Friday morning saw a nationwide two-minute silence at 7.28am, the time when the British, Commonwealth and French forces went over the top a century ago on the first day of The Battle of the Somme.
After this silence, the emotion and poignancy of the #Wearehere tribute evoked a truly human response. Created by Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris, it was a ‘human memorial’ of the battle, sending silent ‘ghost’ soldiers into cities and towns.
Young men, immediately conspicuous because they were dressed in the dull-green uniforms of World War I mixed with people going about their Friday morning business. They were just there: not speaking, not even moving much. Waiting, expressionless, for who knows what.
A small crowd gathered, taking photographs. A woman caught the eye of one of the men. She tried to speak to him. Without speaking or dropping his gaze, he pulled a small card out of his pocket and handed it to her. It gave the name, rank, age and battalion of a solider who died at the Somme, as well as their place of death.
There was no narrative. They were a presence. Shortly afterwards, the men, as if by some unspoken sign, began to sing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here – a song of weariness and resignation that was sung in the trenches, and they moved off.
Fought between 1 July and 18 November 1916, the Battle of the Somme was one of the defining events of the First World War. It was the largest battle on the Western front. It saw over one million wounded, killed or missing on both sides of the battlefield – affecting the lives of millions more back home.
There were 19,240 British dead as night fell on the Somme frontline on 1 July 1916, a human catastrophe on an unthinkable scale. The British plan had been that heavy artillery rained down on the enemy defences for days beforehand would make it possible for the British to walk, starting at 7.30am, across no man’s land to take German trenches in time for a good lunch.
The plan failed. German defences were far better than anticipated. German troops had hidden safely in deep dugouts during shelling the previous week and emerged quickly, catching the Allies by surprise and shooting them down in vast numbers.
The Battle of the Somme continued for another 140 days as Britain’s attempts to consolidate its gains quickly degenerated into a series of bloody piecemeal fights for scraps of woods and villages. There was an average British casualty rate of 3,000 a day. Finally, winter weather brought it all to a sodden halt on November 18. The net gain was a strip of land twenty miles wide and six miles deep.
Over the years, it has become the defining symbol of the First World War – of horror, stupidity, and futility, a pessimistic narrative bubbled up through the memoirs of old soldiers and the provocations of writers and artists. A German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, put it succinctly: Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.
Its key moments – the charge ‘over the top’, the waves of men cut down, the stupid optimism and the shattering disillusion – are the central images of the conflict. Look no further than the moving final sequence of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which the protagonists charge into the camera and into nothingness. The battle is never named, but it is unmistakably a picture of first day of the Battle of the Somme.
On 1 July 1916, as cricket was being played in Accrington, 584 men from the town were dead or wounded on the Somme. Several British ‘pals battalions’ – units made up of men all from the same local areas – suffered losses that were devastating for their communities at home
The Accrington Pals is the best remembered of the battalions raised in Lancashire in the early months of the War back in 2014 in response to Kitchener’s call for a volunteer army. Groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington and neighbouring towns enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinct local identity.
A month after the outbreak of war, the Accrington Observer & Times of 8 September 1914 reported that the War Office had accepted an offer made by the mayor of Accrington to raise a complete battalion. When recruitment began on 14 September, 104 men were accepted in the first three hours. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together; by 24 September the Accrington battalion had reached a full strength of 1,100 men.
The Pals were ordered to France, to take part in the attack on the Somme, the objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre, and form a defensive flank facing north. In the early evening of 30 June, the 11th East Lancashires left camp at Warnimont Wood for an arduous seven-mile trek to the trenches of Serre. At 2.40am on Saturday 1 July, they reached the front line trenches.
At 6.30am, the British artillery commenced its final furious bombardment of the German front line. At 7.20am, Captain Tough led the Pal’s first of the battalion’s four waves 100 yards into No Man’s Land. A few minutes later, the second wave followed, led by Captain Livesey.
At 7.30am, the leading waves rose and walked in line towards the German positions. Machine gun and rifle fire immediately tore into the advancing lines of infantry. One British observer likened the lines of dead to swathes of cut corn at harvest time. Incredibly, groups of Pals defied the machine gun fire, threaded their way through the barbed wire and dropped into the German front line.
All was in vain. Behind, the third and fourth waves suffered dreadful losses before reaching No Man’s Land. The leading companies were cut down, some of the Pals – their officers killed or wounded – pressed on towards Serre, never to be seen again. The remaining survivors in the German front line, bereft of reinforcements, were forced to withdraw. By 8am, the battle for Serre was effectively over.
In its first major action, the Accrington Pals battalion suffered devastating losses. When the roll was called by RSM Stanworth that evening, less than one hundred men answered their names. Records show that out of 720 soldiers who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. The Accrington Pals were effectively wiped out in a matter of minutes.
Four members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry – drummer Spencer John Bent; Private William Young; Second Lieutenant Alfred Victor Smith; Second Lieutenant Basil Arthur Horsfall.
As The Somme passes over the horizon of living memory, I was struck by a number of thoughts from the commemoration of that first day of battle around the humanity of teamwork. It was the camaraderie that struck me as the lifeblood to the cohorts of soldiers. It is what fuels that spirit of unity and togetherness at times of extreme challenge, and what must have been distress, creating a palpable connection.
However, there were a number of other thoughts I had reflecting on the battle, which I think we can take into our everyday business thinking.
Relationships mean everything During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Hardships create strong bonds within a team, which in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more. Trusting one another will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives. Simply put, interaction fuels action and a collective resolve, mental strength in a crisis.
Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment Imagine the military briefings at 7.28am on 1 July 2016. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics, and while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest-ranking officer makes the decision. In business, one bad decision may not mean ‘life or death’, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your business.
Every situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.
No one is left behind Wounded and dead soldiers were carried on comrade’s backs and inside crowded vehicles to safety, on to a proper burial, although the names of 72,000 dead and missing soldiers at the Tiepval Memorial shows the scale of the deaths at The Somme.
Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other. Everyone crosses the line together. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone’s got your back. Pulling each other together and watching for each other’s success.
Leading from the front Many of the videos show officers leading the charge out of the trenches and going over the top first. In the Somme, some 17% of the officers were lost, refuting the criticism that they didn’t stand in line. They were often the first to die on the charge up the field. This was literally about leading from the front, and in such circumstances, decision-making isn’t a democracy – the leader is in charge and their behaviour shows this.
Camaraderie In business as in the military, teams have a well-honed sense of camaraderie that helps team members read one another’s signals, move as one, and watch each other’s backs. This sense of commitment and connection is an essential component of effective teams. The more people value their relationships with one another, the better they will perform for one another and thus for the organisation.
We can only imagine the camaraderie that existed in The Accrington Pals, a collaborative and collegiate culture that got things done, working as one. Camaraderie is about creating a common sense of purpose and the mindset that we have a common goal and shared destiny.
Trust Trust in business is an essential ingredient for an organisation to function, a vital element in the emotional contract between leaders and their co-workers, and between colleagues. Without trust, an organisation is morally bankrupt, as the lack of trust eventually manifests itself in customer relationships. Imagine standing in the trenches at The Somme. The need to trust everyone around you, and for them to trust you, to perform and support the effort, must have been absolute.
The 100th anniversary year of The Somme reminds us of the loss of so many ordinary men and their sacrifice, and the devastation suffered by the Pals battalions. The stories show the soldiers worked and lived together, creating an atmosphere and culture of unity, underpinned by empathy, peer camaraderie and trust.
Each aspect of the relationship between the solders offers in their own way insights in terms of how humanity and emotional engagement pervade even the most abhorrent environment. If you replicate the qualities and culture seen in 1916 in your business today, they will effectively leverage collective talents into strategies that will elevate your business performance beyond your competition. #Wearehere, who would have thought that ‘Pals’ would resonate with legacies for business 100 years later?