One and a half million causalities in a single battle or the death of one single man – both underline the futility of war, says PETER FROST.
The battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles of WWI, indeed perhaps the bloodiest conventional battle in all human history. One and a half million participants were killed or injured in this single engagement.
The British suffered 419,654 casualties, the French 204,253 and the Germans 465,000, Canada 24,029 casualties, Australia 23,000, New Zealand 7,408 and Ireland 25,000.
One young German soldier suffered a wounded leg during the battle. His name was Adolf Hitler.
The Somme was one of the first battles in military history to include air warfare. The British Royal Flying Corps had 185 planes which, along with their artillery-spotting observation balloons, gave them air superiority. The Germans had only 129 aircraft.
This battle also saw the first use of tanks (below).
Untried and unreliable, of the 40 used most could not even drag themselves to the front line. Another British tactic was to use miners to tunnel under the German entrenchments to plant explosives.
The battle started at 7.30am on July 1 1916 when the British detonated 40,000lbs of explosives under the German positions before the British infantry advanced across no-man’s land facing heavy artillery and murderous machine gun fire.
It was soon apparent that the British artillery bombardment had been largely ineffective — advancing troops suffered tremendous losses and the few that reached the German line were easily cut down.
Poor communications and arrogance from the officers led the British command to mistakenly assume the assault was working and send forward reinforcements. These too were cut down in huge numbers.
The first day ended in disaster — 19,240 British dead and 35,493 wounded, 21,152 missing and 585 taken prisoner, resulting in a total loss of 57,470 troops. The French and Germans suffered only 7,000 casualties each.
Eventually realising the heavy losses, British command largely suspended the offensive for a time but then the battle and the slaughter went on for many months.
All through the summer and autumn there was little advance by either side. As winter set in, prospects of a breakthrough became less and less likely. On November 13 British Somme commander Douglas Haig ordered an attack north of Thiepval to save face and it looked as if his strategy was succeeding.
By late November the battle of the Somme was over. Five long months of fighting had seen minimal gains but very heavy casualties. The French had captured perhaps five miles of German territory, the British only two miles.
Today we know that the battle was a disaster. It was the classic example of lions led by donkeys when brave men who died for their country were led by a remote, ignorant and uncaring officer class who believed they had the divine right to rule.
Perhaps we should give the final word to a German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher. “Somme,” he said, “the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”
A composer struck down in his prime
George Butterworth (below) is my favourite English composer. His pastoral works speak of England and its countryside in a the same way as Ralph Vaughan Williams or Gustav Holst and is often based on old folk songs collected in the halcyon days before WWI.
Yet no other composer’s reputation is built on so few works. His Banks of Green Willow and Two English Idylls are among the finest in English music and his wonderful settings of Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad are among only a score or two of his works that remain.
Houseman’s line “Lads that will die in their glory and never grow old” would prove sadly prophetic in Butterworth’s own life.
Just before he left for the trenches of France, Butterworth went through all of his compositions and destroyed much of his music scores believing he could and would write much better when he returned from the war. It was not to be.
Born in Paddington in 1885 Butterworth became not just a composer but also a collector of folk songs, a Morris dancer (below, second from left) and, of course, a cricketer.
He grew up in Yorkshire where he showed an early aptitude for the piano. At school he excelled more in sports and music than in academic subjects and in 1904 went to Trinity College Oxford to read Greats — classics, ancient history and philosophy. But even here music overshadowed his academic application.
In 1906, Butterworth became interested in traditional folk song and dance, part of a popular revival that was developing a distinctly English musical style.
Along with friends Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams he started collecting folk music.
In Sussex in 1907 he found local folk songs which he would use in his two English Idylls.
All in all, Butterworth collected around 450 songs and dance tunes and published several books of country and Morris dances, joined the Folk Song Society and was one of the founders of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 dancing in its original Morris side.
In 1910, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied organ, piano, composition and harmony, but he was soon disillusioned and left a year later. Most of Butterworth’s compositions date from 1910-14.
In 1911 he wrote his rhapsody A Shropshire Lad which quotes from his earlier settings of Houseman’s poems and is widely recognised as his finest work. Although inspired by the folk tradition, it is entirely original.
The music is pastoral in nature, poignant and expressive. It hints at what might have been.
Butterworth’s final completed work for orchestra is the Banks of Green Willow, a third English Idyll which was written in 1913 as war clouds gathered.
In those final months before the war Butterworth provided both moral and practical support in the composition and performance of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. When Vaughan Williams revised the work in 1920 he was to dedicate it to Butterworth’s memory.
When WWI broke out in August 1914, Butterworth enlisted as a private soldier.
By October he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 13th Durham Light Infantry, leading Durham miners with whom he developed a real bond.
Early in the morning of August 5 at Pozieres Butterworth was shot in the head and killed.
He would be awarded his second Military Cross for his heroism that night. Butterworth has no known grave.
If you seek a memorial to him, and the many other victims of the battle of the Somme, just listen to his music. You can listen here.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star on the centenary of the battle of the Somme 1 July 2016.