Ian Malcolm-Walker

Somme thoughts

Ian Malcolm-Walker

The Somme

The Somme was a bloodbath.  The armies of the British Empire took nearly twenty thousand dead and sixty thousand casualties on the first day alone.

The Accrington Pals - the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington), East Lancashire Regiment - were ordered to attack Serre, the most northerly part of the main assault.  Of an estimated 700 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack, 235 were killed and 350 wounded within the space of twenty minutes.

Industrialised Warfare

From the early nineteenth century improvements in firepower outstripped the ability of individual combatants to protect themselves.  Single shot weapons were replaced first with repeating rifles such as the Winchester and then with machine guns such as the Gatling gun.   They were not called machine guns for nothing.  The American Civil War was very different from the Crimean War just a decade earlier.  Artillery increased in range, accuracy and explosive power.

A First World War battlefield

This consisted of two sides in trenches separated by no man’s land.

No man’s land was a mixture of mud, unrecovered corpses, unexploded munitions, abandoned trenches, barbed wire and other detritus.  In places it could be a mile wide.

For hours before the offensive the attacker would try to soften up the other side with an artillery barrage.  In the case of the Somme that lasted a week. 1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans. The logic behind this was so that the artillery guns would destroy the German trenches and barbed wire placed in front of the trenches.  The barrage could be heard on Hampstead Heath 168 miles away

But the Germans were dug in deep 30 to 40 feet down in some cases.

Underground mines were also detonated - Huge bombs at the end of large tunnels dug under no man’s land.  Some of these were short of the German lines rather than under them

So, at 7 30, on 1 July the whistles blew and men crossed no man’s land.  By the time they reached or got near the German lines – and most never made it that far – the Germans has climbed out of their deep bunkers and set up machine guns along the front.

If the first day was such a disaster why did the battle last until mid-November with 1.3m men wounded or killed


Attrition is the process of reducing something's strength or effectiveness through sustained attack or pressure. That was the military philosophy of both sides. In short it was the last side with an army wins. The armies doing the dying were mostly ill trained  volunteers and latterly conscript while the generals wined and dined in chateaux 20 miles or more from the fighting.

The Pals Battalions

The pals’ battalions were especially established battalions of the British Army comprising men who had joined up en bloc in local recruiting drives, with the undertaking that they would serve alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates.

At the outbreak in August 1914, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, believed that overwhelming manpower was the key to winning the war and he set about looking for ways to encourage men of all classes to join. This concept stood in direct contrast to centuries of British military tradition, in which the British Army had always relied on professional (rather than conscript) soldiers

It also meant casualties were focused very locally and felt massively by the community from which they came leaving neighbourhoods full of widows and spinsters – women whose boyfriends had been killed – who never married.

The battle of the Somme marked a turning point in the Pals battalion experiment.  Many were dispersed or amalgamated after the scheme effectively came to an end after the summer of 1916.

Others retained their titles until the end of the war but with recruitment dependent upon drafts from a common pool of conscripts rather than with regional or other common ties.

The Newfoundland’s

During the First World War, the battalion-sized Royal Newfoundland Regiment was the only North American unit to fight in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Later in the war the regiment was virtually wiped out at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  For them in less than half an hour it was all over; 801 men went into action and on the unwounded name call next day, only 68 answered.

Brooks and Rumbolt argue it changed the Island’s history ending any prospect of independence.

See http://www.batteryradio.com/Pages/BHamel.html

The UVF and the 36 Ulster Division

In some areas many Pals Batallions were raised. One special case is the north of Ireland. In the years before the beginning of the war many unionists had been recruited into the Ulster Volunteer Force. 

The two key figures in the creation of the Ulster Volunteers were Edward Carson (leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance) and James Craig, supported clandestinely by figures such as Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations at the British War Office.

At the start of 1912, leading unionists and members of the Orange Order began forming small local militias and drilling. On 9 April Carson and Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party, reviewed 100,000 'Ulster Volunteers' marching in columns.  On 28 September, 218,206 men signed the Ulster Covenant, vowing to use "all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland", with the support of 234,046 women.

On 13 January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formally established by the Ulster Unionist Council. Recruitment was to be limited to 100,000 men aged from 17 to 65 who had signed the Covenant. The Ulster Unionists enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Tory Party, even when threatening rebellion against the British government. On 23 September 1913, the 500 delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council met to discuss the practicalities of setting up a provisional government for Ulster, should Home Rule be implemented.

 The 36th (Ulster) Division was an infantry division, part of Lord Kitchener's New Army, formed in September 1914. Originally called the Ulster Division, it was made up of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, who formed thirteen additional battalions for three existing regiments

The First Day of the Somme was the anniversary (Julian Calendar) of the Battle of the Boyne, a fact remarked on by the leaders of the Division.

There was many who went over the top at the Somme who were Ulstermen, at least one, Sergeant Samuel Kelly of 9th Inniskillings wearing his Ulster Sash, while others wore orange ribbons

When some of his men wavered, one Company commander from the West Belfasts, Maj. George Gaffikin, took off his Orange Sash, held it high for his men to see and roared the traditional war-cry of the battle of the Boyne; " Come on, boys! No surrender!"

On 1 July, following the preliminary bombardment, the Ulstermen quickly took the German front line. But intelligence was so poor that, with the rest of the division attacking under a rolling or creeping artillery barrage that was being lifted 100 yards at a time, the Ulstermen would have come under attack from their own guns at the German first line.

But they still advanced, moving to the crest so rapidly that the Germans had no time to come up from their dugouts (generally 30–40 feet below ground).

In the Schwaben Redoubt, which was also taken, so successful was the advance that by 10 am some had reached the German second line. But again they came under their own barrage, not due to finish until 10:10.

 However, this successful penetration had to be given up before nightfall, as it was unmatched by those at its flanks. The Ulstermen were exposed in a narrow salient, open to attack on three sides. They were running out of ammunition and supplies, and a full German counter-attack at 22:00 forced them to withdraw, giving up virtually all they gained.


The battle ended in mid-November. The Allies advanced 8 km and the British suffered 420,000 casualties, the French 204,000, and the Germans 465,000.

On the first day of battle, the British suffered 57,740 casualties, of which 19,240 were dead (the largest single loss).

Lessons, Leadership and Chilcot

Industrialised Warfare has developed unabated for another 100 years.  Every new technology developed by society has been put to military use were possible.

The rules of war are in effect a myth. Come push to a shove a state with its back to the wall will do what is can to win – rules or no rules - relying on the dictum that the winner makes the rules.

No weapon exists in human history that is not ultimately used.

The only controls are the knowledge that rules exist and people can be held to account.  It may sometimes deter but more often only provides a framework to nail those responsible afterwards though they will fight tooth and nail to escape judgement.

I have seared into my memory a picture of Kier Hardie speaking in Trafalgar Square in very early August 1914 against the war that was clearly days away.

For sheer courage it takes some beating.  Of all the Labour leaders since I think only 2 would have been as clear.  Lansbury and Corbyn.

At the beginning of the war across Europe social democratic leaders who had promised to prevent the slaughter for the most part caved in and backed the war with some like Kautsky even blaming the workers who were to die in the mud for their own fate.

Lenin was clear in The Collapse of the Second International

“Consider: the only people in a position to express their attitude to the war more or less freely (i.e., without being immediately seized and dragged to the barracks, or the immediate risk of being shot) were a 'handful of parliamentarians' (who were free to vote, with the right to do so; they were quite able to vote in opposition. Even in Russia, no one was beaten up or even arrested for this), a handful of officials, journalists, etc. And now, Kautsky nobly places on the masses the blame for the treachery and the spinelessness of that social stratum of whose links with the tactics and ideology of opportunism Kautsky himself has written scores of times over a number of years!”

Spineless and Opportunistic Parliamentarians

As I write this, Boris Johnson has pulled out of the Tory leadership race and Heseltine rails against him for the mess he has caused.

The PLP has turned on Jeremy Corbyn accusing him of lacking leadership and spinelessness.   Yet his stance since 23 June has been a model of leadership.

We all know the coup attempt was long in the planning, and nothing to do with the referendum,  which was nothing more than a convenient peg on which to hang the cloak of treachery.

As to the timing, one can only observe that so many of the plotters and quitters have time and time again banged the war drums whether over Iraq in 2003 or Libya or Syria.

Hopefully the publication of Chilcot will mean the warmonger in chief, Tony Blair will now have to face the music