The next tune in this ongoing series of Tune of the First World War is also the first tune in a mini-series of tunes from Somme. The tune is “The Battle of the Somme” written by the great Pipe Major William Lawrie of the 1/8th Battalion (The Argyllshire) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
The Battle of the Somme stands out amongst the horrors of the First World War. More than three million men from both sides fought and more than one million were killed or wounded. It was the largest battle on the western front. It also has the distinction of seeing the largest loss of men in a single day by both the British and the Australian Armies.
The Somme offensive was devised by the allied powers, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia, in December 1915. The plan was for Somme to be part of a larger offensive on multiple fronts. The French were to lead the main attack from the west, supported by the British on their left (northern) flank, while the Russians attacked on the Eastern Front. The hope was to keep the Germans on the defensive and to try and bring a quick end to the war.
Germany had other plans and launched an attack against the French in the northeast of France. The Battle of Verdun was the largest and longest battle between the French and Germans of the war. The Germans were trying to get the French to commit the bulk of their forces in the battle. They were attempting to destroy the majority of the French forces which could cause the collapse of the French Army.
The Germans had some success early in the battle, gaining a large portion of territory and a few strategic locations. To counter this, the French were forced to send a large portion of the divisions that had been set aside for the Somme Offensive. The Battle of Verdun lasted from 21 February until 17 December 1916. Verdun was a French victory with relatively few casualties but had the effect of forcing most of the action during the Somme Offensive onto the shoulders of the British.
The Allied forces bombarded the Germans for the week leading up to the first day of the Somme offensive. The plan called for the artillery to weaken the German defenses, create openings in the trenches, and to cut the barbwire fences in front of the German lines. After the shelling stopped, a massive infantry assault would commence to overrun the weakened lines.
Unfortunately, the shelling was largely unsuccessful. The Germans trenches were deep enough to withstand the attacks. The lack of sufficient high explosive shells meant that the barbwire fences in front of the German lines were largely intact. Explosive mines that had been placed under the German trenches were set before the infantry assault alerting the Germans that an attack was imminent.
On July 1, 1916 the attack commenced. Five French divisions on either side of the 25-mile-long Somme battlefield joined eleven divisions of British in the center sending their infantry over the trench walls and into no-man's land. The Germans were ready.
The French forces saw a quick advance against the Germans. The British did not fare as well. The Germans emerged from their intact trenches with rifles and machine guns. As the British tried to cross the 100 yards of no-man's land, they were cut down.
By the end of the first day, the British had gained about three square miles of territory. They also suffered 57,470 casualties including 19,240 men killed. On July 2, 1916 a battle of attrition started. During the following two weeks the British launched a series of small attacks against the Germans and suffered 25,000 casualties.
Australian troops saw their first action of the First World War on 19 July at the Battle of Fromelles. The inexperienced troops faced seasoned Germans who held the high ground. The Australian artillery were as ineffective as the British and failed to cause any significant damage to the defenders. Over the course of the day the Australians suffered 5,533 casualties with over 2,000 dead. This is the worst day in Australian military history.
The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days. It ended on December 15, 1916. In the end, the British and French forces suffered over 623,000 casualties, with over 146,000 dead. The total number of German casualties is a matter of debate but the general consensus puts the number over 600,000.
Pipe Major William Lawrie served with the 1/8 Battalion Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders during the war. The battalion arrived in France in March of 1915 and remained on the western front throughout the war. Pipe Major Lawrie took an active role in his during his time in France. He spent time in the trenches and likely helped in the digging and maintenance of them.
Unfortunately, this time in the trenches took its toll on Lawrie. In 1916, he was sent back to England due to chronic illness. He most likely caught pneumonia or pleurisy in the trenches, a common condition. While in the hospital in Oxford he contracted meningitis. Pipe Major William Lawrie died on November 28, 1916 at the age of 35.
The tune “The Battle of the Somme” is attributed to Pipe Major William Lawrie although there is a small amount of controversy about this. Lawrie was known as a prolific composer although only about 20 of his tunes still exist. The tune is very popular, has been published in numerous collections, and is still often played by pipe bands.