The first day is notorious as the bloodiest in British military history: of the 110,000 men who advanced along a 13-mile front, some 58,000 were killed or wounded. The day was made more tragic (if that is possible) because many of the troops served in "Pals" units from the same locale, so that virtually the entire young male populations of some towns were wiped out.
It is difficult to teach about this because war is a phenomenon that is so remote from the reference points of the average students. They cannot conceive of how men would willingly sacrifice themselves in this manner (or perhaps at all). In addition, they simply have no sense of the magnitude of this sort of combat and destruction. I usually try to explain both the experience of warfare and the culture that enabled it to take place, so I often start with the numbers. 19,240 British soldiers died on the first day of the Somme. By contrast, total "coalition" casualties in Iraq (after 7 years of fighting) are fewer than 5,000, and in Afghanistan (a decade into that conflict), fewer than 2000. To say this is not to minimize the very real military and civilian cost of modern warfare, but simply to put it in proper perspective. Today, many people in the "west" regard war as unthinkable, the greatest possible evil and therefore something to be avoided at all costs. In that day, it was still regarded as a normal means of conducting foreign policy. The First World War, more than anything else, helped to bring about that shift in attitudes.
Historians still debate the wisdom of the massive onslaught on the Somme: one side sees it as epitomizing the insanity of the Great War and its seemingly callous sacrifice of human life, whereas the other argues that it did in fact contribute to weakening the German war effort in the long term. Still, both contemporaries and modern historians agree that it marked a turn in experience and consciousness. It saw the first use of tanks—a new weapon devised in hopes of breaking the stalemate and reducing the cost of trench warfare. And, in order to explain and justify the horrendous cost of the war to the citizenry, nations devised new forms of propaganda and public relations.
One of the most significant efforts was the pioneering 80-minute British documentary film, "The Battle of the Somme" today honored by inclusion in UNESCO's "Memory of the World" Register. Although intended to help the public to understand the experience of the combat soldier, the realism of the actual footage also brought home the cost in graphic and unintended ways. It is famously reported that, at one screening, a woman stood up and exclaimed, in shock, "My God, they're dead!"
The clip below is representative: it moves from the death of a pet dog to the human dead and the burial parties, and then records the beginning of a new cycle as men prepare for the next round of combat:
When I teach my classes, I also bring in this little object from my collection:
All I know about this individual piece is the generic: it is a so-called "sweetheart pin" (or "brooch") created by a French jeweler for a British soldier to give to his wife or girlfriend back home (or sometimes just a parent or other female relative). The fashionably shaped enameled piece puts patriotism at the center with the incorporation of the British arms (presumably taken from an existing object such as a button) and historical reference to the events with the letters spelling out the name of the battle in metal perhaps taken from the trenches. (similar examples) At times, we are told, the sending of such a pin could also be a way of evading censorship: letting the loved one know where the soldier had been.
I have the students read historical texts, first-hand accounts of the battle, such as Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and soldiers' correspondence.
I then ask the students to ponder the meaning of such a piece of jewelry. How might we compare attitudes toward war then and now? Do we talk about or suppress the experience? Would we create and wear such souvenirs today, say, from the war in Iraq? I ask students to imagine who might have purchased such an item and the person he might have given it to. What had he gone through? What did she know or understand of it? What did it mean to her and others for her to wear it?
We do not expect to arrive at any definitive answers, but by exploring the historically possible we come closer to the experience of that world and perhaps gain an additional perspective on our own.
More on the sweetheart pin:
Would You Wear Jewelry Commemorating a War or Battle? (The Somme of All Fears)