November 11, 2006

Lest we forget

Today is Remembrance Day. This year it falls a week before the 90th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest fights in the history of warfare.

The objective at the Somme was to break through the German lines on the Western front, along a 25-mile-long line north and south of the Somme River in northern France. The Allies also hoped to draw German forces away from Verdun.

Action began on July 1, 1916, following five days of artillery barrage. The British had also dug ten mines underneath the German position and laid tons of explosives, and ten minutes before the attack, the first of these was detonated. (The spectacular explosion of the first, the Hawthorn Ridge mine, was captured on film [.MOV].) At 7:30 am, British troops began advancing across no man's land behind a rolling barrage. But when they reached the German position, they discovered that five days of bombardment had not killed as many of the enemy as anticipated, and the Germans inflicted heavy losses on Allied troops. The first day of fighting was largely a failure: Virtually none of the first-day objectives were met, and there were 19,240 dead amongst nearly 57,500 casualties - to date, still the bloodiest day in British military history.

The Somme was also notable for the introduction of the tank to ground warfare. It made its debut at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15. It was hoped that tanks would give the British a tactical advantage (as the armoured machines had little to fear from barbed wire or light-weapons fire), but the reality was far different. Of the 49 tanks available, only 21 were actually operational by the time they were deployed. They suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns and were likely to become bogged down on the battlefield, making them vulnerable to artillery fire. But this early in the war, they did confer a significant psychological advantage, because the Germans didn't have them.

The battle ended on November 18, 1916, when the weather had turned too cold to continue with the campaign. It had been a battle of attrition: the Allies suffered 625,000 casualties, including 146,431 dead; Canadian divisons had nearly 25,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. At the same time, they inflicted approximately the same number of casualties on the German army, which was more experienced, and these losses had greater military value than the fresh volunteers in the Allied trenches. But in the end, the battle was inconclusive: after more than four months of fierce battle and more than a quarter of a million deaths on both sides, the Allies gained virtually no territory, the greatest advancement being only five miles.

The torch: be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.

This Remembrance Day post is dedicated to Cpl. Glen Arnold and Pte. David Byers, two soldiers from my home town of Espanola, Ontario, who were amongst the four Canadians killed by a suicide bomber on September 18 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In a war with such light casualties, it is a hard thing for a small town to lose two of its finest in a single day.

The current war hits home here in Ottawa, as well, as three of our church family are currently serving in Afghanistan. Please pray for them, that they may remain safe and remain faithful during their deployment.

And thank you to all - whether in active service or out - who have served this country and the cause of freedom.