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A June day in France, where ‘Men fell in sheets like sleet.’

Douglas Haig.

By A. C. CHILDERS [Open Letters] – The Somme offensive had originally been planned as the staging ground for the ‘one big push’ the allied high command – French General Ferdinand Foch and Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force – hoped would break through the German defenses in occupied France and bring the stalemated conflict to a properly businesslike end….

On the 24th of June the British 4th Army under General Rawlinson opened up an immense artillery bombardment of the German entrenchments – over a million and a half shells were lobbed across No Man’s Land, with the aim of pulverizing German resistance and destroying the miles and miles of barbed wire defenses. This bombardment lasted until the first of July, and then, at 7:30 a.m on a hot, pretty summer day, the shells stopped and the young men of “Kitchener’s Army,” most of them minimally trained civilians enjoying their first taste of warfare, went ‘up and over,’ clambering out of their trenches and marching in calm and orderly fashion toward the German positions around 900 yards away. These men had been assured by their commanders that the previous week’s shelling had broken the German’s line – they were told they’d have at most some light mopping-up to do before they walked on to Bapaume, a few miles from the front, and then on to Cambrai and final victory.

But the Germans had had more than a year to fortify their positions overlooking the Somme valley. Some of their trenches were so deep no shell could disturb them; many were concrete-reinforced; many had electricity. The German high command had been shocked by the severity of the shelling, true, but these front line soldiers weren’t hastily-drafted ingenues – they were experienced and battle-hardened, and when the shelling stopped, they hauled their machine guns and rocket launchers up from the trenches, dusted them off, and turned them on the large, orderly crowds of men walking and laughing toward them. The folly of marching unarmored men toward entrenched firing positions had been gruesomely attested in the American Civil War even before there had been machine guns and rocket launchers. The results that morning on the Somme were an order of magnitude worse.

Men feel in sheets like sleet. Whole companies vanished in an instant. Wards, neighborhoods, entire villages of young men staggered, were ripped ragged, crumpled. By the end of that day, the BEF had 57, 470 casualties, including close to 20,000 fatalities – and the world had a solid new chunk of mythology.

Continued at Open Letters Monthly | More Chronicle & Notices.

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