Monday, August 15, 2016

Battle of Somme

By Stephen Wilson

Battle of Somme

Moscow, Russia --  "No, you are wrong. He was not a teacher. I think that he wanted to become a teacher . Remember he was only 19  when he died .... When I visited the graveyard I was shocked at  how huge  it was . White graves kept on stretching on and on... There must be almost 1 million people buried here from both sides.

              The battlefield  is well marked with signs covering the different stages of the offensive in terms of how many miles  the soldiers covered by a particular date. Despite all those deaths they captured  only a few miles ", stated           James Wilson, my older brother who was the first person to visit the grave of our grand uncle Alan Bell who had been killed at the Somme. He was much saddened. He found the grave, and posed with a photo of the soldier which he had specifically taken with him. He was greatly moved by the sight.

              I recall my late grandmother once telling me : " My brother was killed by a German sniper while he was going out for a walk to get some fresh air." His younger brother , despite being constantly at the front line , miraculously survived . He was the only survivor of his company which was  mown  down  by Germans.

              This year represents the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The inept and poorly  planned allied offensive against the Germans came to epitomise the full horror and futility of the First World War. The Somme was a catastrophe !

              In a single day on July the first, the British suffered huge losses  amounting to 60,000 casualties, and 20,000 killed. The proceeding bombardment not only warned the Germans that an offensive was imminent, but created shell
craters which impeded the advance of the allied troops. Whole cavalry regiments sent into  battle were wholly obliterated by rapid machine gun fire.

              The English historian summed up  the Battle of the Somme : " Idealism perished on the Somme. The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer. They had lost faith in their cause, in their leaders, in everything
except loyalty to their fighting comrades. The war ceased to have a purpose and ...' The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War : brave helpless soldiers : blundering  obstinate generals ;  nothing achieved.' (The First World War , A.J. P. Taylor ,Penguin, 1968)

               The Somme also cast a dark shadow over  strategic planning by the  Allies during the Second World War. Many Russians speculate on why the British and Americans were so late in opening up a second front.

               Conspiracy theories still abound  where the British were suspected of secretly wanting the Germans to bleed the Russians dry.

               Perhaps part of the answer was revealed in a statement  given from Churchill  to John Mccloy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War.

               While President Roosevelt wanted to open up a second front as early as 1942 or 1943 , Churchill resisted such proposals . He thought that a premature invasion of Normandy could go wrong and there would be another Somme or Gallipoli disaster. He told John Mccoy: "All my colleagues are dead - they're buried at the Somme or Passendaele - and we can't  endure  the  loss of another British generation, and I want you to realise that this is something that has to be avoided for everyone's sake'. ( The World at War, Richard Holmes , Ebury press, 2007)

               When I told my Russian friend Alexi Alesihin, who works at a shop in the aviation musuem about this, he said: "I can understand Churchill. He wanted to look after the lives of his own people and protect their interests. He was clever. The Americans were quite far from this conflict at the time so they didn't understand what would be the implications of a failed  Allied invasion.

               It might have led to a German occupation of  Britain."

               My late grandmother never quite forgave the Germans. She remained bitter.

               She blamed them "for depriving Britain of the flower of our youth. "

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