Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

29th June 2016

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his moving speech and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on his speech and comments. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who I know has worked so hard in preparing all the commemorations to do with the first world war.

I am so old that I interviewed dozens of first world war veterans in the 1970s, many of them officers, about their experiences. The first lecture I ever gave at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in the Churchill hall, was on the Battle of the Somme. Above the snores of the officer cadets, there was the occasional person who was paying attention.

In my brief remarks, I do not intend to replicate the comments that have been made so far about specifics to do with the Battle of the Somme. If anything, I want to try to step back, because it seems to me that one thing that often does not come across in the commemorative ceremonies is: why the Somme, and what happened?

All too often, there is no context in the coverage. People know about the first day of the Battle of the Somme—that it was the bloodiest battle that the British Army ever fought, and that it was just one day—and it has entered our psyche. It has to be more than that, however. It has to have more than a commemorative purpose in bringing together not only the peoples of the United Kingdom, but the peoples of Europe. I think that that is very important. I would say to some of the people who have been involved in the debates on whether we leave or remain in the European Union that the failure to understand why the French and the Germans cling to the European Union comes from a failure to see that this is not just about money; it is about the fact that they fought three brutal wars against each other— the Franco-Prussian war, the first world war and the second world war—and they are determined that that should never, ever happen again. We should bear that in mind.

The next point I want to make is that to understand what happened, we have to go back to the end of 1915. We, the British, were the junior partners in an allied alliance—we represented about 5% to 10% of the French army in 1914. Our old, pre-war regular Army, with the Territorials, had just about died off by the end of 1914. Our strength was the Royal Navy. We had to build up an Army, and as hon. Members have said, those who served in the campaign on the Somme were almost exclusively volunteers—loosely called Kitchener’s Army —with large numbers of Territorials. The men who volunteered in late 1914 and early 1915 were deployed mainly as formed units in the spring and summer of 1916, and their learning curve had to be absolutely enormous.

The allied strategy was a recognition of the fact that the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were in a powerful position. If you are the Belgians and the French in 1915, that is not an academic thesis. Some 90% of Belgium was occupied by the Germans, and all of northern France was. How do you get them out? The allies recognised that you do that by co-ordinating your attacks. In late 1915, therefore, they decided to co-ordinate an offensive on the Somme in the spring and summer of 1916 with the Russians, the Italians and, of course, the British.

However, old Napoleon Bonaparte once said that the first law of war was that no plan succeeded after initial contact with the enemy. Between February and December 1916, the Germans and the French fought an attritional campaign at Verdun—we are talking about the most monstrous campaign. If any hon. Members have ever been to Verdun, they will know that it puts Thiepval into context. We think that the French lost about 300,000 to 400,000, and the Germans lost about 300,000 to 400,000. This was an attritional war on a vast scale.

The British therefore had to shift the balance. The French were going to take the main offensive on the Somme, but it became the British. The offensive was going to be conducted by an army led by a few professional regulars. The commander-in-chief, Douglas Haig, had commanded, at the most, 20,000 men in 1914; he was now commanding an army of 1.5 million. The battalions that our Northern Irish friends talk about were lucky if 1,000 men had two regular officers and a couple of regular non-commissioned officers.

The offensive was based on the fact that a vast artillery barrage would destroy the German frontline. We never had enough guns. Our war industries meant that about one third of the shells we produced were duds. The Germans were also a formidable opponent.

The context has to be that the commander-in-chief and his army commander could not agree on the operational plan. Douglas Haig thought that the plan would work, that we would break into the German lines, that the cavalry would be sent through and that we would roll the Germans up. His commander of the fourth army, Rawlinson, believed that all he could do was take the first line of trenches. They never agreed on what the main plan was.

That is crucial in terms of what happened on 1 July. On 1 July, the German defences were not overwhelmed, and the statistics we have seen resulted from the fact that the German machine gunners and artillery were able to destroy our advancing infantry on a vast scale. However, 1 July is only the start of an offensive on the Somme that lasted until November 1916. While we commemorate, and rightly so, the 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme, we should recognise that over the next three to four months the British Army endured over 300,000 casualties—the Germans about the same, and the French about the same, in addition to what they had lost at Verdun. We should recognise that this was a major campaign, and we should not ignore the bravery of the men who fought in those ensuing months.

My final point is crucial in understanding the men and women of that period. Yes, there were men and women who opposed the war, and yes, there were men and women—men, in particular—whose morale was broken by what they endured during those operations, but my conclusion from talking to veterans, and from all the reading I have done of letters and diaries, is that they did not give up; if anything, their determination to continue what we regard as a slaughter was increased.

If I were to advise Members to read anything about the first day of the Somme, it would be a novel published in 1961 by John Harris entitled “Covenant with Death”, based on the Sheffield Pals battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. It is a marvellous, moving novel. He worked in a Sheffield newspaper office in the 1950s with many of those veterans. Of all the things I have ever read about the first day of the Somme, it is the most moving, and a tribute to the men who died on that day.

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