Your RDA of Irony

Make Haig While the Somme Whines

July 1, 1916:  A Stroll in the Country

The plan of Field Marshall Douglas Haig had an undeniable logic. A week-long bombardment–1,500,000 shells of heavy artillery–along a 20-mile front in northern France would obliterate any German defenses. Then, 150,000 British soldiers would simply occupy the valley, leaving the exposed remnants of the German lines prey to three divisions of cavalry. And tally-ho Berlin! The British soldiers were told to take along their full kits–70 pounds of equipment and supplies–because this operation was really more of a relocation than an attack. Battalions were even ordered to move in formation: eight lines of troops, five yards apart. It would be good practice for so many raw recruits. That splendid procession occurred on this day–July 1–1916.

However, the procession was not quite as splendid as expected. While the British artillery had rained 1,500,000 shells on the German defenses, some logistical misunderstanding resulted in the use of shrapnel instead of high explosives. That would have been fatal to any number of German sunbathers who chose to ignore the bombardment, but it had negligible effect on the trenchworks. Furthermore, the British underestimated the quality of German engineering. They assumed that the German trenchworks were just as shoddy as the British. (On the contrary, if you like the engineering of German cars, you would really love their trenches.) So, in fact, the German fortifications were still largely extant and bristling with the finest quality machine guns. The British bombardment had only succeeded in eliminating the element of surprise.

So began the first day on the Somme.

General Haig expected 150,000 men–in three waves–to advance up to three miles, overrunning two lines of German fortifications. However, only 100,000 men participated in the attack. In some sectors, the second and third waves could not move past the dead and wounded of the first wave. Some regiments had casualties of ninety percent; in effect, they ceased to exist. Despite the odds and obstacles, moving under fire with the weight of a full kit, British troops succeeded in taking some sectors of the Germans’ first line of trenches. Some British soldiers even reached the second line of trenches; the lucky ones were captured.

General Haig expected the attack to continue the next day. The division commanders told him that it was impossible; the generals did not even know how many men they had left. It took three days to get an accurate account of the losses. Of the 100,000 men who made the attack on July 1, 20,000 were dead and 40,000 wounded. This proved to be the worst day in the history of the British army. By contrast, the German losses seemed almost frivolous: 8,000 dead and wounded, 2,000 captured.

And this was just the first day on the Somme. The slaughter would continue through November. At the cost of 620,000 casualties the Allies would gain five miles, and they never achieved the breakthrough that would end the war. But if this was a Pyrrhic victory, the Germans still had little reason to celebrate. Their casualties amounted to 450,000.

Douglas Haig was not courtmartialed, demoted or transferred as military attache to Brazil. He remained the Field Marshall of the British forces, After the war, he was made an earl and received an award of 100,000 sterling. (He did not need the money; the Haig family had a very successful distillery.) History’s judgment, however, has been less generous: “the butcher of the Somme”.

  1. Pam Beddard says:

    Great headline, great text. Are you also aware that more very many years, the poppies sold in Britain to raise money to help injured veterans and war widows gave further honour to Haig – each being centred with a ‘Haig Fund’ button? The words have gone now, largely, I suspect because sellers got tired of being taunted: “Why’s his name on it, then – is it because most of the dead and maimed were due to his stupidity?”

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Thank you for that story.

      Forgive my presumption in asking, but what family stories do you have from the Great War? I imagine that every British family has one.


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