Somme 1916: Last Month of the Old World

Historian A.J.P. Taylor was a prolific broadcaster and writer, and while much of his work does not have the same standing it once did, something he once said in one of his documentaries has always had resonance with me. Taylor said that for him the Twentieth Century did not really begin until 1st July 1916: the First Day of the Battle of the Somme.

What he meant by that was that the terrible losses sustained that day heralded a new age, a new type of warfare: industrial warfare on a scale hitherto unknown and which would mean casualties on a previously unimaginable scale too. That this type of battle, that death of this magnitude would not only see the start of a new phase of the Great War but it would pave the way for much of the rest of the century.

A hundred years ago on 1st June 1916, along the dusty lanes of the Somme, in and around the old villages behind the front, the men of Rawlinson’s Fourth Army were already beginning their preparations for the Big Push. Hard as it is for us to imagine these were men who were not dreading what was coming: the majority had trained for this moment for more than a year, they had a sense of duty that it is impossible for us to fathom now and felt they were a part of something far bigger than just themselves. 

A.J.P. Taylor would have said that they should have been dreading what was to come, but to think of these men as lambs walking towards a slaughter misses much of what made these men tick and takes away any meaning to their sacrifice.

Yet a century ago the world was in its last gasps of innocence as the brutal reality of twentieth century warfare was about to demonstrate its terrible power on a summer’s day on the Somme, as a generation of men at the apex of their lives and the summit of their pride walked into machine-gun oblivion. We should never forget that Black Day but equally the Somme generation needs to be seen as much more than just bodies lying shattered in No Man’s Land. 

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