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The Somme: France 1916 by Chris McNab (Pitkin Guide)

The Battle of the Somme in 1916 has a unique place in British Military History. As Chris McNab points out in his conclusion, it was by no means the only costly battle on the Western Front. But the grievous losses suffered on the first day alone – 57,470 British soldiers dead, wounded or missing – have occuiped the minds of many ever since. The British Army has never been quite the same, for a variety of reasons.

The focus is usually on the first day of the Battle – 1 July 1916 – but in fact the Somme operation lasted well into November, and was only ‘closed down’ due to the onset of winter weather. It was a battle aimed at breaking the deadlock on the Western Front, and to achieve a breakthrough. History tells us that this did not take place.

This Pitkin guide by Chris McNab gives us a very detailed overall picture of the Somme Campaign – from the outbreak of war, the battles of 1914 and 1915, the nature of Trench Warfare, the Commanders involved, the plans for the Offensive, the First Day and then the subsequent phases launched to try and re-invigorate the advance. The hardest task of any Historian writing about the Somme is to draw any kind of conclusion. The world knows all about the losses, and the small amount of land gained, but what about the more complex task of assessing whether it was a success or a failure?

McNab frequently refers to the deadlock of the Western Front, and this is perhaps the biggest factor that led to the Somme Offensive – a desire to return to mobile warfare and escape from the perils of static Trench Warfare. Mention the Somme, and the name of Douglas Haig is never likely to be far away. History has judged his leadership of the Somme offensive to be rather lacking. His background was as a Cavalry Officer, and he believed in ‘the charge’ of mobile warfare.

The Somme was planned to be a joint Anglo-French operation, born initially in December 1915. The Somme was chosen for no other reason other than that it was the junction between the two allied armies. When the Germans launched a strong offensive at Verdun, however, in February 1916 the ability of the French Army to co-operate on the Somme was be much reduced – hence the Somme took on a distinctly British character. The offensive also became an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Somme by drawing off German reserves.

A massive artilletu bombardment was planned to prepare the way for the infantry. During the week-long barrage, over 1,500 guns fired 1.7 million shells at the german front lines. Yet this overwhelming weight of fire did not have the intended results. In most cases the shells failed to cut the barbed wire. And secondly, a large proportion of shells simply did not explode – up to 30%, McNab argues. The Germans had also built highly effective deep dug-outs and shelters that largely survived the artillery fire.

After the massive losses on the first day, the British Army slowly and painfully moved forward, but with horrendous casualties. The battle bogged down into attrition. Haig came under increasing pressure from the British Government, who were asking why a few miles were costing tens of thousands of lives. Haig’s response was to order further attacks. The battle had been planned with the objective of making a breakthrough, but in hindsight a breakthrough became more and more unlikely. Yet Haig was sure that the German Army was on the verge of buckling.

In the second half of the 20th Century some historians labelled Haig and his Generals as ‘monsters’. The picture is rather more complicated, as Chris McNab rightly states. The commanders of the time were fighting at a time when technology – particularly the machine gun – favoured the defender, and innovations such as the Tank had not been developed enough in order to break down defensive positions. The Second World War tells us that even with air power, artillery and tanks, infantry will always have to cross no mans land and take on the enemy. The Somme had caused the Germans 630,000 casualties, and one only has to consider what might have happened at Verdun if the Germans had been able feed more reinforcements into that battle. The Germans eventually retreated from the Somme, but only to the fortified Hindenburg Line.

History has always had a fascination with the Somme. It was the first major battle in which the New Armies fought, and in particular the fate of the Pals Battalions has become imbued in British Culture. Chris McNab has written an insightful and thoughtful account of the Somme Offensive. In particular I found the emphasis that McNab has placed on prior developments and phases after the first day very important, and hopefully will buck the historical trend. It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of labelling Haig a monster, but quite rightly McNab lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

I found it very useful for my own research – looking at the 1st Hants who fought on the first day and at Le Transloy on 23 November, and the 14th and 15th Hants – the Portsmouth Pals Battalions – who fought in the September Battles. Chris McNab has helped put those men who fell in 1916 into context.

The Somme: France 1916 is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Respite on the Somme

The day after the bloody battle on 23 October 1916 the 1st Hampshires were relieved in the front line by the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and went back to bivouac in Trones Wood. After reaching the wood at 4am, at midday they marched on to Mansell Camp near Carnoy. On the 27th they went to new billets at Meaulte, then 3 days later entrained at Mericourt. They arrived at Arraines – about 13 miles south east of Abbeville – and marched to billets in Merelessart.

By this time the Battalion was severely understrength after its losses on the first day of the Somme and 23 October. In terms of officers, the Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Armitage, and the second in command was Major F.H.W. Guard. There were three Captains, three Lieutenants and eleven 2nd Lieutenants. In peactime, a Battalion would have five Majors, and a similar number of Captains. Losses had been so heavy that young and inexperienced officers were given a lot of responsibility very quickly (Incidentially, its noticeable from my research that very few officers came from Portsmouth, and those that did tended to be pupils of the Grammar School).

The attrition rate amongst officers was particularly high on the Western Front. On 23 October alone the 1st Hampshires lost one Captain and two 2nd Lieutenants killed, and seven 2nd Lieutenants wounded. Its not difficult to see how the Battalion needed to rebuild after such losses. Many officers were also away on courses.

On 2nd November 1916 the Battalion marched to a new area at Ramburelles. On the 4th the General commanding the 4th Division, Major-General Lambton, made an inspection. On the same day training began, and would continue for the rest of the month. The war diary gives an unusually detailed account of the training that was carried out – close order drill, arms drill, physical drill, Bayonet fighting, musketry, firing on the range and small attacks. The ubiquitous church parades also took place each Sunday.

After a week of basic training to build up the men, Company training began on 20 November. At the same time a draft of 73 reinforcements arrived, going some way to making up the Battalion’s losses – 159 arrived during the month in total. On the last day of the month the Battalion carried out a full exercise. Battalion training continued into December. Private Alexander, Sergeant Oliver, Corporal Golding and Private Patterson were presented with the Military Medal, and Lance Corporal Alexander received a bar to the Military Medal.

On 7 December the Battalion marched to Morlancourt. The next day they marched to Bray-sur-Somme. On 15 December the Battalion was transported by lorries to Maurepas, and from there marched to Combles, where the sheltered in old dug outs while in Brigade reserve. On 19 December 1916 the 1st Hampshires once again went into the front line on the Somme.

The Somme offensive had been ‘closed down’ after the failure to make a breakthrough at the end of October. The British Army was therefore pausing to rebuild in time for the next offensive, which would come in the north at Ypres in the Spring. A pattern was therefore emerging – of units taking part in the latest ‘big push’, and then withdrawing to rebuild in time for the next effort. In between there were relatively quiet spells in the trenches on the front line.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The eye of the Storm

After the Gas attack 0n 8 August 1916, the 1st Hants were relieved on 11 August. The Battalion went back to camp accomodation. Space was cramped, and water supply was a problem. After the first couple of days were spent resting, what the war diary describes an ‘ambitious’ training programme was curtailed by having to provide men for working parties. This pattern continued until 21 August when the Battalion entrained at Brandhoek for Ypres. There Headquarters was based in the Town Ramparts, C and D Companies in the Infantry Barracks, and A and B Companies in the Zillerbeke Bund.

It was only a short stay in the front-line town, for on 22 August the 1st Hants relieved the 42nd Canadian Infantry. The sector occupied was only 1,000 south of Ypres, along the Menin Road itself, and stretched for 800 yards. The position was described as ‘rather unpleasant’, due to being overlooked by all points of the Salient. Most of the trenches were in a poor condition. The Germans were relatively quiet, apart from sending over light guns and trench mortars in the evening. A heavy barrage on the 26th, however, resulted in two officers being buried by earth and being badly shaken. 5 men were killed and 15 wounded. During the bombardment 10 Germans tried to infiltrate A Company’s positions but were beaten off. The next day the Battalion was relieved.

August 1916 had been a hard month for the Hampshires, particularly considering they had been sent to the Ypres sector to recover from their mauling on the first day of the Somme. They had lost 23 men killed (including 7 from Gas), 38 wounded, 2 missing, 46 men were gassed, and 91 were sent to hospital, with only 36 returning in the opposite direction. This was hardly a Battalion rebuilding itself – replacements were going straight in at the deep end.

September 1916 proved to be a much quieter month for the Battalion. On 1st September they went back into the front-line east of Zillebeke. On the 2nd two men were killed in D Company, the Battalion’s only loses for the whole month. On the 5th the 1st Hants were relieved and went back to Montreal Camp, 2 miles south of Vlamertinghe. After spending several days resting and on inspections, on 10 September the Battalion marched to Poperinghe, then by train to Bollezeele and thence to billets at Merckegem. The next day the whole Brigade marched to Capelle, two miles south of Dunkirk, and the next couple of days were spent in the sand dunes at Dunkirk.

On the 15th the Battalion marched back to Merckegem, where Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wished them ‘godspeed on their departure for the Somme’. The next day they marched to Esquelbecq station, where they entrained for Amiens. After several days spent in billets in Amiens the 11th Brigade marched to Corbie. On the march the 1st Hants fought a readguard action exercise against the rest of the Brigade. The rest of the month was spent training hard and in practising assaulting enemy positions.

Finally the Battalion had been allowed to rest and gather itself after its hard time on the Somme and a less than quiet spell at Ypres. However, only 27 men and 4 officers arrived as reinforcements during September 1916, so the Hants would still be seriously undermanned on their return to the Somme, where the Battle had been raging ever since their departure.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War: Aftermath of the Somme

On 10 July 1916 the 1st Hants left billets in Bertrancourt to take over front line trenches from the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers – this only nine days after the Battalion had been decimated on the first day of the Somme. – in the Beaumont Hamel-Serre sector. There they found trenches in a very bad condition. In some places Mills Grenades were buried in the mud – B Company lit a fire which exploded some grenades, killing one man and wounding two. There were only six officers in the front line, excluding Battalion HQ.

On the 13th a big fire demonstration was put on along the front line of the whole Corps. Gas, Smoke and High Explosive Shells were sent over all night, but retaliation from the enemy was light. By the next day trenches were beginning to dry out. Two patrols were sent out that night, and found that the German front line was strongly held. On the 15th the Battalion was relieved, and went back to billets in Mailly-Maillet. They were still close to the front line, and had to sleep in cellars to avoid shelling.

On the 16th the men attended a church parade in the morning, followed by 100 men forming a working party on the communication trenches. A draft of 15 men arrived, most of them men who had recently been lightly wounded. This suggests both how seriously understrength the Battalion was, and how desparate Britain’s manpower situation had become after the losses on the Somme. The next day a draft of 300 men arrived, mostly from the 16th (Depot) Battalion, but some from the 14th (1st Portsmouth) Battalion. Again, taking on such a huge number of men in one go suggests how depleted the Battalion was. The War Diary notes that the physical condition of these men was very poor – one man was sent to the Hospital within two hours of arriving. More new arrivals appeared on the 19th, including, as the War Diary puts it, ‘our old friends Capt Lockhart and Lt. Smythe’. Slowly, the Battalion was rebuilding. The influx of men who were no doubt volunteers or conscripts marked the point at which the Battalion lost much of its regular make-up.

On the 22nd the Battalion paraded for inspection. The next day they marched at 3am from Beauval to Doullens (Nord) Station, where they boarded trains for a 5 hour journey to Esquelbeeq (Nord) in Belgium. From their the men were billeted in farms. Battalion HQ was in Wormhoudt. The move to Flanders was evidently unpopular, as the War Diary records ‘those of us who were in Flanders before showed no zeal at renewing our acquaintance with this part of the world’. This is somewhat intriguing, given that the Battalion had suffered crippling losses on the Somme only weeks earlier, and that during 1916 the Ypres Salient proved to be relatively quiet. It is very possible that the 1st Hants were sent to this quiet sector in order to rest, rebuild and integrate their new recruits.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The first day on the Somme

After a hiatus of a few months, its time to find out more about what happened to the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War. We left them on 30 June 1916, the night before the British Army launched its attack on the German lines on the Somme.

The Somme offensive was originally planned as a joint British and French effort to break the German front line. After the German offensive at Verdun, however, the battle evolved more into an relieve the pressure on the French defenders of Verdun by diverting German reinforcements. The ground had not been chosen for any reason other than that it was at the boundary between the British and French sectors of the Western Front.

There were arguments among the Generals about the tactics to be used. The commander of the Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was mindful of the limitations of the New Army units, and proposed to use a ‘bite and hold’ strategy of assaulting the front line, and then reinforce these gains before moving on to the next objective. He was overruled by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig -the Commander in Chief of the BEF -however, who ordered a more ambitious strategy of aiming to over-run the whole front line.

The Battalion had formed up in their assembly trenches the day before the attack was due to begin. A huge artillery barrage was planned, to neutralise the German front line, cut barbed wire and kill Machine Gunners. At 7.30pm the whole line assaulted. The 4th Divisions objective was the German front line between Beaumont Hamel and Serre. The Brigade’s front line consisted of the East Lancs and Somerset, and the second line was made up of the Hampshires and the Rifle Brigade. As soon as the troops left their trenches they encountered heavy machine gun fire from all directions, and it was impossible to even reach the German front line.

After hiding in shell holes in no mans land throughout the day, the survivors trickled back to the British lines. That same night the remains of the Brigade were relieved, and went back to billets at Mailly. From Mailly, the remnants of the Battalionwent back to billets at Betrancourt. On 10 July the Battalion relieved the Lancashires in the line near Beaumont Hamel, and stayed in the trenches until the 16th.

Losses were so great on the first day of the Somme, that the Battalion’s War Diary does not even give figures for men killed, wounded or missing. The stark figure of 100% casualties amongst officers tells its own story. Thousands of Tommies had been thrown against the German line, which despite a massive preliminary artillery barrage was still intact. Casualties among the officers amounted to 100%, and was also very heavy in other ranks. If these levels of losses are replicated across the whole Army on the Somme, only then do we get an idea of how heavy a price was paid for so little. The British Army on the Somme had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners. In ONE day.

Among the dead from Portsmouth were Private Frank Goldring, Private Henry Bushnell and Corporal Phillip Brymer who have no known grave and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, Private Reginald Buckland (27, Copnor) who is buried at Serre Road War Cemetery, and Sergeant Norman Blissett (23, Southsea) who is buried in Beaumont Hamel War Cemetery. Corporal Walter Gubby (21) died the next day, and is buried at Doullens Cemetery.

Among the officer casualties on 1 July 1916 was the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Lawrence Palk. Born in 1870, Palk was the second son of Lord Haldon, and fought in the Boer war between 1901 and 1902. He had served with the 1st Battalion since the start of the war, and had been awared the French Legion d’Honneur, the DSO and was mentioned in despatches. He is buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps. Colincamps is back from the front line, suggesting that Palk died of wounds received. Another officer killed was Lieutenant Charles Goodford, who had won the Military Cross the previous winter for leading a daring raid across no-mans-land. He is also buried at Colincamps.

The Battalion would not take part in another attack on the Somme until October. Its not difficult to see how the devestating losses on the Somme – and the first day in particular – cut a swathe through the British Army. Losses amongst Officers, NCO’s and experienced men were keenly felt, especially among regular battalions such as the 1st Hants. The Portsmouth Pals Battalions – the 14th and 15th Hants – would suffer even bigger losses when their turn to fight came in September 1916.

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Somme 1914-1918: Lessons in War by Martin Marix Evans

I’ve often thought that the history of the Western Front has been written-up like the history of a 5 match test series. The same sides, but each test they move to another venue to battle it out. How else do you explain 1st, 2nd and 3rd Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Mons, Le Cateau et al? Reading through accounts of the Great War, we could be forgiven for thinking that fighting only took place in one place at one particular time.

But of course, just because a ‘big push’ was being made in one place, it did not mean that everyone went to sleep elsewhere. Maybe thats the down-side of focussing on one particular battle at a time and ignoring what was happening on the rest of the front. That pitfall is obviously what Martin Marix Evans is trying to rectify here, but looking at the Somme during the whole period of the First World War.

In an ironic kind of way, the same pitfalls are in evidence here. Even when you focus on an oft-ignored subject, to what extent do you refer back to the more well-known? Where exactly is the balance between context and irrelevance? Although Evans writes much about the Somme before and after July 1917, but also combines this with a potted history of the war elsewhere on the western front. This could be received either of two ways, depending on your viewpoint – tedious if you know all about the Great War already, useful if you are a newcomer to the subject. One other problem is the lack of referencing – despite an exhaustive bibliography, it would be nice to know where certain arguments come from.

I admire the intention of taking the Somme – and the first day in particular – and trying to place it into a wider context. Its a brave effort. For too long the grievous losses of that July day in 1916 have overshadowed much else that took place there – in particular some valuable lessons learnt in 1916, and some bitter fighting during the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918. And although he is trying to emphasise the other fighting, Evans gives us a very clear decscription of the fighting that began on 1 July 1916.

Were the massive losses of the First day of the Somme part of the process of learning to fight a new kind of war, or were they just another symptom of the ‘Donkeys’ school of thought? Evans argues that the First World War was a succession of ‘lessons expensively bought in blood and suffering’. Personally I’m not too sure the argument of ‘lessons learnt’ is backed up by developments, as the British Army fought almost exactly the same way at Passchendale in 1917 as it had on the Somme in 1916. But that is for the reader to decide.

Somme 1914-1918 Lessons in War is published by The History Press

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Spring 1916 on the Somme

1916 began much as 1915 had ended for the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. In the trenches at Hamel, they were bombarded by 4.2 inch guns and Trench Mortars from the Bation Guillaumet. After marching back to Hedauville on 2 January, on the the 4th news came through that Hamel was being heavily bombarded. The Battalion was warned to stand by. The next day Mesnil was also shelled. When the Battalion went back into the front line on the 8th the Trenches had been heavily knocked about. Some men of the East Lancashire Regiment, who the Hampshires had relieved, had been buried alive by a trench mortar explosion – one of them was dug out alive 6 days later!

The next tour of duty began on 20 January. On the 21st 2nd Lieutenant Wilde was posting sentries on the gates of the mill in the marsh when ‘a fracas with the enemy occured’. All of the group managed to escape, except for 2nd Lt. Wilde and Private Chapman, who had not been seen since. Later in the tour a sniper was reported to be in the mill: 27th Battery Royal Field Artillery fired at him, but their aim was wide. The next day Private Harwood was killed by a sniper at the Stone Bridge post near the mill. On the 25th a German noticeboard was seen between the trenches; it was brought in that night, and found to read ‘give in before you are all straffed’.

To give an idea of the low-intensity of the Somme sector during this part of the war, in January 1916 the Battalion suffered 2 men killed and 5 wounded, 1 officer and 1 man missing; 51 men admitted to Hospital and 27 discharged. Compared to the losses suffered at Ypres the previous year, these were very light indeed.

A change in routine came after the Battalion left the trenches on 5 February. After resting for the night and the net day at Hedauville, on the 7th the Hampshires marched off, reaching Beauval at 3pm. The Battalion remained in billets at Beauval until 18 February, training and working in the surrounding countryside. However given the wet weather outdoor training was held up, confining the men to indoor lectures. An inter-platoon Football league was started.

On 18 February 11th Brigade was allocated a new sector, and moved off to Beaudricourt and Oppy, two small villages north of Lucheux. There the Brigade remained until 29 February. They were the first British troops to occupy the area, and were made very welcome by the inhabitants. The officers in particular were please to be able to house their mess in the village. Once they were settled training and Football continued. The last few days of the month, however, were lost to heavy snow that quickly turned into slush.

March brang better weather, and the Battalion were able to get on with training. Much of the local countryside was cultivated and out of bounds, but Lucheux Forest and a wood to the north of Beaudricourt were available for tactical exercises. On 3 March the eagerly-awaited Brigade Sports competition began. The Hampshires Machine Gun team won their event, as did the Lewis Gun Detachment. The Battalion also won the stretcher bearers competition. An icy wind and sleet meant that the rest of the events were postponed until the 5th. The Cross Country event took place, with teams of 200 from each unit – 150 had to finish in order for the Battalion to qualify. The Hampshires won, and were the only unit to have 150 finishers.

On 6 March the Battalion marched from Beaudricourt to Sus-st-Leger, a distance of a mile. The snowfall was extremely heavy. The next day the Brigade Horse Show took place, with the Hampshires finishing third. The Athletics took place on the 9th, with the Hampshires winning the Bayonet Attack and Relay Race contests. Going into the last event – the Tug of War – the Hampshires and Somerset Light Infantry were tied on first place. Each Battalion won one pull each, but on the third and final pull one of the Hampshires fainted, costing them the competition.

After the excitement of the sports events the Battalion carried out a tactical exercise through Lucheux Forest on 13 March. Between 14 and 19 March a rifle range was constructed nearby, along with other training. The Football League was completed, having been won by 5 Platoon. On 19 March the Officers played the Sergeants at Football, resulting in a 2-2 draw. News arrived that the 11th Brigade would soon be going back into the line, but that the Hampshires had been selected to act as Pioneers, employed in trench-digging, tree-felling and road-making. On the 20th the Battalion left for the main Doullens-Arras Road, where the various companies were to be located.

Battalion Headquarters were located at Berles-au-Bois, along with A Company and the Lewis Gun Detachment; B Company and the Battalion transport were based at St. Amand; C Company at La Cauchie, and D Company at Henu. There the Companies set to on various Pioneer work for the rest of the month. The war diary closes March 1916 with the comment that ‘the last few days of this month were really beatiful and reminded one that the winter was at last over’.

In April A Company moved to Bienvillers, and Headquarters moved to Pommier. On 6 April heavy firing could be heard from the direction of the Battalion’s old trenches at Hamel, but stopped as suddenly as it began. On 8 April the Battalion Football team played the 6th Bedfords at Humbercamp, resulting in a 1-1 draw. The next day some officers and men went over to visit the 2nd Hampshires who had recently arrived from Galipoli.

On 23 April the Battalion once again went into the front line east of Fonquevillers. The trenches were absolutely filthy, with much flooding and very few dug outs. There was a good deal more activity than in the Hampshire’s previous tours at Hamel. At stand-to in the morning and evening a Machine Gun at Gommecourt Wood fired at Fonquevillers, but little damage was done. On 28 April Lieutenant V.C. Smith and 2nd Lieutenant J.J. Sims were wounded by a shell. On the 29th Captain Westmorland was wounded by a snipers bullet, and 2nd Lieutenant Sweetenham by shrapnel. On the same day the Battalion suffered bad luck when a 5.9 inch shell landed on a working party in a communication trench, killing four men and wounding three. 30 April found the Battalion in close support, with two companies in Fonquevillers and two Hannescamps.

We can tell from the Battalion’s activities and movements during the Spring of 1916 that the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front was adapting to the routine of static trench warfare. In 1914 and 1915 the Hampshires spen much of their time in the front line, either serving in the trenches or in attack. By the beginning of 1916 the Territorial Force and Kitchener’s New Army were mobilised and arriving, and thus regular units such as the 1st Hampshires were able to take time out of the line for rest, training and sports. Around this time Field Marshal Haig was also planning a Great Offensive to take place later in the year, so the time out from the line spent resting and training was almost certainly with that in mind.

The 1st Hampshires suffered very light casualties in the winter of 1915 and the spring of 1916 compared to their losses at Le Cateau, the Marne, First Ypres, Ploegsteert Wood and Second Ypres. But the summer of 1916 was to bring horrific losses on an unimaginable scale.

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