Commentary: Battle of the Somme, 100 years on

By Robert Garnett

One hundred years ago today, the greatest battle of the First World War began - the Battle of the Somme.

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British soldiers during the battle in September 1916.

Hope died that day, and the modern age began.

The River Somme wanders through bucolic countryside in northern France, lazily winding toward the English Channel. The river's name is said to derive from an ancient Celtic word meaning "tranquil," and even in today's glossy, high-tech Euro-world, the banks of the Somme remain quiet and rural, "flyover" country.

By June 1916, the war had been underway for almost two years. The allied French and British armies were preparing a major push to break out of deadlock.

During a peaceful week in the front-line trenches, a young English army officer reflected. Noel Hodgson was not a soldier by vocation, but soldiering was the duty before him just then, and the privations and danger of war made him both grateful and purposeful:

By beauty lavishly outpoured

And blessings carelessly received,

By all the days that I have lived

Make me a soldier, Lord.

Hodgson was a youth of privilege, his father a bishop in the Anglican church, Noel himself an Oxford graduate. In ordinary times, he might reasonably have looked forward to a life of status, prosperity, and ease.

Now, anticipating an assault on German lines a few hundred yards away, the attack that would lead to a breakthrough and the end of the war - so it was hoped - he contemplated his prospects soberly. "Ere the sun swings his noonday sword," he wrote, knowing the assault, when it came, would begin early, "I must say goodbye to all of this;"

By all delights that I shall miss

Help me to die, O Lord.

On a cloudless summer morning, the assault began, surprising no one. It had been announced by a weeklong artillery barrage during which 11/2 million shells had been fired, their concussion distantly audible as far away as England, 50 miles across the channel.

Promptly at 7:30 on July 1, the barrage was lifted and 100,000 British troops, encumbered with rifles and heavy packs, climbed from their deep trenches and advanced.

Within minutes, Noel Hodgson lay dead.

But not alone. By nightfall, more than 19,000 British soldiers had been killed and an additional 40,000 wounded.

It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day of the First World War - German casualties were also heavy - and the bloodiest day still in British military history.

Despite the terrible losses, there was no breakthrough.

In the three days of Gettysburg, Union and Confederate armies together lost far fewer men - about 7,000. On Sept. 11, 2001, about 3,000 died.

But the Battle of the Somme was just beginning. Fighting resumed the next morning and continued for four months. The opposing lines remained virtually unchanged.

With the failure of the great offensive, it occurred to many that the war might never end.

Two years earlier, shortly after the war began, a young American named Alan Seeger had enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. In the fall of 1914, he wrote to his mother from France, "I think you can count on seeing me next summer, for I shall certainly return after the war to see you all and recuperate."

The Seegers did not see their son the next summer, or the summer after. Early in 1916, still in France, he wrote hopefully to his mother: "This summer will see the decisive campaign of the war. If we can break through ... get them on the run, advance north, north ... it would be the experience of a thousand years."

Seeger was irrepressibly upbeat and enjoyed the army. "This experience," he reflected, "will teach me the sweetness and worth of the common things of life," and "Never have I regretted doing what I am doing nor would I at this moment be anywhere else than where I am," he wrote after a winter in the trenches.

But like Hodgson, he assessed his chances grimly:

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade ...

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Nor did he. A few days after Hodgson, Seeger too was killed by machine gun fire.

With the Battle of the Somme, the world of Jane Austen crumbled before a new age of the machine gun and high explosive. Since Waterloo, Europe had avoided a general war of all the great powers. Now, the century-long peace shattered, there was no going back to muzzle-loading muskets.

"Never such innocence," the poet Philip Larkin wrote of the world before the First World War: "Never such innocence again."

We too in 2016 might look back with similar wistfulness to the age before terrorism - before massacres at rock concerts, bombs on airliners, and cattle-chute security at airports - and, 15 years after 9/11, wonder if the battle will go on forever.

In the Battle of the Somme, the British, French, and German armies collectively suffered more than a million casualties.

But even in the new age of head-shaking slaughter, every rendezvous with Death on the Somme was a solitary encounter. Help me to die, O Lord.

We should grieve not for thousands dead, but for the death each young soldier died alone; for the "beauty lavishly outpoured" that Hodgson or Seeger missed; for the empty chair at the family table, and each heart mourning a father, husband, brother, son, or lover taken on a fatal day in July 1916, forever.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Robert Garnett is a professor of English at Gettysburg College. rgarnett@gettysburg.edu