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The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front

Personal accounts add a new dimension to a history of the Great War’s bloodiest battle.

By Matthew Shaer / January 30, 2009



Second Lt. Jack Engall, of the 1/16th Battalion, London Regiment, wrote his final letter home on a warm night in June 1916. For three days, Lieutenant Engall had watched as the British big guns hit German positions along the Western Front, leaving the summer skies bruised by acrid smoke and the French landscape desiccated.

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At dawn, the 1/16th Battalion would be among the first to climb “over the top” of the trenches and advance across “no man’s land,” toward enemy lines.

The stakes were enormous, Peter Hart explains in his stirring new history, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front. If Engall and his compatriots broke through, German leadership might capitulate, leading to the end of one of the bloodiest stalemates in European history. Fail, and the Allied forces could be sent scurrying across the French countryside, this time all the way to the sea. The direction of the Great War hung in the balance.

“My dearest mother and father, I’m writing this letter before the most important moment of my life,” Engall began. He had a “strong feeling that I shall come through this safely; but nevertheless, should it be God’s holy will to call me away, I am quite prepared to go; and I could not wish for a finer death.”

The next morning, July 1, 1916, Jack Engall was killed, mowed down alongside thousands of British troops, some culled from the ranks of the regular Army, but many more plucked from the citizenry – most inflated by patriotism and keen to prove their own worth. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended in November, more than 130,000 British soldiers were dead; of that staggering figure, 19,240 were killed, like Engall, in the first 24 hours. The French, who fought alongside the British, suffered more than 200,000 casualties, and the Germans, better armed and more ably trained, counted somewhere near half a million injured or dead.

And yet despite the brutality of the fight, the Allies had little to show for their efforts. Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British forces, counted only meager inroads into enemy-held territory, and the German Army managed to hold the line until the following February, when it was finally forced to pull back into northeastern France. As a consequence, in the 20th-century imagination, the Battle of the Somme came to represent not just a failure but a ghastly demonstration of the follies of modern warfare. The poet-soldiers Wilfred Owen (“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”) and Siegfried Sassoon depicted the conflict in terms both apocalyptic and angrily sardonic; filmmakers and artists saw only a mass of barbed wire and hastily dug trenches, thick with blood.

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