July 1, 1916 was one of the darkest days in a dark war. The British summer offensive in Flanders began. For the United Kingdom, it was the largest action of the war to date, and marked the entry of what amounted to a new army into the fray.
Realizing that the European war was going to require an army larger than any yet fielded by an English speaking people, in 1915 Lord Kitchener began advocating for a dramatic increase in the troops fielded. By the summer of 1916, that army was ready for its first real effort in France.
On July 1, 1916, 13 British and 5 French divisions attacked the German 2nd army.
On that day alone, the United Kingdom lost 57,500 men, 19,000 of them killed. That staggering loss has largely overshadowed the fact that the Germans suffered no less a body blow.
I see one important connection to the American Civil War, one that always gives me pause.
A critical motivating factor in Kitchener’s recruitment drive was the concept of the “Pals” – battalions that were recruited locally, from communities, and sent to war together. Dockworkers, stockbrokers, even coal-miners, despite how badly men were needed in the mines for the war effort. “Pals” spurred recruitment, morale, and motivation.
One bad day could devastate a community. And July 1, 1916, was, for many of the men that went over t he top, most definitely a bad day. Many communities paid the price for sending “Pals” to war.
At Chickamauga, regiment after regiment of men in blue and gray understood that price. The 36th Illinois, with 2 companies raised in Elgin and two raised in Aurora, understood that price. They took 358 men into action, and suffered 141 casualties in less than one hour’s fighting.
The Somme lasted 141 days, and cost nearly 1.1 million casualties – 625,000 Allies and 465,000 Germans. It was war on a massive scale.
By November, as the Battle of the Somme drew to a fitful close, the British quietly discarded the “Pals” concept.
I think we can understand why.