Today we mourn the loss of 19,240 men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Following an eight day bombardment with 1.7 million shells, and seventeen mines exploded under the German front line, 750,000 troops set out across No Manâ€™s Land at 7.30am on that fateful day. Their General, Sir Douglas Haig, was sure the bombardment would have destroyed the German front line and made the attack relatively easy. Casual observation would have shown him that the barbed wire and the concrete emplacements had withstood it. The British had air supremacy so they should have seen that. War on an industrial scale went to deadlines and plans laid well in advance. Commanders showed little flexibility. Wellingtonâ€™s brilliance at husbanding his resources and avoiding heavy loss of manpower was replaced by a casual acceptance of massive losses for little territorial gain.
We all admire the heroism and stoicism of the many men who served in that army. My own two grandfathers fought in that long war. They were amongst the lucky ones, both surviving, and only one wounded. We should be more critical of the political and military leadership of the time. The Liberals in government presiding over mass slaughter would never recover as a governing force after the war. The decision to go to war over a dispute in the Balkans and over the neutrality of Belgium was questionable. We then fought the wrong kind of war for the UK. Our strength lay in our navy, kept substantially stronger than any rival, so we fought a static land war on the continent where we could not deploy our sea power to good effect. The men and money the war took damaged the UKâ€™s subsequent position in the world and is part of its twentieth century relative decline. It reminds us how much blood and treasure in the past commitment to Europe has cost us, when the worldâ€™s oceans beckoned to a better future elsewhere for an island trading maritime nation.