The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Somme: A Sad Anniversary

I've long been interested in World War One, the global conflict that did much to create the confusing and troubled world we face today. As a part-time student of the war and by no means an expert, I'd like to share a few thoughts on the anniversary of one of this war's major battles.

Today, July 1, is the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, an allied offensive that began on this date in 1916 and continued for almost five months until November 18. 
Going "over the top" at the Somme

The Somme is one of those tragic events in human history that should never have happened. Planned and executed by the French and British, it achieved virtually nothing except the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Indeed, on just that first day of July a hundred years ago, the British suffered 58,000 casualties, including 20,000 deaths. This was and remains a one-day record in British warfare. 

French Chief of Staff Joffre
The battle plan was originally conceived by French Chief of Staff Joffre, a man beloved by his countryman who referred to him as "Papa Joffre". But Joffre was also a man of questionable strategic decisions. His pre-war Plan 17 for the invasion of Germany neglected to anticipate that the Germans would attack first, and would do so by invading France via neutral Belgium. As a result, the French were caught off-guard and were ill-equipped to offer an effective defense. Making things even worse, before the war Joffre had been responsible for ridding the French army of officers possessed of a defensive mindset. He was also ill-prepared for the German offensive at Verdun in early 1916, the longest battle of the war. Verdun also generated nearly a million casualties -- half of these were deaths -- giving the world a foretaste of what was to come later that year at the Somme.

Sir Douglas Haig
The Somme battle plan conceived by Joffre was accepted by the British commander Sir Douglas Haig. The date of the offensive was moved up from August 1 to July 1 to draw off German forces from Verdun. This change also shifted the alignment of forces, turning what was originally conceived as a mostly French offensive into a largely British one. 

Haig ultimately took over the planning for the offensive which was preceded by a week of massive artillery bombardment of German positions. This not only eliminated the possibility of surprise, but also failed to achieve its objective of destroying the German fortifications. Once the artillery stopped, the Germans left their well-fortified underground bunkers, set up their machine guns, and began their slaughter of the attacking British infantry.

Haig, a leader of great inflexibility and stubbornness, continued the offensive along a 20-mile front in fits and starts until he eventually called it off on November 18. At the cost of well over one-million allied and German casualties, the Somme offensive resulted in the allies gaining less than eight miles.

Today is not a day to celebrate, but rather a day to mourn the loss of the youth of so many nations who perished during this war. These young men, needlessly sacrificed on a host of altars dedicated to greed, pride, stupidity, ideology, and blind nationalism, fought courageously while trusting that their military and political leadership would not abandon them. Sadly, too many of these leaders, on both sides, viewed the war quite simply as a war of attrition which would be won by the army that suffered fewer losses than its enemy. The result was carnage on a scale never before experienced.

I've included a remarkable 11-minute video that tries to describe what the Somme was like for the troops who fought there.

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