‘How like drill it was the way that those human waves moved forward! But they were not waves for long…with every man simply keeping on toward the goal till he arrived or fell… Would England have wanted the New Army to act otherwise?’ - Frederick Palmer, 1917
It was the Battle of the Somme, 1916, the first major British offensive on the Western Front since Loos in September 1915, that would prove to be the ultimate test of Kitchener’s Army in battle – and would arguably become the most hotly debated battle of the whole war.
Kitchener’s Army, or the New Army, was the name given to the thousands of men who had answered Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s ‘Call to Arms’ in August 1914. Kitchener, a British military hero and Commander of the Egyptian Army, had been appointed to the role of Secretary of State for War by Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister. He had not wasted much time; declaring in Parliament that the war would be long – at least three years in duration – and that recruitment would need to reflect this. With Britain’s army traditionally built on the basis of volunteers, it was recognised that this would be a tall order (especially as recruitment had been falling in the years before the war). As such, Kitchener set about appealing directly to the public for volunteers, appealing to men to enlist.
‘Kitchener’s Army’ – all too often known as ‘Kitchener’s Mob’ to those who served in it – was the new Secretary of State for War’s creation. Recruits were called for in 100,000 men tranches, and would soon overwhelm the recruitment centres. Though modest at first, recruitment rose dramatically in the aftermath of the Retreat from Mons in August 1914, and men flowed into the army, to be met with makeshift rifles and emergency uniforms. As the thousands joined, so they were formed up into new, thousand-man units known as ‘Service Battalions’ that were added sequentially to the county regiments. And then there were the ‘Pals’ battalions. Though the concept was mooted in the City of London, it was Lord Derby’s initiative, in raising a battalions for the ‘Commercial Classes’ in Liverpool, that led to the concept spreading like wildfire. Based on Late Victorian and Edwardian views of the soldier as a ‘lower class’ individual, the ‘Pals’ battalions were enticements for middle class men to join together and serve together, rather than having to mix with men they had little in common with. After Derby’s initiative, influential men – and women – up and down the country vied to raise their own equivalents. Together, Kitchener’s early recruits and the ‘pals’ battalions made up ‘Kitchener’s Mob’ – and though several served in Gallipoli, and at Loos, in 1915, it was the Somme that would be their most significant test to date.
And it is the First Day of the Battle of the Somme that is perhaps the most discussed of all days of the war. It figures heavily in British accounts, and has become mythologised. Nevertheless, the first day – and that very first hour – was to have a dramatic effect, pulverising the locally-raised battalions that had taken so long to raise. In this way, the first day can be identified as the most significant ‘punctuation mark’ in the story of Kitchener’s Army.
The bombardment of the German lines that opened on 24 June 1916 and that lasted until zero hour on 1 July 1916, became known as trommelfeuer: drumfire. Intended to destroy enemy batteries, trenches, dugouts and barbed fire, the bombardment involved ceaseless shelling from almost 1500 guns and howitzers of all types firing some 1.7 million rounds. But even this level of fire was inadequate for a front of 18 miles. The men who went ‘over the top’ at 7.30 am, zero hour on 1 July 1916, climbed out of their trenches over the sandbag parapet, to face the German survivors, ready to meet them.
With Zero Hour, and the bombardment reaching its height, Kitchener’s men could do no more than hope that the enemy had been stunned into submission, and were forced to keep their heads down – rather than pouring fire into the oncoming ranks of soldiers. Sadly, that was not always the case. The chalk bedrock had proven perfect for the construction of deep dugouts, and with the Germans creating a defensive line that was meant to hold the allies, it would take more than a simple bombardment by field guns to destroy it.
Stumbling forward over no man’s land, soldiers would be pushed into a maelstrom of machine gun fire, counter bombardment and the broken landscape of the modern battlefield. Overhead, was the bombardment that was intended to protect the attackers, a moving curtain of shellfire that would attempt to clear the trenches in front of the living wave of men.
It was on this First Day of the Somme that saw Kitchener’s Army in action en masse. Here the ‘Pals’ battalions, those locally raised units of comrades, of men encouraged to join to be with their ‘own kind’, faced the deeply entrenched and fearsomely efficient German army. The success of certain divisions and failure of others had much to do with adequate artillery preparation, adequate divisional planning and the nature of the topography as it had to do with leadership. The ‘race to the parapet’ was everything – and the men of the New Army, had proven they could achieve success with the right support. At Serre, and at La Boisselle, the tragedy of the northern Pals and the Tynesiders was all to do with the stiffness of the opposition and the roll of the dice when it came to artillery preparation and the width of No Man’s Land. It had nothing to do with the valour of these men. Lord Kitchener’s vision, vouchsafed in the civilian army, was intact. But the losses of the opening day were to stagger the nation.
The Official History puts the dead of that single day at 19,420; missing and prisoners of war at 2,737; and wounded at 35,493. It was a staggering butcher’s bill. And this was just the first day. The total deaths on the Somme, from all British and Commonwealth divisions, would add up to 108,724. Other New Army Divisions were yet to take their place in the line; they would prove equal to it; and with the other divisions, would battle out the Somme until its ultimate conclusion in the mud of winter on 18 November 1916. The story of Kitchener’s Army does not end with the Somme. But on the Somme the youthful army came of age – and would face the challenges of 1917 head on.
“As the battle thunder of the Somme died down into the daily rumbling of the Western Front there remained of the men who joined Kitchener’s Armies but enough to leaven with their own brave spirit the levies who came to fill their shattered battalions. The Volunteer Armies had played their part.” - Victor Germains, 1930
By Peter Doyle