Slaughter at the Somme Incomprehensible.

A Vision of Hell; The Sorrow of the Poet’s Song.

Special to The Great War Project

(2-5 July) The scale of the slaughter on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st a century ago, is now becoming sadly clear.

It is nothing less than horrific.

“The human cost of the day’s attack,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “was higher than on any other single day of battle in the First World War. Over a thousand British officers and more than 20,000 men were killed.”

The Somme dead, July 1916.

The Somme dead, July 1916.

Twenty-one thousand British soldiers dead in a single day.

Another 25,000 seriously wounded.

“The first day of the Battle of the Somme,” Gilbert observes, “was the 132nd day of the Battle of Verdun.”

Verdun and the Somme are forever linked. The goal of the attack at the Somme was meant to alleviate the terrible situation facing the French at Verdun.

It did. “For those tormented defenders [at Verdun],” Gilbert writes, “it drew off tens of thousands of German troops. French attacks on the Somme further south made larger gains than the British, but they too failed to get anywhere near their first day’s objective.”

The British war correspondent Philip Gibbs is among the British troop moving forward on July 4th a century ago.

War correspondent Philip Gibbs.

War correspondent Philip Gibbs.

He reaches the German trenches, filled with German dead.

“It looked like victory,” Gibbs writes, “because of the German dead that lay there in their battered trenches, and the filth and stench of death over all that mangled ground, and the enormous destruction wrought by our guns and the fury of fire, which we were still pouring over the enemy’s lines from batteries that had moved forward.”

“I went down flights of steps into German dug-outs astonished by their depth and strength. Our men did not build like this.”

“I drew back from those fat corpses. They looked monstrous.”

It is a hellish sight. “Victory!” writes Gibbs, bitterly it seems. “Some of the German dead were young boys, too young to be killed for old men’s crimes, and others might have been old or young.”

“One could not tell because they had no faces, and were just masses of raw flesh in rags of uniforms. Legs and arms lay separate without any bodies thereabouts.”

Several dozen volunteer Americans fought at the Somme.

One is Alan Seeger, a Harvard graduate and poet. During the attack, relates Gilbert, Seeger and members of his unit were caught in the enfilade fire of six German machine guns.

Alan Seeger, American poet and volunteer at the Somme.

Alan Seeger, American poet and volunteer at the Somme.

Seeger is hit. “Lying mortally wounded in a shell-hole, he was heard crying out for water.”

Earlier in the year, Seeger writes what becomes a celebrated poem, “Rendezvous.”

In part it reads:

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep…


But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.

British soldiers at the Somme, waiting for orders, July 1916.

British soldiers at the Somme, waiting for orders, July 1916.

In a foxhole, Seeger is one of the thousands who die during the Battle of the Somme.