading up to the attack, so as not to reveal their positions to British aircraft. Now they fired their deadly shrapnel shells, whose effects the Germans could see: "All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony ... with ... cries for help and the last screams of death."

The Germans were just as much prisoners of traditional ideas of military glory as their opponents, and this account of the first day's slaughter, like so many British descriptions, ends by noting not the suicidal nature of the attack, but the soldiers' bravery. "It was an amazing spectacle of unexampled gallantry, courage and bull-dog determination on both sides."

Plans for the orderly march forward in line abreast were quickly abandoned as men separated into small groups and sought the shelter of hillocks and shell holes. But there was no question of the hard-hit British troops' turning back, for each battalion had men designated as "battle police," herding any stragglers forward. "When we got to the German wire I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told," remembered one British private. "The colonel and I took cover behind a small bank but after a bit the colonel raised himself on his hands and knees to see better. Immediately he was hit on the forehead by a single bullet." Because artillery had destroyed so little barbed wire, British soldiers had to bunch up to get through the few gaps they could find—making the battlefield even more of a shooting gallery. Many soldiers died when their clothing, especially the loose kilts of the Scotsmen, caught on the wire and pinned them in positions exposed to fire. "Only three out of our company got past there," recalled a private of the 4th Tyneside Scottish Battalion. "There was my lieutenant, a sergeant and myself. The rest seemed to have been hit in no-man's-land.... The officer said, 'God, God, where's the rest of the boys?"'

The vaunted "creeping barrage," which was supposed to force German machine-gunners and snipers to keep their heads down, accomplished little. It crept forward according to the prearranged timetable—and then continued to creep off uselessly into the far distance long after British troops who were supposed to be following it had been pinned down by the tangles of uncut wire. The troops had no way to tell their artillery in the rear to change the plan. The cavalry waited behind the British lines, but in vain. Those who survived in no man's land sometimes waited until after dark to crawl back to their own trenches, but even then the continual traversing of German machine-gun fire sent up showers of sparks as bullets hit the British barbed wire.

Of the 120,000 British troops who went into battle on July 1, 1916, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded before the day was over—nearly two casualties for every yard of the front. Nineteen thousand were killed, most of them within the attack's first disastrous hour, and some 2,000 more who were badly wounded would die in hospitals later. There were an estimated 8,000 German casualties. As usual, the toll was heaviest among the officers, three-quarters of whom were killed or wounded. These included many who had attended the Old Etonian dinner a few weeks before: more than 30 Etonians lost their lives on July 1. Captain Nevill of the East Surreys, who had distributed the soccer balls, was fatally shot through the head in the first few minutes of combat.

The 1st Newfoundland Regiment, awaiting its Victoria Cross winner and the young woman who had promised herself as his reward, was virtually wiped out. The regiment's 752 men climbed out of their trenches to advance toward the skeletal ruins of an apple orchard covered by German machine-gun fire; by the day's end 684 were dead, wounded, or missing, including every officer. The German troops the Newfoundlanders attacked did not suffer a single casualty. Only in the far south of the attack area, on three miles of front, did the British advance a significant distance—roughly one mile. It was the bloodiest 24 hours any army suffered in this war.

Attacking soldiers had been ordered not to tend injured comrades but to leave them for stretcher bearers who would follow. The dead and wounded, however, included hundreds of stretcher bearers themselves, and there were nowhere near enough men to carry the critically injured to first-aid posts in time. Stretchers ran out; some wounded were carried off two to a stretcher or on sheets of corrugated iron whose edges ravaged the bearers' fingers. Many wounded who lived through the first day never made it off the battlefield. For weeks afterward their fellow soldiers came upon them in shell holes, where they had crawled for shelter, taken out their Bibles, and wrapped themselves in their waterproof ground sheets to die, in pain and alone.

In other ways, too, the terrible day took its toll after the fact. One battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel E.T.F. Sandys, having seen more than 500 of his men killed or wounded during that day, shot himself in a London hotel room two months later, after writing to a fellow officer, "I have never had a moment's peace since July 1st."

On the second day of the battle, Haig was told that the casualties had been over 40,000 so far—a gross underestimate but still an appalling figure. "This cannot be considered severe," he wrote in his diary, "in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked."

As fighting continued, the gains were minimal: a half mile here, a few hundred yards there, and in some places nothing at all. Haig's optimism never wavered. A week into the carnage, he wrote to his wife, "In another fortnight, with Divine Help, I hope some decisive results may be obtained." A few days later he told her, "If we don't succeed this time, we'll do so the next!"

Haig's supporters, even today, argue that the Battle of the Somme carried out its primary mission, to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, and to some extent this was true. The Germans, however, had already lost whatever chance they had of capturing that strongpoint with an all-out assault that failed miserably a week before the Somme offensive began—and for many of the same reasons the British experienced in this war that so relentlessly favored defenders over attackers. Despite the diminished threat to Verdun, Haig doggedly, unyieldingly sent out order after order for more attacks on the Somme, and these would continue for an astonishing four and a half months.

The Germans' best weapon remained barbed wire. They were bringing 7,000 tons of it up to the front every week, in long rolls stacked on railway cars two layers high, and both sides were using tough new types of wire, some of which had a sharpened prong every inch or two. Facing barriers like this, British soldiers were no longer in the mood to kick off any soccer balls. Among the new troops thrown into battle, "few there were whose demeanour expressed eagerness for the assault," wrote Graham Seton Hutchison, a company commander. "They were moving into position with good discipline, yet listless, as if facing [the] inevitable.... My eyes swept the valley—long lines of men, officers at their head in the half-crouching attitude which modern tactics dictate, resembling suppliants rather than the vanguard of a great offensive, were moving forward.... White bursts of shrapnel appeared among the trees and thinly across the ridge*.... An inferno of rifle and machine-gun fire broke.... The line staggered. Men fell forward limply and quietly. The hiss and crack of bullets filled the air and skimmed the long grasses."

Trapped with his men in no man's land, Hutchison saw, to his amazement, "a squadron of Indian Cavalry, dark faces under glistening helmets, galloping across the valley towards the slope. No troops could have presented a more inspiring sight than these natives of India with lance and sword, tearing in mad cavalcade on to the skyline. A few disappeared over it: they never came back. The remainder became the target of every gun and rifle."

Troops moving up to make such attacks saw their own future pass before them in the grisly traffic heading the other way. "The tide of wounded flowed back from the fields of the Somme in endless columns of ambulances," wrote the correspondent Philip Gibbs. "...Row on row, the badly wounded were laid on the grass outside the tents or on blood-stained stretchers waiting for their turn.... Whiffs of chloroform reeked across the roadways."

In his dispatches, Haig began to redefine success: "breakthrough" was gone; taking a toll on the Germans in a "wearing out fight" became the new catch phrase. He trumpeted the Somme as successful not because of the slivers of territory seized but because it was costing the Germans in dead and wounded—the first hint of a major shift in his rhetoric. Taking attrition as the standard of success turned out to be more realistic for this war than measuring land gained, but one problem with it was that the other side's losses were always unknown. The only thing you could know with certainty was your own staggering losses—and then hope that the enemy's were at least similar. After one battle in August Haig reported to London, based on little evidence, that German casualties "cannot have been less than our own."

This perverse logic sometimes led Haig to fly into a rage when he thought British losses—and so, by association, German ones—were too low. After a September attack on Delville Wood by the 49th Division, he was upset enough to deplore, in his diary, that "the total losses of this division are under a thousand!" The commander in chief's attitude set a powerful example for his subordinates. On September 30 of the following year, General Rawlinson wrote in his diary: "Lawford dined. In very good form. His Division 11,000 casualties since July 31st."

Some civilian archpatriots shared Haig's belief in high casualties as a measure of success. A month into the Somme battle, the general received a letter from an anonymous admirer: "The expectation of mankind is upon you—the 'Hungry Haig' as we call you here at home. You shall report 500,000 casualties, but the Soul of the empire will afford them. And you shall break through with the cavalry of England and France for the greatest victory that history has ever known.... Drive on, Illustrious General!"

What made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He "felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations," wrote his son, "because these visits made him physically ill."

What might Haig have seen if he had visited such a station? Here is a Royal Army Medical Corps officer's description of one near the Somme battlefield:

Stretchers blocked the cellar floors, the passages, the battered shelter that remained above ground and the approaches outside. Often we worked for hours and hours on end without respite: at the crude dressing-tables, at men grounded on stretchers, at men squatting or sitting.... There was a constant movement of bearers shuffling and staggering with stretchers, negotiating the cellar stairs, seeking a way in or out and a bare space whereon to deposit their burdens.... Sometimes a man on a stretcher would vomit explosively, spewing over himself and his neighbors. I have seen mounted troops brought in with liquid faeces oozing from the unlaced legs of their breeches. Occasionally a man would gasp and die as he lay on his stretcher. All this was routine.... No one spoke much ... we got on with our work.

This particular station was in the basement of a château. Many were worse: a foot deep in mud, with no running water, or under fire. Take the experience of any man passing through such a spot and multiply it by 21 million—the number of men wounded in the war.

Haig's diary says little about the wounded, except for notes such as one on July 25, 1916, in which he recorded a surgeon's informing him that "the spirit of the wounded was beyond all praise ... all were now very confident, very cheery and full of pluck. Truly the British race is the finest on Earth!"

Reaching Haig's desk daily were the dependably optimistic reports of his intelligence chief, Brigadier General John Charteris, whom a fellow officer described as "a hale and hearty back-slapping fellow, as optimistic as Candide, who conjured forth resounding victories from each bloody hundred yards' advance like rabbits from a hat." A mere captain at the start of the war, Charteris was a member of the "Hindu gang" of Haig protégés in India whose careers had ascended rapidly with his own. Charteris's intelligence assessments were professional enough on such questions as where enemy troops were deployed, but when it came to the more nebulous matter of German morale and ability to fight on, he regularly offered Haig the rosiest possible view. On July 9, for instance, Charteris assured Haig that if the British kept up the offensive for another six weeks, the Germans would have no more reserves.

The flow of British dead soon grew so great that they were buried in mass graves. As an endless succession of hospital trains full of wounded men pulled into Charing Cross and Waterloo stations and the platforms thronged with frantic wives and mothers, the War Office began sending Haig polite but anxious messages questioning why so many men were dying—and for so little. Still the carnage continued: 30,000 British troops were killed or wounded on a single day in mid-September. "'The powers that be' are beginning to get a little uneasy in regard to the situation," Haig jotted on a note from the chief of the Imperial General Staff, but he replied only that "the maintenance of a steady offensive pressure will result eventually in [the Germans'] complete overthrow." No one challenged him: the King visited Montreuil and pronounced himself pleased; Asquith came too, and Haig found him "most charming," although noting disapprovingly how much brandy the prime minister drank. (Years later, after excerpts from Haig's diary had been published, Winston Churchill urged a luncheon guest, "Have another glass, my dear boy. I shan't write it down in my diary!")

As the fighting dragged on into the autumn rains, shortly before yet another British attack a private named Arthur Surfleet and a friend walked past a graveyard near their encampment. To their surprise, they found men at work digging graves—for troops who had not yet been killed. "If that is not callous, I don't know what is. The very fact that we turned away and sludged and squelched our way into the filthy huts, merely disgusted, makes me think a curious change must have come over us all since we got out here."

A curious change it was, and Surfleet was not the only one who felt it. After all the hype about the "Big Push," the terrible casualties of the Somme made the second half of 1916 a turning point for many British soldiers. It was not a turn toward rebellion but toward a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference. The soldiers still marched dutifully to the front, but no longer sang. One enlisted man heading into the trenches carrying a roll of maps tied with a red ribbon heard a fellow soldier call out, "For God's sake let him pass, it's a bloke with the Peace Treaty."

The huge death toll led soldiers less to question the purpose of the war than to feel deeper solidarity with those who endured it with them. Surfleet, for instance, sensed an "esprit de corps or comradeship—I don't know what it was." He felt he could "look the rest of the lads in the face and claim to be one of them." Sometimes the satisfaction came from initiating others. Burgon Bickersteth, a former Anglican lay missionary, described the moment of turning over a position in the trenches to new troops:

There is something highly exhilarating about "handing over." One feels superior in knowledge and experience, anxious not to "put the wind up" the newcomer unduly, yet not averse to impressing him with the "bloodiness" of the place. "Here they snipe during the day." "By that big coil of wire over there the Boches creep out at night"—and so on. The doings of the last few days, terrifying at the time, assume quite rosy colours. "But it's all right," one hastens to add, "it's quite cushy really, there is nothing to worry about." "Oh no," says the newcomer, rather uncertainly.

In such a voice we hear the force that ensures that soldiers seldom mutiny, and that makes the larger purpose of a war—or the lack of one—almost irrelevant to those who fight. The potential for human brotherhood that the socialists talked about was profoundly real, but the brotherhood men now felt most easily was of the shared baptism of combat. The more wrenching and painful that experience, the greater the sense of belonging to a fraternity that no mere civilian could penetrate. Although the poet Robert Graves felt the war was "wicked nonsense," and his memoir, Good-bye to All That, is a classic statement of disillusionment, he found conversation with his parents "all but impossible" when he came home wounded in the middle of the war. In the end—and Graves was not alone in this—he cut short the time he could have stayed in England in order to return to the front. "Once you have lain in her arms," another writer and Western Front veteran, Guy Chapman, said of war, "you can admit no other mistress. You may loathe, you may execrate, but you cannot deny her.... No wine gives fiercer intoxication, no drug more vivid exaltation.... Even those who hate her most are prisoners to her spell. They rise from her embraces, pillaged, soiled, it may be ashamed; but they are still hers."

What might break the murderous deadlock? As the hope of a breakthrough withered, exhausted troops yearned for a superweapon. Whatever it would be, it would have to be invulnerable to bullets and, above all, cut through barbed wire. The civilian public, too, was eager for a magical war-winning device, and repeated tantalizing rumors of one. Finally, in mid-September 1916, the British launched their new secret invention, the tank. Ironically, it took this technologically most complex weapon to conquer the simplest, against which much else had been tried, from grappling hooks to torpedoes on wheels. As the new tanks rumbled onto the ravaged landscape of the Somme, it appeared that the problem of barbed wire had at last been overcome.

The first models were giant steel rhomboids, their two caterpillar tracks running around the entire frame of the tank. Guns bristled from side turrets and sometimes the front and back as well. The whole thing, covered with armor plate, weighed 28 tons and was 32 feet long. Imagine the terror of the German soldier who saw this grinding toward him across no man's land, rolling over barbed wire as if it were grass. If appearance alone could bring victory, tanks would have won the war on the spot.

By the next world war, fast-moving tanks would be thought of as a substitute for the cavalry. But this first generation, compared to its descendants, was as a hippo to an antelope: its speed averaged only two miles per hour. In addition, on some models the radiator was inside the cramped crew compartment, which could quickly heat up to 125° F; entire crews sometimes passed out from the heat and engine fumes. The tank suffered, too, from the era's strange mismatch between firepower and communications: it carried no radio, only homing pigeons, which could be pushed out a small opening in hopes they would fly back to headquarters. Of the 49 machines that lumbered into this first engagement, all but 18 broke down before or during the fighting, or got stuck in deep shell craters, becoming sitting ducks for enemy artillery. The surprise effect of the tank's first appearance—which might have been far greater had Haig waited until more were available—was squandered, just as the Germans had failed to take full advantage of their first use of poison gas the year before.

While tank designers hurried to make improvements (and the Germans to make armor-piercing weapons), Haig was thrown back again on painfully familiar tactics: massive artillery bombardments followed by infantry attacks. The two sides fired 30 million shells at each other during four and a half months of battle. (Even today, every heavy spring rainfall in the region uncovers the metallic glint of shrapnel; in 2005 alone, nearly 90 years after the fighti ng, French explosives disposal teams would remove 50 tons of shells from the Somme battlefield.) Still, Haig doggedly ordered his men onward. On October 7, 1916, he assured the Imperial General Staff that "a very large number, if not yet all, of the German forces in our front feel that the task of stopping our advance is beyond their ability."

But the position of the German front line told a different story: when autumn rains and mud brought combat to a halt, troops under British command had suffered almost 500,000 casualties on the Somme front, including at least 125,000 deaths. French soldiers, who also took part in the battle, had lost 200,000 dead and wounded. The Allies had gained roughly seven square miles of ground.

It would be too easy, however, to see the Somme solely as a monument to the thickheadedness of Douglas Haig. The Germans brought their own kind of fatal stubbornness to the battle, principally through a disastrous order issued by Chief of Staff General Erich von Falkenhayn that "not one foot of ground should be lost." This meant that whenever a British attack did succeed in gaining a patch of pulverized earth, the Germans tried to retake it, often marching directly into lacerating machine-gun fire just like their foes. By one count there were more than 300 of these counterattacks during the months-long battle, and they, more than anything else, helped make the Somme almost as costly in lives for the Germans as it was for the Allies. The journalist Philip Gibbs watched one, where the German soldiers "advanced toward our men, shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar. It was sheer suicide. I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line followed. They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward.... They walked like men conscious of going to death." Seldom, in this war, did one side have a monopoly of folly.

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