As Somme, Verdun Battles End, Shocking Losses.
Wilson Re-Elected, Seeks Peace.
Special to The Great War Project
(14-20 November) The battles of the river Somme and Verdun, on the Western Front in northern France are coming to an end.
The last Allied offensive takes place on these days a century ago. Snow falls on the battlefield on November 17th and the following day, the Anglo-French force advances a thousand yards.
“It was much hampered by mist and snow,” writes history Martin Gilbert.
“After four-and-a-half months of suffering, struggle, and advance,” Gilbert observes, “there was no concluding victory.”
Indeed, the end of the battle of the Somme is hardly a victory for either side. “One British divisional history recorded that two companies which had taken part in the assault on November 18th had disappeared ‘entirely, being overwhelmed by machine-gun fire.’”
Both sides are planning new offensives for 1917. At the same time, they are taking stock of their losses and where things stand after nearly five months of fighting at the Somme.
Both sides are counting the dead. The British have lost nearly 96,000 soldiers killed, the French more than 50,000 dead.
The German dead is even greater: more than 164,000. Some 70,000 Germans are taken prisoner, removed from the battlefield and taken to prisoner-of-war camps monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
There are more numbers and they are mind-numbing. After more than four months of fighting at the Somme, “The British line had moved forward [a mere] six miles, but this was still three miles short of Bapaume,” which was the original goal of the attack back in July at the beginning of the Somme offensive.
Gilbert observes: “In this massive exercise of human effort, several hundred thousand soldiers had been killed.”
More numbers. These are from the battle at Verdun, also in northern French. In these nearly five months of battle at Verdun, (the actual Verdun battle lasts some months longer than the Somme), but “more than 23 million shells were fired by the two contending armies, on average more than a hundred shells a minute.”
“Verdun itself remained in French hands, but the death toll there was 650,000.
“When added to that of the Somme, this made a five-month death toll of almost a million. It was an average of more than 6600 men killed every day, some 277 every minute.
“Nearly five men every second.”
And still massive armies face each other, unable to break the stalemate.
Just one additional observation from historian Gilbert: the British Expeditionary Force numbered 160,000 in 1914. By these days in 1916, it stood at nearly 1.6 million.
“The statistics of the confrontation reflected the intention, and the determination of all the opposing armies, to continue to fight,” Gilbert writes.
As the Somme battle draws to a close, a debate breaks out over the goal of the offensive. The British commander Sir Douglas Haig asserts that the goal all along was to wear down, or attrite, the Germans – to wear down, according to historian Michael Neiberg, rather than pierce the German line.
Critics, writes Neiberg, accuse Haig of “inventing attrition as a justification to cover the enormous losses of his army for minimal gains.”
There is one additional development to mention here in November 1916, a century ago. It occurs far from the battlefields of Europe.
On November 2nd 1916, Woodrow Wilson is re-elected President of the United States. He defeats Republican Charles Evans Hughes, a Supreme Court justice, by some 600,000 votes.
Twelve days later, on November 19th he sends a note to all the warring powers proposing that a means be found to end the conflict.”
Wilson ran on the slogan, he kept us out of the war.
Now Wilson sees himself the peacemaker, perhaps the only statesmen who is capable of bringing this war to an end.