Philip Gibbs at the Somme

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

As well as being almost unimaginable human tragedy – the 19,000 British deaths on the first day make it one of the darkest days in our history – it is also a low-point in the history of British journalism, with newspapers reporting it as a good day.

The Daily Mail’s Beach Thomas later admitted to being “deeply ashamed” of how he had covered it. Philip Gibbs of the Daily News wrote: “We may say it is, on balance, a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.”

To mark the centenary of the tragedy, I thought it would be worth setting out Gibbs’s recollections of the day, which he recorded in his autobiography in 1946:

“In front of us was not a line but a fortress position, 20 miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by masses of machine gun posts and thousands of guns in a wide arc… We spoke to each other in whispers, if we spoke. Then suddenly our guns opened out in a barrage of fire of colossal intensity. Never before, and I think never since, even in the Second World War, had so many guns been massed behind any battle front. It was a rolling thunder of shellfire, and the earth vomited flame, and the sky was alight with bursting shells…

“I went into Fricourt soon after it had been taken and saw the dead lying there. Many Germans had been bayoneted in the first rush but even as they lay dead they had their hands slightly raised… I saw the fury of battle, and the sweep of German gunfire, and the ground vomiting up great columns of black earth and smoke…

“On the left up by Gommecourt… our men had got nowhere on the first day. They had been mown down like grass by German machine-gunners who, after our first barrage had lifted, rushed out to meet our men in the open. Many of our best battalions were almost annihilated, and our causalities were terrible. But I remember that our young wounded officers could still find words of admiration for their enemy.

“‘The German machine-gunners were great,’ said one of them. ‘Came slap out in the open to meet us.’

“…A German doctor taken prisoner near La Boiselle stayed behind to look after our wounded in a dugout instead of going down to safety. I met him coming back across the battlefield next morning. One of our men was carrying his bag and I had a talk with him. He was a tall, heavy man with a black beard, and he spoke good English.

“‘This war!’ he said. ‘We go on killing each other to no purpose. It is a war against religion and against civilisation and I see no end of it.’

“…Beyond all doubt the first phase of the battles of the Somme taught many lessons, at fearful human cost, to the generals and staffs, who lacked experience and always underestimated the enemy’s strength, and the formidable power of his defence. In my book Realities of War I wrote harsh and critical things about staff officers and their generals. I am not going to withdraw them now; but time effaces much, including bitterness, and I find myself more tolerant, perhaps because I have forgotten or blurred the sharp edge of tragic things.”


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