We’re not thinking much about World War I this weekend in America as we watch fireworks and enjoy our barbecues, but July 1st marks the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in Europe. The U.S. didn’t know it in 1916, but they were less than a year away from being dragged into the horrors of the Great War themselves.
Over one million young men were killed or wounded in the summer of 1916 at the Somme. More than 19,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone. There were 25,000 British casualties on July 4th. These are such staggering numbers it might make us numb to the destruction, but each of those million men left behind love ones and hopes and dreams–one million homes in mourning, one million empty spots at dinner tables. The losses reached around the world, from Germany, France, and Britain, to South Africa, India, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
The Battle of the Somme mixed primitive tanks and cavalry charges (while the Red Baron circled overhead), machine guns and gas, trench warfare and bloody charges over the top, all in a fifteen mile strip of land. Through all this, in 141 days, the British lines advanced only seven miles. German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher said: “Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”