Battle of the Somme (2)
Those in charge—at least, in charge of the British forces—imagined that the German lines would be pounded soft by a week of heavy shelling, nearly two million shells from the field artillery. They were certain that the wire would be shredded, the ground cleared, the resulting charge would be the first phase of an inexorable march on Berlin.
The Germans had simply retreated into their deep and permanent shelters (some had glass-fronted cabinets built in) behind a 25-mile long, hundred-foot wide river of barbed wire as thick as a man’s finger, until the cease of shelling told them it was time to come up. On the British side, officers blew their whistles to go over the top. Across from them, on high ground, the German machine guns waited.
Corporal WH Shaw of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers remembered it like this:
Our artillery hadn’t made any impact on those barbed-wire entanglements. The result was we never got anywhere near the Germans. Our lads were mown down. They were just simply slaughtered. You were either tied down by the shelling or the machine-guns and yet we kept at it, making no impact on the Germans at all. And those young officers, going ahead, they were picked off like flies. We tried to go over and it was just impossible. We were mown down.
Or as General Spears put it:
My memory was seared with the picture of the French and British attacking together on the Somme on July 1st 1916, the British rigid and slow, advancing as at a military parade in lines which were torn and ripped by the German guns, while the French tactical formations, quick and elastic, secured their objectives with trifling loss. It had been a terrible spectacle. As a display of bravery it was magnificent. As an example of tactics its very memory made me shudder.
Joe Sacco’s The Great War is a modern Bayeux Tapestry on paper, a detailed panorama of the first day of the Somme battle. To enter my drawing for Joe Sacco’s gorgeous The Great War, pop over here before midnight Monday.