Understanding the tragedy of the Somme
The campaign planned with such precision to achieve the long hoped for breakout from the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front in France was conceived at an Allied conference at Chantilly in December, 1915.
The plan was not of the British choosing, nor very well thought of by the British High Command. The area chosen for the combined British and French attack would become a diversion to alleviate pressure on the French elsewhere.
The British area of attack would be the first time in which the smaller ally would take a leading role and the ‘New Armies’, conceived by Earl Kitchener, would be used in a major campaign.
What came to be known as ‘Haig’s Big Push’ was probably the worst kept secret of the war. The preparations could not be hidden from the enemy, so vast was the accumulation of men and material to the north of the great bend on the River Somme – the place where the British would launch their preliminary bombardment for seven days and nights in advance of the infantry walk across no man’s land to capture the German trenches and allow the cavalry to pour through.
The plan was amended as the Germans had launched a devastating attack on the French at Verdun in February 1916. The French were pouring men and supplies into Verdun, which was to limit their ability to contribute support of the British on the Somme.
In Calvary on the Somme, the next of our talks at the Low Lights Tavern on the Fish Quay, John Sadler will examine the tragedy that developed from the catastrophic first day of the campaign on July 1, 1916, earlier than Haig had desired as he sought to get his ‘civilian army’ ready for its first major operation. The talk is free and will be given on Tuesday, June 21, at 7.30pm.
This week saw the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire mined off Orkney. It was carrying Kitchener to Russia for urgent talks as our ally seemed to be weakening in its resolve to carry on the fight. Only 11 men would survive the loss of the ship, which happened in one of the worst storms of the early part of the 20th century. Among the fortunate was Richard Simpson, of Edith Street, Tynemouth. The project placed a blue plaque at his former home last year and a number of his relatives came from Nottingham.
Coming hard on the heels of losses at Jutland, the death of Kitchener was an ill omen for the land campaign. The volunteer armies he had conceived in August 1914 were to be tested for the first time, with tragic consequences.
The project is also showing the iconic film of the campaign The Battle of the Somme, at 7pm on Thursday, June 30. Commissioned by the War Office, it has been remastered for the Imperial War Museum.
This will be a free event and doors will open at 6.15pm at the Memorial Hall, Frank Street, Wallsend. There will be a bar and our special edition commemorative labels for the Somme campaign will be on sale, attached to our Tyneside Tommy ale. A collection will be taken for military charities.
Our exhibition Tyneside and the Battle of Jutland is on view at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre daily, from 10am to 4pm, until June 23.
The project workroom at Linskill Community Centre is open from 10am to 4pm each day. The memorial garden at Linskill, showing the names of more than 1,600 casualties of the Great War, is open from 8am to 5pm.
Details of casualties can be found at www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk
Our address is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.