NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN (ALMOST)
3rd July, 1916 : They came up to the front during the night, heavily laden with their packs, but marching at a smart, swinging pace, singing some music hall tune, accompanied here or there by a mouth-organ. They marched towards the points of flame stabbing the blackness, where British shells were falling. Officers in staff cars slid past, the motorcycles of dispatch riders scooted across the market squares of small French towns and now and then a French sentry would rise an arm in salute: “Bonne chance, mes camerades”. The long prepared British and French offensive on the Western Front, coordinated with Russian and Italian assaults, was about to begin, astride the River Somme in Picardy.
It was the biggest British army yet sent into battle, 26 divisions, every man a volunteer, on a 15-mile front. The French had promised 40 divisions, but in the event they were able to produce only 18. The aim was to seize, according to Filed Marshal Haig’s calculation, some 4,000 yards of enemy territory.
The success was limited to a few miles and 2,000 prisoners. The British had 60,000 casualties; the rate among officers was 60 per cent and 40 per cent among other ranks.