The western contribution would be an attack by the British and French armies at their point of junction east of Amiens on the river Somme. Originally the forces contributed would have been about equal, but when the attack opened in July their heavy commitment at Verdun had reduced the French share to six first-line divisions as against the British nineteen. The British did not complain. This was the test for which their New Armies had been preparing for the previous two years. Their preparations were as meticulous, far-reaching, and clearly signalled as would be those for the landings in Normandy twenty-eight years later. Their attack was preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment in which a million and a half shells were fired: ‘The wire has never been so well cut,’ wrote General Haig on the eve of battle, ‘nor artillery preparations so thorough’. So effective did he believe them to have been that many of the 120,000 men who went ‘over the top’ on the morning of 1 July were not equipped for an assault at all, but burdened with equipment to fortify positions already conquered for them by the artillery.
It did not work out like that. A large percentage of the shells fired, hastily manufactured by unskilled labour, were duds. Those that did explode failed to destroy defences dug deep into the chalk hillside, from which machine-gunners emerged, when the barrage lifted, to fire point-blank at the long lines of overloaded troops plodding across the bare chalk slopes towards them. Once the battle had begun, the careful co-operation between infantry and artillery on which so much depended disintegrated in the fog of war. By the end of the day 21,000 men were dead or missing.
Had the battle ended in spectacular success, these losses, which were no worse than those suffered by the French and Russian armies during the previous two years many times over, might have been regarded as an acceptable price to pay. Instead they became, in the British group memory, the epitome of incompetent generalship and pointless sacrifice. But there was no such success. The attacks continued for a further four months. By then the Allied armies had advanced about ten miles, the Somme battlefield had been churned, like that of Verdun, into a featureless lunar landscape, and the Allies had lost a total of 600,000 men. The size of the German losses has been a matter of furious controversy, but they were probably little less than those of the Allies, and the sufferings of their troops under continuous artillery bombardment had been no less terrible. Since the object of the attack had always been unclear—Haig’s own expectations of a breakthrough had never been shared by his subordinate commanders—the Allies claimed a victory in terms of attrition. Indeed by the end of the year they, like their German adversaries, could see no other way of winning the war