On the fi rst of July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began with a weeklong British artillery bombardment. The terrifying barrage, comprising more than 1.7 million high-explosive shells, was intended to clear German trenches and destroy barbed-wire entanglements in preparation for a massive assault that the British generals hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.

Since the start of World War I, the belligerents had been unable to break through the lines of trenches that marked the front lines, despite the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers. The First World War had degener-ated into hellish trench warfare, as the Germans, British, and French devoted the full destructive might of the modern industrial nation-state to the extermination of their enemies.

After the allied guns fell silent, thousands of British and French sol-diers clambered from their trenches and advanced across the shrap-nel-torn wasteland of No Man’s Land toward the German trenches. Unfortunately for the British and French troops, the German defend-ers had survived the artillery bombardment, sheltering in deep underground bunkers.

Once the British barrage ended, the German defenders knew an assault was commencing and rushed to man their trenches and set up machine-gun emplacements. A deadly hail of machine-gun bullets decimated the fi rst wave of allied soldiers, advancing in ragged lines across a 25-mile front as the Germans fi red into their ranks. More than 60,000 British troops died on the fi rst day of the battle alone. One British survivor described the gruesome after-math of the initial assault: “The Germans always had a command-ing view of No Man’s Land. The attack had been brutally repulsed.

Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high-water mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fi sh caught in a net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine-gun fi re had done its terrible work” (Coppard 1980, 82).

The Battle of the Somme dragged on for months, but subsequent assaults proved just as costly—and just as futile—as the fi rst. By the time the battle fi nally ended, in November 1916, the British had lost more than 400,000 men, their French allies had lost almost 200,000, and the Germans had lost half a million dead. For the cost of more than a million young soldiers, the British and French had advanced barely seven miles. The Battle of the Somme demonstrates the hor-rors unleashed during World War I, a confl ict that would destroy the German Empire.