War history: Going beyond the myths and half-truths of the ‘blackest day’ as the Brit’s fought for the Somme

The D-Day landings in Normandy, France The D-Day landings in Normandy, France

Monday, June 23, 2014
9:44 AM

The Somme – meant to be a triumphant ‘Day of Days’. It didn’t quite work out that way. But Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, says there’s more to this battle than the common hackneyed view

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Earlier this month we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944. The momentous events of D-Day loom large in our national memory.

Some readers may have good personal reasons to remember the landings – they were there. The 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment landed on Sword Beach and went on to distinguish itself by capturing a number of heavily defended objectives inland.

The Normandy landings were a success and we therefore tend to look back at Normandy in a positive light. We are also lucky to have a handful of surviving veterans to tell us first-hand about their experiences in 1944.

Sadly, this is no longer the case with the First World War and we have to work a little harder to understand what the men who wore the Suffolks’ cap badge experienced.

In a few weeks’ time, on July 1, it will be the 98th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a huge British offensive intended by its planners and every man who took part to be a “Day of Days” that would aid our French allies and perhaps change the course of the war.

The disaster that unfolded on Sunday, July 1, 1916 is still regarded by many historians as the blackest day in the history of the British Army. As dusk drew in on the French battlefield, the scale of the failure began to filter through to the shocked commanders of what was largely a citizen Army made up of volunteer soldiers. With the notable exception of progress in the south of the British assault area, little or no ground had been gained and there was no prospect of the intended large-scale breakthrough of the German defences.

The casualty figures for July 1 are frequently misquoted. However, whichever way they are considered, they are staggering. It would take weeks for the full figure to be calculated but eventually the casualty reports would total 57,000, of which 21,000 would be listed as killed in action. The rest of the terrible total would be listed as wounded, missing or prisoners of war.

Over the years, this blackest day has dominated many people’s perception of the entire war; it seems to almost confirm the Blackadder view and perpetuate the belief that citizen soldiers were Lions led by Donkeys. In fact, there is so much more to the battle of the Somme than this hackneyed view.

Like the Normandy campaign, it went on for months after its first day. In fact, fighting on the Somme continued until November 18, 1916.

As with D-Day, it was planned in great detail, involved innovation 
and introduced new technology. 
The participating troops in both battles were highly motivated, well trained and well equipped. So what really went wrong? Why and how could the two days turn out so differently?

These are exactly the questions that the historians from the Guild of Battlefield Guides strive to answer during the Somme day excursions. Why not come with us and walk on the battlefields of the Somme, look beyond the myths and half-truths, 
and see for yourself on a Galloway battlefield tour.

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