‘… suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine-gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit – quite unlike the way actors do it in films’ – Private Slater, 2nd Bradford Pals talking about the attack on 1 July 1916 quoted in The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook.
The families of the soldiers knew nothing of a new offensive, of course. But within days, they started receiving notifications from the War Office and it soon became apparent that many families in the same streets were getting the same message, that their husband or son had become a casualty. The casualties were mostly from New Army battalions, those raised from volunteers who had responded to Kitchener’s call to arms in 1914 and 1915. These were the Pals battalions, full of men who knew each other in civilian life, men who worked together, lived in the same streets, drank in the same pubs, whose families knew each other. The loss of these men seemed to be the end of the world. A whole generation of young men seemed to have gone.
The phrase Lost Generation was not their invention. Gertrude Stein is supposed to have coined it but she merely picked up what was already being expressed among the common folk. They and she were referring to all those who served in the war, rather than only to those who died. Hemingway’s use of the phrase in The Sun Also Rises published in 1924 helped to popularise it but it was already widespread in Europe when the book was published. Only in Britain did Lost Generation refer only to those who died.
The trouble is that a quick comparison of the numbers of men who served on the Western Front with those who returned home, those who suffered life-changing injuries and those who died make it clear that more men returned home than didn’t and that more men came home unscathed than didn’t. We are, of course, talking about large numbers so that the casualty list was long.
This raises the question of whether the fighting on the Western Front was worse than elsewhere in the Great War and whether battles such as the Somme were more costly than say the fighting in Normandy following D-Day. Indeed, it raises the question of how do you make comparisons? Merely comparing numbers of losses is not enough because you need a timescale. Moreover, those who served in front-line trenches on the Western Front did not serve continuously in the way that an infantry battalion served in Normandy. In terms of back-of-an-envelope figures go, it is fair to say that the casualty rates in Normandy were not dissimilar to those on the Western Front during a major offensive.
‘With horror you feel that all your intelligence, your capacities, your bodily and spiritual characteristics, have become utterly meaningless and absurd.’ – Ernst Jünger talking about being under artillery bombardment in The Storm of Steel.
If we are to compare battle casualties, particularly fatal ones, in order to arrive at a measure of comparative lethality for battles, there are no definitive figures on which everyone is agreed that can be used, especially when it comes to battles before the modern era. Take the Battle of Cannae in 216 bc, for example, when Hannibal defeated the Romans. Indeed, Hannibal annihilated an entire Roman army in a single day. This was in an age that did not know gunpowder. The armies were largely equipped with bladed weapons, such as swords and spears. An estimate for the number of Roman deaths at Cannae is in the region of 30,000–50,000, according to Roman sources that were recorded at least 50 years after the event.
Similar casualty figures for other battles fought in the ancient world, such as Issus in 333 bc when it is estimated at least 20,000 Persians were killed indicate that the losses experienced by the Romans at Cannae were not entirely unusual. At Thermopylae in 480 bc, the Persians lost 20,000. Similarly, the Romans lost 20,000 men in the Teutoburg forest in ad 9 fighting the Germanic tribes. At the Battle of Chiba fought near the Yangtze in China in ad 208, approximately 100,000 are supposed to have died.
Of course, all these figures are estimates, some more accurate than others, because no one recorded such details accurately, nor saw any need to. Moreover, the victors liked to exaggerate the losses suffered by their defeated foes to highlight just what a triumph their victory was. Even if you look at a slightly more recent battle, one fought during the Wars of the Roses in 1461, a no more reliable figures for the number of dead can be found from the records as most are probably exaggerations. The battle I’m referring to is Towton (a town in Yorkshire), fought in a blizzard on Palm Sunday 1461. Unlike the battles in the ancient world, this one included cannon and firearms, albeit in very small numbers. Soldiers were armed with a wide range weapons from swords and daggers to poleaxes, bills, glaives and war hammers. Arrows fired from longbows played a significant role in the battle. Towton was the bloodiest battle fought on English soil. One contemporary estimate puts the dead at 28,000 while another puts it at 38,000. There is no doubt that most were Lancastrians, the losers, who were hunted down as they fled the battlefield. A fair estimate is 9,000 Lancastrian dead. It is worth noting that the Yorkist army was about 30,000 men, while the Lancastrian army was about 5,000 larger which means that the percentage death rate for the Lancastrians was at least 25.7 per cent. On 1 July 1916, the death rate was 9.8 per cent.
Which brings us back to Normandy. The casualties suffered by those who assaulted the beaches were, contrary to expectation, very light, with the exception of the American experience on Omaha beach. However, the fighting that followed was a different matter. The Battle of Normandy lasted three months from D-Day, 6 June 1944, until 1 September. The casualty rate of British infantry battalions was close to 100 per cent. From D-Day to end of the war, ten months later, some British infantry battalions lost their entire strength twice over, their officer strength three times over. That is not to suggest that none of those who landed on D-Day survived the war but no more than about three men of a battalion who landed on D-Day were still serving with the battalion at the end of the war. The historian John Terraine wrote that during the American Civil War (1861–5),
115 regiments (63 Union and 52 confederate) sustained losses of more than 50 per cent in a single engagement. The highest rate of loss of the whole war was that of the 1st Texas Regiment at Antietam (1862): 82.3 per cent. This was very nearly matched by the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg the following year: 82 per cent. These figures compare very precisely with, say, the 84 per cent (100 per cent of officers) of the 1/Newfoundland Regiment on 1 July 1916 on the Somme.
He went on to write that such losses ‘simply reveal what can happen when a lethal balance of force is struck’. This is the key, a lethal balance of force. Not technology by itself, nor tactics by themselves, nor fighting spirit alone, nor any other factor that plays a part in warfare when it comes to whether a battle, be it short or long, results in high numbers of casualties. And there has to be an overwhelming superiority of power by one side over the other.
‘There must have been about twelve machine guns firing [at us] … This devastating display of firepower stopped the Battalion dead in its tracks.’ – 18 Platoon by Sidney Jarry, platoon commander with the Somerset Light Infantry, Normandy, 1944
The truth is that is very little difference between the Somme, Normandy, the Falklands or any other battle fought in the twentieth century when it comes to casualty rates. Indeed, there is little difference between ancient battles and modern battles when one side has an overwhelming superiority over the other. All battles are bloody irrespective of when they were fought, by whom and with ancient or modern weapons.
‘the Battalion [Gordon Highlanders]… lost twelve officers, including the C.O. and three company commanders, and 200 men in the thirty-five days since the start of the campaign [D-Day], without achieving very much.’ – Martin Lindsey in So Few Got Through
As William Tecumseh Sherman, a general who rose to prominence during the American Civil War, said on more than one occasion, ‘War is hell’.