Obviously, the Battle of the Somme was bloody awful. Arguably, it was an appalling waste. But, in the grand scheme of things, how bad was it really?
It was certainly a horrific mega battle, running for 5 months, with British Empire casualties estimated at 419,654 killed and wounded (source).
It’s certainly a hell of a lot of dead and injured — something like twenty times the casualties of Waterloo. However, given 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 (source) men took part on “our” side, that gives us a casualty rate of 13% to 16%, which — tragically — isn’t actually all that bad.
Take a look at a random selection of battles:
- Goose Green, Argentinians 10%, UK 11%. (Victors listed second)
- D-Day, Germans 18%. Allies 6%.
- Second Battle of El Alamein Germans 25%, Allies 7%.
- Waterloo 1815? French 46%, Allies 11%.
- Blenheim 1704. French etc 35%, Allies 25% .
- Breitenfeld 1631. Catholic League 40%, Swedes etc, unknown.
- Pavia 1525. French 63% (includes captured), Imperials 2%.
- Tewkesbury 1471. Lancastrians, 33% overall. Yorkists, unknown.
- Barnet 1471. Lancastrians 1% overall. Yorkists 0.5%.
- Towton 1461. Lancastrians 66%. Yorkists 33%.
- Agincourt. AD1415 French about 33% KIA. English, 2%
- Battle of the Golden Spurs. AD 1302. French, about 10%. Flemmings, less than 1%.
For winning sides, only Blenheim and Towton were worse. However, the Somme wasn’t really much more lethal per capita than El Alamein or Waterloo or even D-Day. Your chance of surviving unscathed was what you’d expect for any hard fought battle, essentially beat 3 on a D20. For Waterloo, you’d need to beat 2.
Moreover, had the Somme been a clear victory, then around 15% casualties would have been high but acceptable. Neither Monty’s strategic/logistic advantage at El Alamien, nor the Allies’ lengthy preparation and awesome resources at D-Day could do more than drop that by another 7% or so — essentially, “beat 1 on D20” — and they had the advantage of hindsight and proper armoured vehicles.
So, no, it wasn’t the actual casualty rate that made the Somme so horrifically novel. I think, instead, it was several other things combined:
- The scale was unprecedented. The Somme was bigger, went on longer, and racked up way more casualties by several orders of magnitude compared to anything that had gone on before.
- It photogenically ugly. Because of modern artillery and the duration of the fighting, the resulting quagmire was particularly repugnant. No more morally repugnant than the field of corpses after Waterloo, but, for the first time, photographed for the world to see.
- It did not provide a clear victory to justify the slaughter. Whatever the big picture advantages gained, a few miles — or yards — of mud just don’t feel worth thousands of lives.
- Casualties were clumped. Depending on their deployment, some units were virtually unscathed, others utterly obliterated. Not only did this create highly visible demographic holes back home, it also felt particularly horrific because it robbed soldiers of their agency. Just as we are more scared of flying than driving, despite the statistics being in favour of the former, we flinch at the possibility being knowingly marked for death as a group and ahead of time — “Good news chaps! You lead the attack tomorrow!“
- Casualties came to 1% of the entire population of Britain and her colonies, as opposed to — say — Waterloo which accounted for about 0.1%, and that’s without subtracting allied casualties. Given that only 25% of men were eligible for salutary service, the Somme must have touched every community.
(*During WWI, the Britain and her colonies had 45.4M people (source), so that gives us roughly 1% of the entire population killed or wounded. However, in 1801, Britain and Ireland had a combined population of about 15 million (source). The British and Allies (not including the Prussians) took 17K casualties… “only” 0.1% of the population of the British Isles, and that’s without subtracting the casualties from, e.g., the Dutch and Belgian units.)
- Casualties affected respectable folk. The army of Waterloo was made up of a handful of aristocratic officers — expendable younger sons and men on the make, all from an upper class culture that accepted their winnowing — leading what Wellington described as “the scum of the earth” who had joined as an alternative to the noose or a slower death by starvation. Few had connections to back home. Most came from outside respectable society. Many were Irish. Nobody who mattered cared about them. In contrast, the army of the Somme was a citizens’ army, drawn from all walks of life, including poets and diarists and journalists.
I think that last was the deciding factor.
In the aftermath of Waterloo, nobody looked at the casualties and called for more modern ways of fighting or an end to all wars, because nobody in a position to kick up a fuss really cared about some dead Irish paupers in a Belgian field. Ninety nine years later, the British middle classes discovered that war was inglorious and death in battle, permanent, and became very vocal about it.
To be fair, it went beyond moral nimbyism. The articulate people were articulating on behalf of all the soldiers, not just their posh chums. This leads me to the uncomfortable thought that conscription may not be a bad thing…