Battle of the Somme: the horrific epitome of the first world war
Thousands of men who went over the top that morning thought they would meet little resistance. 57,000 were dead or wounded by the end of the day.
One of my Xmas presents was The Great War by Joe Sacco. It is a wonderful piece of art, a 24 page panorama of July 1 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Originally inspired by a pull out book of the Manhattan skyline, it also draws on the Bayeux Tapestry that depicts the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is a series of connected tableaux which begin with General Haig walking in the grounds of his chateau behind the lines and progress through ever darkening scenes to the deaths and mayhem of injured and dying on the battle field.
The Somme is perhaps the epitome of the horror of the First World War, at least from the point of view of Britain. It was a major, planned onslaught against German trenches that was organised with industrial precision. Railways were built, cables laid, trenches dug in order to prepare for an offensive, which was mean to destroy the German defences and allow the British to gain a key advantage which would end the war. A huge week long bombardment of artillery was planned which would knock out most of the enemy, crucially take out their machine gun posts and allowing the British army to take over virtually empty trenches.
It was a total failure; the bombardment was 'impressive mainly for its noise' in the words of Adam Hochschild, who wrote the booklet accompanying the panorama. Many of the shells were duds, and two thirds were shrapnel, which was fairly useless in destroying barbed wire or machine gun emplacements.
The thousands of men who went over the top that morning therefore faced barrages of machine gun fire from troops from whom they thought they would meet little resistance.
The figures are stark: of 120,000 troops who went into battle on July 1, more than 57,000 were dead or wounded by the end of the day.
Sacco's book is the perfect antidote to Michael Gove, UK secretary of state for education. Sacco's drawings and Hochschild's text give an honest portrait, which stresses the humanity of those involved, but the facts and images cannot help but point to the conclusion that this was a battle which should never have taken place.
Gove's new year message to the nation, on the other hand, has been to heap praise on those like Haig who planned and executed the battle and tell us that this slaughter was all worth it, and that although so many died, they did so for a noble cause. He castigates the television comedy series Blackadder and the film and theatre production Oh What a Lovely War for painting a picture of the war that is over critical of the generals.
But is it correct to understand the Somme as simply a terrible accident? Surely not. Shouldn't army officers planning battles know that shrapnel would be ineffective, know that the targets had not been hit, know that there were still machine gun emplacements still intact? Even if they did not know they must have known this within minutes, as soldiers fell dead before their eyes? Should they not then have prevented further deaths?
The British generals, like their French, Russian and German counterparts, regarded the astonishingly high level of deaths on the front as a necessary part of their strategy. Bogged down in treanch warfare, they devised ever more ambitious plans to break through, all of which involved huge human sacrifice, and which barely resulted in any capture of positions on one side or the other. They planned endlessly for cavalry breakthroughs that didn't come, so committed were they to the methods of previous wars.
The First World War was able to utilise the products of mass industrialised societies – rail, phones, artillery, transport - which turned them into killing fields on an industrial scale. That's why the death tolls were quite unlike previous European wars, and why the enthusiasm that many had at the beginning of the war turned into despair, misery and rebellion.
Michael Gove is wrong to claim that most went to war because they were fighting for democracy. The volunteers -- many of them anyway pressured by employers to sign up -- dried up as the war went on, and so conscription was introduced. It was the attempted introduction of this conscription into Ireland which gave further impetus to the movement for independence. Desertion and 'cowardice', often the manifestation of terrible fears and mental injuries at the front, were met with brutal executions. Those who opposed war or resisted conscription were harassed, imprisoned and persecuted.
In trying to rehabilitate the First World War as a jolly British triumph of democracy, Gove employs two further arguments. He claims that very large numbers of officers died in the war, and that therefore they were not blundering top brass but heroes. It is true that many officers died, sometimes disproportionately so, as they were in the trenches and often leading over the top. They obviously showed great courage. But these tended to be the more junior officers, products of public schools and the university system. They were not by and large the generals who directed from behind the scenes.
Many of these same officers came to hate and bitterly oppose the war. Gove conveniently doesn't mention the war poets whose words echo down the generations with a sense of indictment of, and, in the words of one, the pity of war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon turned the jingoism and patriotism of the politicians into a critique of the blood sacrifice in poems like Dulce and Decorum Est, Strange Meeting and Aftermath. The writer Robert Graves describes the horror of war in his best selling memoir Goodbye to All That.
It was the testimony of men like this, and women like Vera Brittain who nursed the injured, who created view of the war as a senseless and pointless sacrifice. Unlike Gove and his armchair soldiers, they had experienced it at first hand.
Gove's other argument is that this war was against German expansionism and dictatorial methods. It is easy to paint Germany like this given its subsequent history of Nazism, but it is dishonest. Germany could only dream of an empire like that possessed by the British, which stretched across the world. Many of those who died in the British army had no vote, and would not receive on until 1918. The Empire citizens from countries like India, many of whom died in France, had no democratic rights at all. One of its closest allies was the repressive and autocratic Russian Empire, whose Tsar was overthrown by revolution three years into the war. On the other hand, Germany's socialist party and workers' movement was the strongest in Europe.
It was overwhelmingly the poor of Europe who died on the battlefields. Gove should not be allowed to appropriate their memories for his own agenda of promoting nationalism and war.
by Siegfried Sassoon
Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.
Lindsey German's latest book is How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women