Somme Bombardment Begins

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 241st installment in the series. 

June 24, 1916: Somme Bombardment Begins

Britain and France had agreed to mount a major offensive on the River Somme as far back as December 1915, but the timing remained vague, in part due to Douglas Haig’s replacement of Sir John French as overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force around the same time, with further confusion generated by unexpected events including the Easter Rising in April and the  death of War Secretary Lord Kitchener in early June. 

But as spring gave way to summer and the German assault on Verdun continued, mounting French desperation left the British little choice but to commit: following the French failure to retake Fort Douaumont, on May 26 French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre warned the British that the French Army would “cease to exist” if they delayed much longer. Then on June 11, following the German conquest of Fort Vaux, Philippe Pétain, the savior of Verdun, asked Joffre to urge the British to move up the date for their attack. Finally, as the Germans unleashed a new attack even closer to Verdun in late June (see below), in an unusual deviation from the usual civil-military protocol French Premier Aristide Briand personally urged Haig to act swiftly, warning of dire consequences for their alliance if the British failed to attack.

Preparations for the massive Anglo-French assault on the Somme had been underway for months, and went forward on an awesome scale, reflecting the Allies’ hopes that the “big push” would deliver a decisive blow to the German military and maybe even end the war. Most of the work was focused on equipping the area around the Somme with infrastructure to support the British Fourth Army, numbering 400,000 men and 100,000 horses, all of whom had to be supplied with food, water, and ammunition. The British had also accumulated over 1,500 artillery pieces to deliver one of the heaviest bombardments in history, requiring millions of shells to break up the enemy’s defenses. These figures don’t even count the contribution from the neighboring French Sixth Army, which would carry out a simultaneous push to the south. 

In the first half of 1916 the British and French built two new railroads connecting the supply hub at Albert and the Somme, later complemented by dozens of new narrow-gauge “trench railways” connecting the bigger rail hubs to supply depots near the front. The Allies also repaired roads and bridges, erected vast camps with tents and barracks for hundreds of thousands of men, dug new wells and laid out dozens of miles of water pipelines, and built electric generators and a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire to serve as a nervous system connecting it all.  Edward Liveing, a British subaltern, recalled the final weeks before the assault: 

The roads were packed with traffic. Column after column of lorries came pounding along, bearing their freight of shells, trench-mortar bombs, wire, stakes, sandbags, pipes, and a thousand other articles essential for the offensive, so that great dumps of explosives and other material arose in the green wayside places. Staff cars and signallers on motor-bikes went busily on their way… Horse transport and new batteries hurried to their destinations. “Caterpillars” rumbled up, towing the heavier guns. Infantrymen and sappers marched to their tasks round and about the line. Roads were repaired, telephone wires placed deep in the ground, trees felled for dug-outs and gun emplacements, water-pipes laid up to the trenches ready to be extended across conquered territory, while small-gauge and large-gauge railways seemed to spring to being in the night.

However the sheer scale of the preparations also meant there was no chance of surprise, as the Germans were bound to see these efforts and draw the obvious conclusion. On that note Lieutenant Own William Steele, a Canadians soldier from Newfoundland serving in the BEF, wrote in his diary on June 21, 1916: 

The Hun certainly appears to be expecting our visit, for they are, according to reports all along the front, hard at work. There is an immense amount of traffic everywhere. Opposite our own particular position, he is seen working by day and night… Only last night, he could be plainly heard strengthening his wire work, and even adding to it, etc. 

On paper at least, it shouldn’t have mattered that Germans knew what was coming, because the plan was simply to annihilate them with a “creeping barrage” of artillery and the explosion of nineteen giant mines tunneled under the German positions – and in truth, even the Germans were surprised by the unparalleled ferocity of the Allied attack. But British planners didn’t reckon with German engineering skill, which allowed tens of thousands of German troops to wait out the bombardment in deep concrete dugouts burrowed 40 feet underground; the Germans also built a second and third line of trenches for defense in depth. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from directing artillery fire against German artillery and strongholds. 

Nonetheless the initial bombardment, which began on June 24 – a full a week before the infantry attack on July 1 (delayed from June 28) – was by all accounts an awe-inspiring and terrifying spectacle, as a thousand British guns saturated the German trenches with over 1.7 million shells in eight days. Like the German maelstrom at Verdun, the rumbling of the great guns was heard over a hundred miles away, and was even said to be audible in London when the winds were favorable. 

Many observers compared the incredible downpour of steel to natural phenomena. Stanley Spencer, an officer with the Royal Fusiliers stationed further north on the Western Front, recalled: 

… night and morning, we hear the peculiar roll and thunder of hundreds of guns farther south in preparation for the Somme offensive. The sky was continuously lighted up by innumerable flashes, the earth shook and the air seemed to quiver with the restless rumbling and muttering that constantly rose and fell, and rose and fell again, like the rising, breaking, and subsiding of enormous waves. 

The shelling continued relentlessly through the night into day and then night again, when the dark sky turned into a nightmarish carnival of blinking, stuttering lights. Frederick Palmer, an American war correspondent, left a vivid description of the preparatory bombardment at night:

After dark the scene from a hill, as you rode toward the horizon of flashes, was one of incredible grandeur. Behind you, as you looked toward the German lines, was the blanket of night pierced and slashed by the flashes of gun blasts; overhead the bloodcurdling, hoarse sweep of their projectiles; and beyond the darkness had been turned into a chaotic, uncanny day by the jumping, leaping, spreading blaze of explosives which made all objects on the landscape stand out in flickering silhouette. Spurts of flame from the great shells rose out of the bowels of the earth, softening with their glow the sharp, concentrated, vicious snaps of light from shrapnel. Little flashes played among big flashes and flashes laid over flashes shingle fashion in a riot of lurid competition, while along the line of the German trenches at some places lay a haze of shimmering flame from the rapid fire of the trench mortars. 

Incredibly enough, men from the artillery crews were apparently able to rest during the shelling, according to Palmer, who noted that in many places the guns seemed to fire in shifts: 

It seemed that all the guns in the world must be firing as you listened from a distance, although when you came into the area where the guns were in tiers behind the cover of a favorable slope you found that many were silent. The men of one battery might be asleep while its neighbor was sending shells with a one-two-three deliberation. Any sleep or rest that the men got must be there in the midst of this crashing babel from steel throats. 

Palmer also noted the stupendous cost of the bombardment:

The flow of ammunition for all came up steadily, its expenditure regulated on charts by officers who kept watch for extravagance and aimed to make every shell count. A fortune was being fired away every hour; a sum which would send a youth for a year to college or bring up a child went into a single large shell which might not have the luck to kill one human being as excuse for its existence; an endowment for a maternity hospital was represented in a day’s belch of destruction from a single acre of trodden wheat land. 

The effect on the German troops subjected to this shelling was predictable enough, as they were forced to remain in their cramped concrete dugouts day and night for eight days, often cut off from supplies and unable to sleep amid the explosions pounding the earth above them. Above all, they wondered when the other shoe would drop. The German private Eversmann of the 26th Reserve Division wrote in his diary on June 26:

The barrage has now lasted thirty-six hours. How long will it go on? Nine o’clock: a short pause of which we avail ourselves to bring up coffee, each man got a portion of bread. Ten o’clock: veritable drum fire. In twelve hours shelling they estimate that 60,000 shells have fallen on our battalion sector. Every communication with the rear has been cut, only the telephone is working. When will they attack – tomorrow or the day after? Who knows?

However the important thing from the German soldiers’ personal perspective – and from a strategic perspective as well – was that most of them were still alive as the British infantry prepared to attack on July 1. An officer in the 26th Reserve Division, Lieutenant Cassel, noted with satisfaction: “On the whole we had very few casualties: some sentries were wounded and in one dugout that was partly squashed there were some deaths and seriously wounded. But the company on the whole, and my platoon in particular, kept its battle strength, thanks to the superior quality of our construction in the position.”

The failure of the bombardment, compounded by a number of mistakes on the day of the attack, would result in one of the worst debacles of the war – making July 1 the bloodiest day in British history.

Germans Unleash Phosgene Gas At Verdun 

On June 22, 1916 the Germans unleashed a terrible new chemical weapon, phosgene gas, as part of another massive assault intended to finally capture the hills above the Meuse overlooking the citadel of Verdun – their main objective during the months-long battle, which would force the French to abandon Verdun or send untold numbers of men to their deaths in an effort to eject the Germans. In the end, the Germans achieved neither aim – but only after a nightmarish struggle for Fort Souville, one of the last French strongholds protecting the citadel of Verdun. 

The shells containing phosgene, called “Green Cross” gas by German soldiers because of the special markings on the shells, began falling on the evening of June 22, and soon thousands of men were screaming and gasping for breath – their panic only deepening as they discovered that their gas masks didn’t protect them from the new weapon, developed by German chemists for exactly that purpose. Men and horses died by the scores, with many of the former supposedly turning a shocking green color.

The German gas attack targeted French artillery all along the line, forcing gun crews to flee and so leaving the infantry in the trenches unprotected. At 5 a.m. the German infantry advanced in dense masses, soon overrunning French defensive works and entering the village of Fleury – more than half way to Fort Souville. By now, however, the phosgene gas was starting to dissipate and French gun crews were returning to their positions. As the fighting continued Joffre sent four fresh divisions to shore up the defenses before Verdun. The German attack had been blunted – but just barely.

For ordinary soldiers on both sides, conditions at Verdun somehow become even worse. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, described the German gas attack in his diary entry on June 22: 

At 9 p.m. an avalanche of fire bursts on the ridge, the relief has to be delayed, it would be impossible to pass. Is it an attack? There is gas as well as shells, we can’t breathe and are forced to put on our masks… My company is placed in one line, without any trench, in shell craters. It’s a plateau, swept continuously by machine-gunfire and flares… The terrain is littered with corpses! What an advance! It’s dark, one feels something soft beneath one’s feet, it’s a stomach. One falls down flat and it’s a corpse.

Amid continuing fighting, Desegneaux wrote on June 26: 

Our 220 mortars bombard Thiaumont: we must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. We attack incessantly. It’s four days since we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun; filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing. I am unrecognizable, frighteningly dirty.

In a later diary entry Desegneaux described one of the most awful, and tragically common, scenarios of the war: grievously wounded men dying slowly in front of their comrades because no stretcher bearers could make it to the frontline positions under heavy fire. On June 30, 1916 he wrote: 

Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils not knowing where to go come to us, believing that they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke, the air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood… One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously one begs me, ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die, Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me.’ The other, perhaps more gravely wounded and nearer to death, implores me to kill him with these words, ‘Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me the revolver!’ Frightful, terrible moments, while the cannons harry us and we are splattered with mud and earth by the shells. For hours, these groans and supplications continue until, at 6 p.m., they die before our eyes without anyone being able to help them. 

Not long afterwards an anonymous soldier from the French 65th Division, stationed on the west bank of the Meuse, painted a similar picture in a letter home: 

Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don't have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground...

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Game of Thrones Fan Theories About How the Series Will End

HBO
HBO

Our faces are longer than Jon Snow’s right now. It’s been nearly a year since the last season of Game of Thrones ended, but season 8—the series's final one—won’t air until next spring. To tide you over until 2019, we’ve collected some of the most plausible as well as the most bonkers fan theories about what could go down in the final episodes. They predict everything from a new contender for the Iron Throne to a new species classification for a major character. On the bright side, we’ll all have plenty of time to debate these before the first episode airs.

1. JON SNOW WILL KILL DAENERYS.

Almost since the series began, fans have been predicting that Jon Snow is the Prince Who Was Promised—a reincarnation of the legendary hero Azor Ahai. But most predictions have overlooked a central piece of the Azor Ahai legend, which may spell doom for Daenerys: Azor Ahai, a lousy metallurgist, had a tough time forging his fabled flaming sword Lightbringer. Then he realized he needed to temper the blade by plunging it into the heart of his wife, Nissa Nissa, to imbue it with her power. (Because in the logic of this legend, killing a powerful woman turns a mediocre man into a hero.) If Jon Snow is Azor Ahai, the theory goes, then Daenerys will be his Nissa Nissa—the one true love he must kill in order to save the realm.

2. THE LANNISTERS’ REPAID DEBTS WILL BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

Lena Headey in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

You know the family creed: A Lannister always pays his debts. In Season 7, Cersei stayed true to her family name when she paid off a large debt to the Iron Bank. Most viewers read this as a play to buy the loyalty of the bank and its mercenary soldiers, but one Machiavellian Redditor has predicted that paying off the debt will have the opposite effect. “While the Lannisters were in debt to the Bank, the Bank had a vested interest in their success,” one Redditor wrote. Now that the debt is paid, the Iron Bank will invest in the side that seems to have the best chance of winning—and right now, that doesn’t look like Cersei's.

3. EURON GREYJOY IS THE FATHER OF CERSEI’S CHILD.

Somehow this seems more disturbing than Jamie being the baby’s incestuous father. PopSugar rolled out this hot take based on some circumstantial evidence. First, Euron and Cersei cooked up a plan to betray Jon and Daenerys without telling Jamie, which “raises the question about what else Cersei was doing with Euron behind Jamie’s back.” Then there’s the fact that Cersei just let Jamie ride north to fight the White Walkers, which doesn’t seem like a risk you’d want your unborn child’s father to take. She has no idea when or if he’ll be back. But on the other hand, she knows exactly where Euron will be. Perhaps she’s keeping an eye on her baby’s true father.

4. DAENERYS WILL DIE BEYOND THE WALL.

Redditor Try_Another_NO reached all the way back to season 2 to substantiate this theory about Daenerys’s demise. While Daenerys is in the House of the Undying, she has a series of possibly prophetic visions. She walks through the throne room in Kings Landing, which is damaged and filled with snow. Before she can touch the Iron Throne, she’s called away by a sound and suddenly finds herself walking beyond the wall. There she meets Khal Drogo who says he has resisted death to wait for her. According to the theory, these were clues about the series’s end: The White Walkers will threaten Kings Landing. Daenerys will turn away from the throne to fight the White Walkers. Death awaits her beyond the wall.

5. CLEGANEBOWL WILL FINALLY HAPPEN.

For years fans have eagerly awaited a fight between Sandor and Gregor Clegane, which has been affectionately dubbed “Cleganebowl.” In the season 7 finale, the Hound hinted that the much-hyped fight is coming when he told his brother, “You know who's coming for you.” The cryptic message also spawned a fan theory about the real origin of the Clegane brothers’ beef. Our only version of the tale comes from noted liar/sleazebag Littlefinger, who claimed Ser Gregor burned his brother’s face over a stolen toy. But Redditor 440k11 thinks the Hound has always had a talent for reading the future in the flames. In fact, the theory goes, the Hound saw his brother’s death foretold in a fire and told him about it. Enraged, young Gregor pushed his brother’s face into the fire he was reading, burning Sandor and cementing their lifelong enmity.

6. VARYS IS ACTUALLY A MERMAN.

The case for this one is watertight. The books make several mentions of merlings living alongside dragons, giants, and White Walkers—mythical creatures we know exist in Essos. Varys, meanwhile, constantly covers his lower body in long robes. What is he hiding? According to Redditor nightflyer, it’s his freaky fish body. In the books, it would explain his cryptic response when Tyrion threatened to have him thrown off a ship: “You might be disappointed by the result.” In the show, it might explain how Varys traveled from Dorne to Daenerys's ship in Mereen seemingly overnight in the middle of season 7. (It wasn’t lazy writing—he swam there!) In general, it might explain why he’s such a slimy weirdo.

7. THE MAESTERS ARE COLLUDING WITH CERSEI TO BEAT DAENERYS.

Finally, a fan theory fit for our political age! According to this theory, the maesters are natural enemies of magic. The strange forces that bring the dead back to life, reveal the future in fire, and allow Arya to wear many faces are beyond the maesters’ powers of rational explanation. But if magic were eliminated, the maesters’ monopoly on knowledge would continue unchallenged. It follows, then, that the maesters would feel comfortable with Cersei’s cruel reign but threatened by Daenerys’s magical dragons. Maybe that explains why a former maester built Cersei a weapon meant to kill dragons. And maybe the maesters will intervene in the conflict more directly in the next season.

8. ARYA WILL KILL CERSEI ... WEARING JAMIE’S FACE.

Maisie Williams in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Predicting that Jamie will kill Cersei is so mainstream. Seeing Jamie kill Cersei for the good of the realm would reprise his role as the Kingslayer (or Queenslayer). It would neatly fulfill the Volanqar prophecy—the prediction a witch made to a young Cersei, that she would be killed by a volanqar (which translates to "younger sibling" in High Valyrean). And it would be so easy. Reasoning that George RR Martin would never do something so obvious, and that Arya’s assassin character arc has to led to a more consequential target than Walder Frey, Redditor greypiano predicts that Arya will be Cersei’s killer. If she first kills Jamie and uses his face to catch Cersei unaware, then the volanqar prophecy will be confirmed (even if it’s on a technicality).

9. VISERION WILL COME BACK TO LIFE.

Here’s a fan theory for moms, from a mom. Redditor Cornholio_the_white wrote that after the season 7 finale, their mom called to say she was sad about Viserion’s death. But she had a prediction: “I think it’s going to remember its mother.” She explained that Daenerys’s love would free Viserion from the Night King’s spell. Cornholio_the_white scoffed. That wasn’t possible. The dragon was dead. But then Mom dropped a compelling counterargument: “Not if the Red Woman brings it back. They’re keeping her around for something.”

10. GENDRY IS THE LEGITIMATE CHILD OF CERSEI AND ROBERT BARATHEAN.

This theory throws another contender for the Iron Throne into the mix. It maintains that Gendry was not Robert Barathean’s bastard son—in fact, he was the only legitimate child of the king. We know that Cersei and Robert had a child—a “black-haired beauty”—who supposedly died shortly after birth. Curiously, Cersei says she never visited her firstborn child in the crypt, even though we know she is a fiercely devoted mother. Perhaps that’s because she knew her son was actually in Fleabottom as a blacksmith’s apprentice. And perhaps it was Cersei all along who was looking out for Gendry, securing his apprenticeship and protecting him from Joffrey’s purge of Robert’s bastards. Gendry, for his part, remembers only that his mother had yellow hair. If that yellow-haired woman was Cersei, Gendry would have the most legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of anyone in Westeros.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. To celebrate his birthday (he turns 73 today), here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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