The Somme - From Defeat to Victory is a BBC documentary film made to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The film was produced in conjunction with the Open University and was intended to go beyond the standard histories that end with the British defeat at the end of the first day to demonstrate how the British learnt from their failures and developed radical new tactics that would help the allies to win the war. The film mixes dramatic re-enactments and archive footage augmented by readings from the diaries, letters and reports of the men involved.
The 16th (Service) Battalion (2nd Salford), Lancashire Fusiliers was one of the Pals Battalions that had been created to allow friends and colleagues to fight side-by-side. On 21 June 1916, Cpl. Stephen Sharples quells the fears of Pvt. Walter Fiddes and best friend Lnc-Cpl. Thomas Mellor that the war would be over before they could see action with the announcement that their battalion would soon take part in the big push. The three men were among the volunteers that had joined up in 1914 in response to Lord Kitchener’s call to make up the bulk of the British Army. In response to pleas for relief from the besieged French troops at Verdun an Anglo-French diversionary attack is to be launched at the River Somme. German battalion commander Gen. Baron Franz von Soden relies on the experience of veterans such as Cpl. Friedrich Hinkel against the biggest British military deployment in the war thus far. The British go over-the-top at 7.30 am on 1 July expecting little resistance after 7 days artillery bombardment of enemy positions but are met by machinegun fire within minutes.
Cpl. Hinkel faces the 36th (Ulster) Division, which is quickly forced into retreat while 500 yards away Cpt. Thomas Tweed leads the 2nd Salford Pals’ B-Company in an attack on the Thiepval Plateau that sees the death of Mellor. The Ulster division regroup to take the stronghold of the Schwaben Redoubt and Maj-Gen. Sir Edward Percival recommends committing the reserves to secure the position and take Thiepval from the north but corps commander Lt.-Gen. Sir Thomas Morland rejects the new plan. With two-thirds of his company dead or wounded Tweed takes refuge for 2-hours behind a bank in no-man’s land. Sharples disappears attempting to capture the enemy machine gun nest and Fiddis is wounded taking a message to battalion requesting withdrawal. Moorland, some 3-miles from the front, follows the failure of the first and second attacks on Thiepval by sticking to the battle plan and ordering a third. The more adaptive German commanders retake the Redoubt rescuing Hinkel’s position and forcing the Ulstermen into a bloody retreat.
The bloodiest day in British military history ends with 19,240 dead and 37,000 wounded devastating communities like Salford but this was just the beginning of a battle that would last for 4-months. The British learn from their failures and over the following month they make steady gains along the front by removing inflexible commanders like Morland and delegating command decisions to officers on the spot such as Brig-Gen. Herbert Shoubridge who commands the September 26 attack on Thiepval spearheaded by Lt-Col. Frank Maxwell V.C. Artillery launches the innovative creeping barrage with the 12th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment following immediately behind to easily overrun the first German trenches but failing to keep up Maxwell’s men comes under fire from Infantry Regiment 180. The slaughter is however averted when British tanks take to the battlefield for the first time forcing the terrified German’s into retreat only to be ditched and disabled a short time later.
Soden is distracted at this key moment by an official visit from the Kaiser’s adjutant Gen. Hans von Plessen and when communication lines are cut he is rendered helpless. Meanwhile the British General’s were kept up to date reports by artillery observers and air observations allowing them to order re-bombardment of enemy held positions. Maxwell had moved forward with his men to set up a command post at the Thiepval Chateau from where he makes key tactical decisions. With the heavily depleted infantry rapidly running out of officers it is left to the innovation of men from the ranks like Pvt. Frederick Edwards to secure a British victory. Plessen waits for six hours at Soden’s HQ for news of the attack by which time it is too late to order a counterattack and Thiepval is lost. The victory allows the British to secure all their objectives from July 1 and the French at Verdun are able to launch a counter-attack to push back the Germans. Thiepval is now the site of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme commemorating the 70,000 of the 432,000 British casualties with no known grave including Sharples, Mellor and Fiddes.