Tom Phelan visiting the World War I memorial in Mountmellick, Co. Laois.
By Tom Phelan
Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word. —Friedrich Steinbrecher
1914 On their way to making a quick capture of Paris, the German army invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914. Britain immediately declared war on Germany, and the Belgians slowed the Germans sufficiently to allow for the British Expeditionary Force to get to Europe and join up with the French. Together, in what became known as the Race to the Sea, they defeated every effort by the Germans to gain access to the harbors in northern France and thus isolate Paris.
With the Germans continually on the move to get around the Allies, and the Allies forever moving to face these new threats, by Sept. 15 both sides were exhausted and the Germans dug their first trenches. During this first month on the Western Front, 86,000 men died or were wounded.
The Germans built their trenches as defenses because they planned to stay put. Many of these trenches were openings down into bunkers, many of which were 40-feet deep and which were serviced with communication and escape tunnels. Some underground officers’ quarters were equipped with electricity and running water, and some were paneled or draped to soften the rough walls.
In comparison, the Allied trenches were scrapes in the ground, intended as assembly points for attacks on the enemy positions and as temporary lines to fight off sudden German forays. The trenches on both sides stretched from Switzerland to the Belgian coast as the opposing armies settled in for the winter.
1915 In the Mediterranean in 1915 the Gallipoli disaster unfolded in April and ended the following January. There were almost 400,000 casualties. Back on the Western Front the British attacked the Germans in Neuve Chapelle in March, held onto the village for several days, but then had to withdraw with a loss of 11,200 casualties. During the Germans’ one attack that year, known as the Second Battle of Ypres, they were repulsed, but the Allies suffered 87,223 casualties.
Numbers of German casualties during World War I are not reliable. However, it would not be a stretch to say that in most or all hostile encounters, the Germans suffered as many casualties as the Allies.
1916 In the quiet winter of 1915-16 the French, British, Italians, and Russians drew up plans for three simultaneous offensives against the German lines. The British and the French would attack side by side on the Somme. However, before these plans could be activated, in late February the Germans launched a huge offensive in Verdun, a fortified town in eastern France. The French knew that a defeat here would cause a total collapse of its French army. As the situation at Verdun deteriorated, French soldiers in other theatres, including the Somme, were summoned to reinforce the troops. Even so, the French feared they could not hold Verdun after June. In these desperate circumstances a diversion was planned along an 18-mile stretch of trenches in the area of the Somme to draw German forces from Verdun.
Along that 18-mile stretch the Allies installed a howitzer every 17 yards. These guns would clear no-man’s-land of the barbed wire between the opposing trenches, and they would subject the Germans to an unending seven-day bombardment to soften them up for the infantry attack that would immediately follow. With so many German casualties expected, and with the survivors terrorized, disorganized, and disoriented from lack of sleep, the British soldiers would simply climb out of their trenches with their 80-pound knapsacks strapped on, walk across no-man’s-land, and take up residence in the first row of enemy trenches. Then the second and third rows of trenches would be captured and a gap made for Field Marshall Haig’s cavalry – soldiers on horseback brandishing sabers.
During the bombardment in that last week of June, which could be heard in the south of England, 1,457 British guns fired more than 1.5 million shells. Meanwhile, British soldiers, many of them fresh recruits from Ireland with no fighting experience, were rotated back from the forward trenches and trained for the battle ahead. Their spirits were lifted, not only by the sound of their own big guns but by speeches from senior officers. “You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick. You will not need rifles. You will find all the Germans dead. You will reach Moquet Farm by 11 and the field kitchens will be right behind you to give you a good meal.”
In the early morning of July 1, the Germans in their trenches were aware–from spies, British newspapers, and loose lips that sink ships–that the artillery barrage was about to end. On the British side, coal miners who had been brought in especially for the project, checked the fuses of the tons of explosives they had placed in tunnels under the German lines. At 7:20 a.m. the largest underground mine was blown at Hawthorn Ridge. This massive explosion, which was heard in London, gave the Germans a ten-minute warning that the British infantry was about to charge, and they immediately bombarded the opposing trenches in the area facing Hawthorn Ridge. A young British soldier recorded, “I watched the enormous core of earth go up and, within five minutes, it seemed that every Boche machine-gun was shooting full belt, the bullets simply whistling like hail over our position.”
At 7:28 a.m. four lesser mines were blown by the British, and at exactly 7:30 a.m. the seven-day bombardment ceased. All along the lines, the British climbed out of their trenches. One officer even threw footballs at the feet of his troops to encourage them to play their way across no-man’s-land.
The Germans heard the silence too, and they scampered to the surface with their machine guns. The seven-day bombardment had only made gaps in the barbed wire in no-man’s-land. As the British troops headed for the gaps, the Germans aimed their machine guns at the openings.
Four hours later, the British had suffered 50,000 casualties, 5,500 of them from the 36th Division from the north of Ireland. There had been 15,000 young men in that division, and the unimaginable grief that settled over Ulster in the days that followed, still clings, 100 years later, like old cobwebs in dark corners. The south of Ireland lost its share of youngsters that day too, but it was in the 36th where the losses were keenest; many in the 36th had been recruited in groups from their towns, villages football clubs, and factories, and the unforeseen consequences of this resulted in those towns, villages, and factories losing a generation of their children in one fell swoop.
What had been planned as a diversionary tactic segued into the First Battle of the Somme, and each side would slog on till Nov. 18, 1916. In all, there would be over one million casualties: British, 485,000; French and Germans, 630,000.
The British forces advanced less than half a mile during the slaughter.
The paperback edition of Tom Phelan’s novel of Ireland in World War I, “The Canal Bridge,” will be published by Arcade in early July. The book will be launched Thursday, July 21, at 7 p.m., at Turn of the Corkscrew Books in Rockville Centre. On Monday, August 8, at 7 p.m., Phelan will read at the Summer Gazebo Readings to benefit Kamp Kiwanis, 65 Foxhurst Ave., Oceanside, N.Y.