‘The Devonshires held this trench’

Featured image Courtesy of www.greatwar.co.uk

By Karen Zautyk

Last Friday, while Americans were preparing to celebrate the Glorious Fourth, our 1776 foe and now staunch ally (yes, Britain is still our staunch ally despite all the Brexit naysaying) was marking a supremely tragic day in its history.

A century ago, on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. It did not end until Nov. 18, and by the time it was over more than 1 million British, French and German soldiers had been killed. But that first day alone has come to symbolize all the futility, leadership blunders and appalling casualty toll that marked World War I. 

Devonshire Cemetery at Somme battlefield, France.
Devonshire Cemetery at Somme battlefield, France.

On that day alone, the British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 men were killed. You read that correctly: 57,470 casualties in a single day.

What went so very, very wrong?  The British high command had the brilliant idea of bombarding the German lines so fiercely that so many Huns would be killed, the Allied troops could safely advance across No Man’s Land and capture the enemy positions with no resistance. For a solid eight days, British shells rained down on the Germans.

Finally, at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, the British infantry got the signal to go “over the top” — leave their trenches and head for the enemy’s. And they were promptly slaughtered by German heavy artillery and machine-gun fire.

What the British high command did not know, or even suspect, was that their bombardment, while it probably caused a lot of headaches and ear problems, was basically a waste of munitions.  

In her remarkable book “Somme,” historian Lyn Macdonald explained: “. . . with characteristic thoroughness and superb engineering skill, the Germans had tunnelled beneath their trenches and carved out a network of galleries and shelters, so deep and so secure that nothing short of an earthquake could have dislodged them.” Their line, she wrote, “was virtually impregnable.”

When the bombardment ceased, the Germans emerged from below ground and manned their guns. The result was a bloodbath. As described on the website www.firstworldwar.com, “Many troops were killed or wounded the moment they stepped out of the front lines into No Man’s Land.  Many men walked slowly towards the German lines, laden down with supplies, expecting little or no opposition.  They made for incredulously easy targets for the German machine-gunners.”

As an anonymous Welsh trooper described it, they were “mown down . . . like autumn corn before the cutter.” 

World War I was a learning experience, especially for Allied leaders. Unfortunately, it was the men in the trenches who paid the price for the lack of foresight.  A German medical officer — quoted in “The Imperial War Museum Book of the Somme” by Malcolm Browne — stated the obvious about that first day: “The British and the French generals had not yet learned that it was useless to let human beings run against machine-gun and intense infantry fire. . . .” (It also took the geniuses awhile to consider that maybe cavalry units belonged in the previous century.)

Some years ago, I discovered another website,  www.greatwar.co.uk, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in expanding their WWI knowledge. It was there that I first read the story of the Devonshire regiments on the Somme, which for me summed up both the devastation of July 1, 1916, and the courage, honor, sense of duty — and poetic aptitude — of the British troops.

The Devonshires had manned a trench near a small wood called Mansell Copse. When the signal sounded at 7:30 a.m., they stormed out as ordered — and more than 160 of them were killed. At the end of the day, their comrades were able to retrieve the bodies. These were carried back to the copse and buried in the same spot the men had occupied that morning.

A wooden cross was erected, with the following words carved into it: “The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.” 

Today, a stone monument marks their graves. But it bears the same inscription. And I have never read a finer, or more moving, tribute to anyone.

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