I have a rendezvous with Death, at some disputed barricade
July 1, 2006 12:54 AM   Subscribe

90 years ago today, whistles blew around the river Somme in France as British troops prepared for an attack on German trenches. By the end of the day they had suffered 57,470 casualties. By the battle's end in November, there were over 600,000 Allied casualties, with perhaps the same number of German casualties. The Imperial War Museum has launched an online exhibition, where you can find out more about how the battle was planned, personal stories of those involved, and myths about the attack. Elsewhere you can find copies of Army reports on the first day, look at film of the attack, diaries and letters home from the troops, go on tours of the trenches, listen to contemporary songs and music inspired by the battle, and see some more modern responses.
posted by greycap (38 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
[this is good]
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:28 AM on July 1, 2006


Nice reference to alan seegar in the title:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air--
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.


Prior to the assault, British and French artillery fired over 1 million shells into the Germans lines. The "advance" over the top was made by soldiers fully laden with equipment on their way to "occupy" the deserted German trenches.

Of course, the artie didn't produce the desired effect, the Germans crawled out of their bunkers, and mowed down the enemy solidiers with machine gun fire.

20,000 British soldiers were killed dead and more than 35,000 wounded. On the first day. No army in history has ever suffered as many casualties in a single day.

Losses at the Somme resulted in a (short-lived) six mile advance of the front into German territory, a continued stalemate on the western front, Churchill's debacle on Gallipoli peninsula, and the post war breakdown of British class structure.

Nice post greycap. Don't know what sourwookie is talking about.
posted by three blind mice at 2:16 AM on July 1, 2006


"Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin"
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:25 AM on July 1, 2006


Here's a quick overview.

The scale of this thing was just amazing (and horrible).
posted by surlycat at 2:37 AM on July 1, 2006


three blind mice, Gallipoli was more than a year BEFORE the Somme.
posted by wilful at 2:48 AM on July 1, 2006


Thanks wilful, I stand corrected.
posted by three blind mice at 2:55 AM on July 1, 2006


See also. [From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission]
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:39 AM on July 1, 2006


Oh god sometimes I wonder how some stuff slips on BBC sites:
History is about interpretation, not simply "facts", and the process of investigation will continue for as long as interest in the Battle of the Somme is sustained.
Since when are interpretations and facts mutually exclusive or incompatible ? The Rwandan Genocide is a good example: some it as the effect caused by lack of western help, other see it as the effect of propaganda , yet the facts remain the same: hundred of thousand of individuals were slaughtered , there is no interpretation of facts as if interpretation could change facts.
I once asked my grandfather, himself a World War One veteran, whether he thought it was just too simple to assume the Great War amounted to nothing but a "futile" waste of life.

He replied: "The generals did their job, we did ours. We won."


Which pretty much proves the granpa, blessed his decaying brain, didn't understand the question or maybe that the sense of "duty" was similar to a religious faith to him ; it was is "job" and both him and his superiors did "the job" they were supposed to do, the idea that he took part to an incredible, completely avoidable manslaughter iseems removed/suppressed by a misguided sense of duty and achievement.
posted by elpapacito at 4:00 AM on July 1, 2006


sourwookie: Wrong thread?

[this is good]
posted by uncle harold at 4:23 AM on July 1, 2006


Sigh. If only the Germans had won the war. We would have avoided the rise of Bolshevism, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Holocaust, the partition of the Middle East, etc. If the Germans had won, the consequences would have been: the humiliation of France. Oh well.

(Isn't it the Battle of the Somme in which Blackadder and company go over the top in "Blackadder Goes Forth?")
posted by Faze at 6:02 AM on July 1, 2006


uburoi beats me to the Blackadder reference.

Some more:
Melchett: Now, Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field. [they gather around a model of the battlefield]

Blackadder: Now, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy sir?

Darling: How can you possibly know that Blackadder? It's classified information.

Blackadder: It's the same plan that we used last time, and the seventeen times before that.

Melchett: E-E-Exactly! And that is what so brilliant about it! We will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard! Doing precisely what we have done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they'll expect us to do this time! There is however one small problem.

Blackadder: That everyone always gets slaughtered the first ten seconds.

Melchett: That's right! And Field Marshal Haig is worried that this may be depressing the men a tadge. So, he's looking to find a way to cheer them up.

Blackadder: Well, his resignation and suicide would seem the obvious solution.

posted by jouke at 6:13 AM on July 1, 2006


Faze: uh don't forget the negative consequence, you probably would be under the rule of a german emperor , eating krauts because that's what we give to the people
posted by elpapacito at 6:14 AM on July 1, 2006


argh on preview: gotta love english humor
posted by elpapacito at 6:15 AM on July 1, 2006


Which pretty much proves the granpa, blessed his decaying brain, didn't understand the question or maybe that the sense of "duty" was similar to a religious faith to him ; it was is "job" and both him and his superiors did "the job" they were supposed to do, the idea that he took part to an incredible, completely avoidable manslaughter iseems removed/suppressed by a misguided sense of duty and achievement.

Give gramps a little credit. Just because he didn't give the answer you wanted doesn't mean you should pathologize him with brain decay or psychologize him with religious devotion. Stretch your mind and try and understand

I suspect gramps gave the answer he did because he was there and understands that war is a messy horror where ordinary error prone humans try to do what they think is right. When your mates become heroes, cowards and body parts your understanding of human nature is probably a bit deeper and more first hand than people whose idea of pressure is a software development code freeze, relationship trouble or getting taken to meta. Or maybe Dr. House is right and it is a brain tumor.
posted by srboisvert at 6:19 AM on July 1, 2006


Since when are interpretations and facts mutually exclusive or incompatible ? The Rwandan Genocide is a good example: some it as the effect caused by lack of western help, other see it as the effect of propaganda , yet the facts remain the same: hundred of thousand of individuals were slaughtered , there is no interpretation of facts as if interpretation could change facts.


I don't necessarily disagree with you, but the invention of technology that allowed us to collect more facts than potentially biased first-hand or second-hand accounts of events is fairly recent.

Also, when I read the quote from BBC, I interpret it as them saying that facts and interpretations cannot be mutually exclusive, i.e., it seems to me that they stress the importance of both. And I would agree with this. Random facts of past events would be fairly meaningless if we didn't study them in some sort of context that relates to ourselves. Understanding interpretation is also important because it is the difference in this interpretation that leads to human conflict and suffering.

The facts of the Rwandan Genocide seem to be fairly well documented. But interpretation of those facts will decide our opinions. The Hutu probably feel that their actions were justified and necessary. And if the Tutsis were somehow considered enemies of western "civilization", I think the official interpretation of the events would lean towards the Hutu side. Then the movie that would be made about Rwanda wouldn't be Hotel Rwanda, but maybe something about the misery of the Hutu refugee camps after the tide turned against them. Actually, if the Tutsis were considered important enough to be our enemies, the genocide would probably have been complete...but anyway. I could be wrong...
posted by giantfist at 6:23 AM on July 1, 2006


.
posted by diocletian at 6:26 AM on July 1, 2006


The BBC has a nice Flash map of the battle. The battle lasted until November. (Tanks were first used in September.) The Allies had almost 624,000 casualties; the Germans had between 500,000 and 680,000.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:54 AM on July 1, 2006


It's not the Somme in which Blackadder and co go forth, since the date is given as 1917 - one of the pathos-laden moments in the last episode is when one of them says "The Great War - we lived through it! 1914-1917". But it's arguable that the Somme is what drives most of the humour, anger, and sheer resignedness behind the episodes. Unfortunately I couldn't find a clip of the last episode online - the final scene as the smoke fades to a poppy field still gives me a lump in my throat 15 years or so after I first saw it.

On the BBC article, I too interpret it as saying that history is about interpretation as well as about facts. The facts of the Somme may be clear as far as they go, but the interpretation is still changing - the "lions led by donkeys" thesis that has dominated recent historiography is being reassessed, with some arguing that parts of the Somme battle were successful and in the longer-term an important step in wearing down the German war machine. (The casualties were not just on one side). The 18th Division, for instance, captured Thiepval, and in the longer-term the lessons in training and tactics proved successful. None of which is to diminish the human tragedy behind the battle - which is hard to grasp - but it may not have perpetuated the stalemate.
posted by greycap at 7:00 AM on July 1, 2006


The starting date of the Battle of the Somme, being today, July 1, was advanced from the originally planned August 1, in part to take pressure off the French defense of Verdun, where the Germans had been doing to the French what the Allies now hoped to do the Germans at the Somme...
posted by paulsc at 7:14 AM on July 1, 2006


srboisvert writes "I suspect gramps gave the answer he did because he was there and understands that war is a messy horror where ordinary error prone humans try to do what they think is right."

Granpa answer : "The generals did their job, we did ours. We won." I understand your will to excuse grandpa, he most probably didn't start the war nor wanted to partecipate, but I really don't see the apologetic tone in grandpa response, it looks a lot more like an extreme summary. Let's considered that his answer is the answer to the question 'you think it was pointless ?' . His answer isn't a clear cut yes/no or an elaborate one extolling pro/cons/etc ..actually he doesn't answer at all.


srboisvert writes "Give gramps a little credit. Just because he didn't give the answer you wanted doesn't mean you should pathologize him with brain decay or psychologize him with religious devotion. Stretch your mind and try and understand "

Actually brain "decay" isn't a pathology, it's quite an ordinary consequence of aging and I expect very old people to respond inaccurately or vaguely, even irrationally. Yet my sympathy for the conditions given to grandpa by aging doesn't prevent me from thinking he may not have understood the question, given that his answer actually answer the question "what happened ?"

When your mates become heroes, cowards and body parts your understanding of human nature is probably a bit deeper and more first hand than people whose idea of pressure is a software development code freeze, relationship trouble or getting taken to meta.

I think living an experience gives a more accurate perception of the emotional effects of a situation, which is relevant, yet I don't see why granpa (or anybody else) should understand human nature better then a person "dragged" to meta, only because he saw ultraviolence, death and desperate acts of heroism. Certainly he saw the triumph of human stupidity and gullibility, but does that give a deeper understading of human nature only because we see it in action ?
posted by elpapacito at 7:32 AM on July 1, 2006


Other things being equal, yes.
posted by the cuban at 7:44 AM on July 1, 2006


But others being different, no
posted by elpapacito at 8:08 AM on July 1, 2006


[this is good]
I enjoyed the link coming from 'modern'. I didn't know about the popular characterization of the lions being led by donkeys (soldiers led by generals) much less its debunking- fascinating. Yes I doubt incompetent leadership would have won much less in the short time (for that day). I still boggle that WWar I and II were less than a century ago and much less for the latter. But then, it continues, on a smaller scale, as many have noted.
posted by uni verse at 9:52 AM on July 1, 2006


It's amazing to me that it took so long for them to figure out that walking across a field towards machine guns was a bad idea (and machine guns weren't a new invention). Seems like you'd realize that about 30 seconds after the first guys died.

The 18th Division, for instance, captured Thiepval
On September 26.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:12 AM on July 1, 2006


Somme film of battle. I stumbled across this link a few days ago, don't know how. I hope it wasn't from a Metafilter link but I can't see it on Metafilter. Anyway, it's a fascinating piece about how film showing battlescenes was thought to have been faked but in fact is real in most or many places. Most interesting element is the woman who sees her grandfather getting shot, though he survived and she knew him in the 1960s.
posted by etaoin at 10:45 AM on July 1, 2006


he most probably didn't start the war nor wanted to partecipate,

Yes on one, difficult to say on two. Lot of enthusiasm among the rank and file for that encounter, plenty of Hugh Lauries for every Rowen Atkinson.

Been a while since we've had a really popular war, which makes it hard to imagine, but read the contemporary material, private and propaganda, and you'll find a great deal of gung-ho-ism, even in America, even as late as 1917. That was the year that "Over There!" topped the charts.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:56 AM on July 1, 2006


etaoin's article without charge.

If only they showed us pictures of the film and the descendants....
posted by IndigoJones at 11:09 AM on July 1, 2006


When I was growing up in Newfoundland, I always wondered why Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations seemed so muted compared to those in the rest of the country. I soon learned that 1 July has been marked as Memorial Day in Newfoundland to honour the fledgling dominion's role in the Battle of the Somme, specifically at Beaumont-Hamel. From the link:
The Battalion's War Diary on July 7 states that on July 1 the overall casualties for the Battalion were 14 officers and 296 other ranks killed, died of wounds or missing believed killed, and that 12 officers and 362 other ranks were wounded, a total of 684 all ranks out of a fighting strength of about 929. About 14 of the wounded subsequently died from their wounds. Afterward, the Divisional Commander was to write of the Newfoundlanders effort: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further."

...The esteem in which the Newfoundlanders were held may be illustrated by a spontaneous tribute. In October 1918, the Battalion was temporarily held up outside the Belgium hamlet of Steenbeck. From the right flank a mounted officer came galloping toward them. He proved to be Brigadier General Freyberg, VC. When within hailing distance he shouted, "Who are you?" "Newfoundlanders" was the reply. "Thank God, my left flank is safe," exclaimed the Brigadier as he wheeled his horse.
.
posted by hangashore at 11:10 AM on July 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


I think living an experience gives a more accurate perception of the emotional effects of a situation, which is relevant, yet I don't see why granpa (or anybody else) should understand human nature better then a person "dragged" to meta, only because he saw ultraviolence, death and desperate acts of heroism. Certainly he saw the triumph of human stupidity and gullibility, but does that give a deeper understading of human nature only because we see it in action ?


Listen to the man. He has a perfectly valid point of view. That his answer isn't the same as the one you want him to give or one that I like either is what gives it value. Otherwise you're just playing tennis with a wall and eventually the wall will always win.
posted by srboisvert at 12:14 PM on July 1, 2006


Here in Ottawa, amidst the celebrations of Canada Day, the Governor General laid a wreath at the National War Memorial this morning to commemorate this battle.

Article here.

This was the first time a remembrance ceremony was conducted at the National War Memorial on July 1.

The First World War Battle of Beaumont-Hamel was at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916. About 780 men from the First Newfoundland Regiment were part of a British contingent that took part in the advance.

Only about 110 Newfoundlanders survived unscathed and many lost their lives in the opening minutes of the bloody battle.

posted by aclevername at 12:42 PM on July 1, 2006


This post is good, greycap.
posted by Tullius at 2:00 PM on July 1, 2006


' History is about interpretation, not simply "facts", and the process of investigation will continue for as long as interest in the Battle of the Somme is sustained.'

Since when are interpretations and facts mutually exclusive or incompatible ?


I don't think the quote is making any such implication."not simply____" is an inclusive qualifier.
posted by Neiltupper at 3:51 PM on July 1, 2006


I like this site too.
posted by merelyglib at 4:23 PM on July 1, 2006


I went to a baseball game today, and the attendance was 19,000. It was stunning to look around the stadium and realize that the British left three times that many people dead and wounded on the ground in one day at the Somme.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:38 PM on July 1, 2006


Give gramps a little credit.

I think he's talking about scope and domain of influence. He's saying neither the generals nor solidiers chose to be at war but did what they were expected to within their respective domains. He's saying nobody asked him for advice on whether to conduct a war in the first place so asking (challenging?) him to provide purpose or relevance after the fact is meaningless in any personal sense.
posted by scheptech at 5:17 PM on July 1, 2006


elpapacito: we won.

And that's about all that one can salvage from that mess. Gramps is not decayed - gramps is pointing out that the mass slaughter was not in fact futile. We won.

The manslaughter was incredible. Arguably avoidable. But we won.

Among other things, to deny that is to deny that any death, on either side, had a more than private meaning. Faze is on to something, because the Germans had the same mass suffering or worse, but couldn't even say "we won."

And maybe gramps was brought up (as my father and his father were) to prize laconic virtues.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:54 PM on July 1, 2006


The Imperial War Museum seems very intent on pushing the notion that the battle was "necessary" and, though bloody, "laid the foundations for allied victory". Further, they blame negativity about the Somme on "disenchanted literature and poetry from a small number of participants", and modern interpretations such as Joan Littlewood's "Oh, What A Lovely War" and (yes) Blackadder. As evidence, the Museum offers a few excerpts from military historians friendly to the Somme butchery. In rebuttal, one might look at the assessment of military historian Robert Foley that "the German army emerged from the battle of the Somme an even more formidable foe than before the battle." And it might be worth mentioning that the War Museum does not say anything about the loss of morale among the troops, the executions of British soldiers, the following year's mutiny of French units.
It seems to me that the War Museum is presenting the line that, no matter how stupid a military adventure may appear, in the long run the generals know more about the value of lives than poets, dramatists, participants, and you do. Perhaps this is meant to apply to other, more recent, adventures that today appear as ill-advised as that on the Somme in 1916.
posted by CCBC at 3:59 PM on July 2, 2006



Hell by Georges Leroux:
I could see out over an area of ten square kilometres that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth. The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them. A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded - the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind.
Summing up: 1914-1918 - Casualty Figures and The Great War in Numbers.
posted by cenoxo at 11:47 AM on July 3, 2006


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