“ I feel that every step of my plan has been taken with the Divine help. The wire has never been so well cut; nor the artillery preparation so thorough….”
Field Marshal Haig, to his wife on the eve of the Battle of the Somme*
No opposition was expected when on July 1 1916, 100,000 soldiers emerged from their trenches at 7.30am to walk across No Man’s Land towards the German lines. Along a 23km stretch they advanced in the bright daylight of a midsummer morning at a walking pace, as instructed, in straight lines with 90 metres between each assault wave.
It should have been a walkover. Yes, the Germans had constructed a defensive line of barbed wire systems, deep underground concrete dugouts and strong points, known as redoubts, along their front line north of the river Somme.
In order to remove these obstacles, the British and French began an intensive artillery barrage on June 24. Over the following eight days an incredible 1.7 million shells were fired at the German line with the intention of destroying the barbed wire entanglements, and annihilating the German defences.
The noise of this bombardment was so ferocious and terrifying that it could be heard in parts of England, across the channel. ‘In Southdown villages the school children sat wondering at that incessant drumming and rattling of the windows.’
The poet Thomas Hardy wrote in awe…... That night your great guns, unawares, / Shook all our coffins as we lay, / And broke the chancel window-squares, / We thought it was the Judgment-day …( From Channel Firing ).
The plan envisaged that the major objectives could be achieved in hours. There were no alternative arrangements if the attack did not succeed. There was no plan B. But in fact about one third of the shells failed to explode due to faulty fuses, the German defences were deeper and safer than believed, and consequently the bombardment failed totally to achieve its objective. This failure allowed the German defenders to take full advantage of their positions on higher ground when the British infantry walked towards them.
Confidence on the British side was so strong that captain Billie Nevill of the 8th Surreys, actually kicked a football ahead of his men towards the enemy. He was instantly shot.
The rest of the men were met with a hail of machine gun fire. Most of them did not reach the German line. There was an estimated 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were killed, before the attack was called off around noon.
That day alone was the worst and most tragic in British military history. It was a day still talked about in sadness and horror. A day that saw an already terrible war escalate to such a pitch of madness and hysteria that it had already attracted as many as 300,000 Irishmen to participate; of whom 49,400 never returned.
One man who fought at the Somme, and was lucky to come home, was Jack King from Bohermore.** He was only 16 years old at the time he came across a recruiting meeting at Eyre Square, Galway, probably one of the meetings Peg Broderick and her friends were trying to disrupt!
But this was a more dramatic recruitment meeting than usual. Two ‘nuns’ were brought on stage by the military, and both looked heavily pregnant. According to the recruiting officer, these nuns were raped by German soldiers a number of months earlier. ‘The audience was stunned by this announcement and became more troubled when they were told that many Irishwomen would suffer the same fate if the Germans were not stopped. ‘It had the desired effect on Jack and his friends who decided to lie about their ages and enlist immediately. ‘Many years later, a wiser, older Jack remembered how easily they had been fooled by two ‘bogus pregnant nuns.’
All sorts of lies were brought to pressurise young men to join the British forces at the time. Under the heading ‘Co Galway Farms Mapped Out In Berlin’, a local newspaper reported that land and farms in County Galway, and in other counties throughout Ireland were being mapped out and earmarked for German families.
There was the pressure to fight for a new Ireland from John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parlimentary Party, who had given the tantalising promise of Home Rule once the war had been won. The local MP Stephen Gwynn told a Galway meeting that where he once fought for the day to day aspirations of the people, he was now addressing them as a captain in the Connaught Rangers. He had joined the army the day the Home Rule Bill had been placed on the Statute book. ‘This is Ireland’s war,’ he said. ‘ it is a war of justice for the Irish people.’
Of course, when it was all over, as Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh writes in the introduction to Henry’s book, ‘The heady rhetoric, which had accompanied the call to arms in 1914, was now almost an embarrassment , drowned in the blood and suffering of the trenches, and soured beyond redemption by the repressive strategy of the crown’s agents in Ireland after 1916.The political landscape had been transformed.’The idealism of Jack King, and so many others, who returned to the ‘transformed political landscape’, had been forgotten until recent years.
Next week: More on the Somme.
NOTES: *Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British army from 1915 until the end of the war, was responsible for the planning and tactics at the Battle of the Somme; tactics which were later severely criticised for causing excessive casualities earning him the nickname ‘Butcher of the Somme.’
He continued his Somme offensive until November, amid further torrents of blood and mud.
By then the British army had suffered 500,000 casualties, and the Germans about the same.
**I am taking this story from William Henry’s Galway and the Great War, published Mercer Press 2006.