Saturday, July 01, 2006

First Day on the Somme

Ninety years ago today, in the words of Geoffrey Wheatcroft,

almost 40,000 British soldiers were wounded and 20,000 were killed. There was a casualty for every half meter of the entire front line. It was far and away the heaviest loss the British (or possibly any) army ever suffered on one day, and we live with the memory of that "First Day on the Somme" even now.

Apart from the scale of suffering, the Somme was distinguished from the other great battles of the past century - Verdun, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima - by the fact that every British soldier who fought and died that day was a volunteer.

Harrowing, horrifying, haunting. By the end of the battle four months later in November 1916, total British, French, and German casualties numbered more than a million, including 300,000 killed. "At the deepest point of penetration," the Allies had advanced a mere five miles.

We do well to remember the death of a generation -- indeed, in a way, the death of a civilization -- on the fields of France between 1914 and 1918.

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