One hundred years ago today began the 141-day Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history, with about 1.5 million casualties. A staggering 19,240 British troops died on the first day of the Allied assault on German lines.
The scourge of war is as old as human history, but there is something new in the scale of the carnage of World War I. With the advance of military technology and industrial management methods, human beings became just another resource. It became obvious that technology was mastering man, not man technology. From the Battle of the Somme, there is a direct line to Auschwitz and Hiroshima – although in the Somme the generals were killing their own men, not the enemy.
You could even call it the opening salvo of the culture of death. For the last century humanity has been fighting a battle with the destructive power of technology. On the one hand, it enables a much higher standard of living; on the other, it alienates people from themselves through abortion, drugs or pornography. On the one hand, it enables the comfortts of the welfare state; on the other, it takes away our jobs.
The moral darkness of the Battle of the Somme – which was just a drop in the bucket of the Great War’s 38 million casualties – ought to make us reflect upon what happens when technology advances without a moral framework. In the words of President Obama, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well.”
Here are the reminiscences of a German soldier who fought on the front lines on July 1, 1916. They illustrate the horror of that appalling tragedy.
The sun shines brightly. It is the 1st July 1916. In the splendour of this summer’s day the English columns advance to the attack. They have the certainty, that their week-long drumfire, precisely calculated to the square metre, has destroyed every atom of life in our position.
The enemy’s artillery fire suddenly transfers to our rear positions, onto the grounds of Serre village, onto the approach roads and the villages beyond.
250 to 400 Metres away from our destroyed trenches they advance to the attack!
They advance in columns, in thick, packed lines of attack, behind which are drawn up support troops, Indian lancers, ready to turn the English breakthrough on the wing of the attack front into a devastating defeat of our centre. The English infantry have their rifles at their necks, hanging from their shoulders, ready for the stroll to Bapaume, to Cambrai, to the Rhine!
The idea that there could still be life or any resistance in us (after this week) seems absurd to them! ….
There’s a choking in every throat, a pressure which is released in a wild yell, in the battle-cry “they’re coming, they’re coming!” Finally the battle! The nightmare of this week-long drumfire is about to end, finally we can free ourselves of this week-long inner torment, no longer must we crouch in a flattened dugout like a mouse in a trap.
No longer do we feel the dull impact of the shelter-breaker exploding downwards (an impact like a hammer-blow on the helmeted skull).
No longer must we calm, hold down, tie down those men whom almost lose their minds through this pounding, booming and splintering, through difficulty in breathing and through the jerking and swaying of the dugout walls, and whom with overtly trembling limbs want to get up away from this hole and this mousetrap, up into the open air, into a landscape of raging flames and iron – a landscape of insanity and death.
We call for a barrage!!
Red flares climb high then fade away as they fall to the ground. Destructive fire and barrage fire leave masses of green and red marks in the sky!
Dear God! The German barrage fire!
Behind us the guns lie destroyed in their emplacements, their wheels upwards, their barrels in the dirt.
An enormous crater left by the impact of the English heavy shells yawns at the site of the gun emplacements.
Most of the crews are dead, lying buried in tunnels and bunkers. On the waggon-tracks that led to the gun batteries lie shot-up ammunition waggons, shattered gun-limbers, spilled cartridges and shells, dead drivers, and the carcasses of horses torn apart by direct- and near-hits.
Our barrage is pitifully weak; there is no artillery in reserve. The summer of 1916, the time of the great artillery shortage.
So it was that on 1st July 1916 almost everything depended on us – the infantry!
Shots flew, whipped and cracked wildly into the enemy ranks, above us it hissed, whizzed and roared like a storm, like a hurricane; the path of the English shells which fell on what little artillery was left, on the support troops, on the rear-areas.
Amidst all the roar, the clatter, the rumble and the bursts, the lashing out and wild firing of the riflemen, the firm, regular beat of our machine-guns is solid and calm; -tack-tack-tack-tack….this one slower, the other faster in rhythm! – precision work in materials and construction! – a terrible melody to the enemy, it gives a greater degree of security and inner calm to our own friends in the infantry and to the other ranks.
The machine-gunners, who in quieter times were much mocked – and envied (excused from hauling ammunition!), are popular now!
One belt after another is raced through! 250 Shots – 1000 shots – 3000 shots.
“Bring up the spare gun-barrels” shouts the gun commander. The gun barrel’s changed – carry on shooting! – 5000 shots – the gun-barrel has to be changed again. The barrel’s scorching hot, the coolant’s boiling – the gunners’ hands are nearly scorched, scalded.
“Carry on shooting” urges the gun commander “or be shot yourself!”
The coolant in the gun jacket boils, vaporized by the furious shooting. In the heat of battle, the steam hose comes away from the opening of the water can into which the steam’s meant to re-condense. A tall jet of steam sprays upwards, a fine target for the enemy. Its lucky for us that the sun’s shining in their eyes and that it’s behind us.
Had the enemy used close-in covering fire in 1916 as became customary for both sides in 1917 and 1918, the situation would have been highly critical for us.
The enemy’s getting closer; we keep up our continuous fire! The steam dies away, again the barrel needs changing! The coolant’s nearly all vaporized. “Where’s there water?” shouts the gunlayer. There’s soda water (iron rations from the dugout) down below. “There’s none there, Corporal!” The iron rations were all used up in the week-long bombardment.
Still the English attack; even though they already lie shot down in their hundreds in front of our lines, fresh waves continue to pour over from their jumping-off positions.
We have to shoot!
A gunner grabs the water can, jumps down into the shell-hole and relieves himself. A second then also pisses into the water can – its quickly filled!
The English are already in hand-grenade range; grenades fly to and fro. The barrel’s been changed, the gun jacket filled – load! Hand-grenades and rifle-grenades explode violently in front of the gun – its not just unsettling, the loading gets into a tangle! You recite loudly, slowly and clearly saying to yourself: “forward – feed – back!” (knock the cocking handle forward – feed in the belt – throw back the cocking handle) – the same again! Safety catch to the right! – “feed through!”….tack-tack-tack-tack….a furious sustained fire once more strikes the “khakis” in front of us!
Tall columns of steam rise from almost all the machine guns. The steam hoses of most guns are torn off or shot away.
The skin of the gunners, of the gun commanders, hangs in shreds from their fingers, their hands are scalded! The left thumb’s reduced to a swollen, shapeless piece of meat from continually pressing the safety catch. The hands grip the lightweight, thin gun handles as if locked in a seizure.
Eighteen thousand shots!
The platoon’s other machine-gun jams. Gunner Schw. is shot in the head and falls over the belt that he feeds in. The belt’s displaced, taking the cartridges at an angle into the feeder where they become stuck! Another gunner takes over! The dead man’s laid to one side. The gunlayer takes out the feeder, removes the cartridges and reloads.
Shooting, nothing but shooting, barrel changing, hauling ammunition and laying out the dead and wounded in the bottom of the trench, such is the harsh and furious pace of the morning of 1st July 1916. The harsh, clear report of the machine-guns is heard on every Division front.
England’s youth, Scotland’s best regiments, bled to death in front of Serre.
Our machine-gun, right by the Serre-Mailly road, commanded by the brave Unteroffizier [Corporal] Koch from Pforzheim, shoots through the last belt! It’s driven twenty thousand shots into the English!
After the initial confusion and panic caused by our unexpected resistance, after the horrific loss of life in their closely-packed attack formations, the English re-form. For two hours and more, wave upon wave breaks against us.
With incredible tenacity, they run towards our trenches. In an exemplary show of courage and self-sacrifice, they climb from the safety of their jumping-off position only to be felled, barely having reached our shot-up barbed wire.
Twenty, thirty meters in front of our guns, the brave ones fall, the first and the last attack waves together.
Those following behind take cover behind their dead, groaning and moaning comrades. Many hang, mortally wounded, whimpering in the remains of the barbed wire and upon the hidden iron stakes of the barbed wire barricade. The survivors occupy the slight slope around and behind the remains of the barbed wire and shoot at us like things possessed, without much to aim at. They make cover for themselves from the bodies of their dead comrades and many of us fall in the fire. We shoot into the wire shreds, into the belt of barbed wire that winds to the earth. The hail of bullets breaks up at the wire and strikes downwards as an unpredictable crossfire into the protective slope. Soon the enemy fire dies out here as well.
Fresh waves appear over there, half-emerge from cover then sink again behind the parapets. Officers jump onto the thrown-up earth and try to encourage their men by their example. Flat-helmets emerge in numbers once more only to disappear again immediately. The hail of bullets from our infantry and machine-guns sprays over their defences.
The English officers no longer leave the trench. The sight of the field of attack takes the breath away from the attacker.
The attack is dead.
Our losses are very heavy. The enemy’s losses are inconceivable. In front of our division’s sector, the English lie in rows by company and by battalion, mowed-down, swept-away.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. The extract is from “Experiences of Baden Soldiers at the Front, Volume 1: Machine-guns in the Iron Regiment (8th Baden Infantry Regiment No.169)” by Otto Lais (1935), translated by Andrew C Jackson (1998).