The Somme, 90 years on

Today is the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, on the first day of which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead — the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

Max Hastings has a thoughtful piece about it in the Guardian. It begins:

Captain WP Nevill of the 8th East Surreys was a complete ass. In the line in France, he liked to stand on a firestep of an evening, shouting insults at the Germans. Knowing that his men were about to participate in their first battle and keen to inspire, he had a wizard idea.

On leave in England, he bought footballs for each of his four platoons. One was inscribed: “The Great European Cup. The Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick-off at Zero.” Nevill offered a prize to whoever first put a ball into a German trench when the “big push” came.

Sure enough, when the whistles blew on July 1 1916, and 150,000 English, Scots, Welsh and Scottish soldiers climbed ladders to offer themselves to the German machine-guns, Nevill’s footballers kicked off.

One of the few eye-witnesses to survive described watching a ball arch high into the sky over no-man’s-land, on its way to the German trenches near Montauban. No winner collected Nevill’s prize, however. Within minutes the captain was dead, as were most of his men…

Later… James M emailed:

Every time I read about the Somme and other battles, in which the trials of the British and allies are described; when I visit Duxford or Bletchley or Madingley American Cemetery – my mind is always drawn to how it must have felt to have been on the other side. It’s almost never discussed. Does Germany have Somme-fests every modulo-10 years? So I was pleased to see this.