How historians seek to justify the slaughter of Britain's bloodiest battle
A No Glory pamhlet, written by Neil Faulkner, sets the record straight on the Battle of the Somme, which by any rational assessment, represents a world gone mad.
This is the introduction to Neil Faulkner's new pamphlet, Have you forgotten yet? The truth about the Somme, published by No Glory, and available here...
The Somme was Britain's bloodiest battle. It lasted almost five months, from late June to mid November 1916, and cost more than a million casualties, about 40% of them British.
Many of the latter were 'New Army' men – volunteers who had joined up since the start of the war. Many had joined 'pals' battalions' formed of friends from the same factories and neighbourhoods.
Sometimes, when a pals' battalion went into action on the Somme, almost everyone was killed or wounded. When this happened, the local paper back home would list the hundreds of names, and an entire town would be plunged into grief.
None of it made any difference. The front-line advanced a few miles, but the Germans remained as strongly entrenched as ever, and the war continued for another two years.
The Somme has been a symbol of slaughter and stalemate – and therefore of the waste and futility of war – for a century. The revulsion started in the trenches, among the men who fought the battle. Men like war-poet Siegfried Sassoon.
Moving down a long communication trench with his battalion, Sassoon passed
… three very mangled corpses lying in it: a man, short, plump, with turned-up moustache, lying face downward and half sideways with one arm flung up as if defending his head, and a bullet through his forehead. A doll-like figure. Another hunched and mangled, twisted and scorched with many days' dark growth on his face, teeth clenched and grinning lips.
Images of the dead on the Somme lodged in his mind and destroyed his support for the war. Death, which the year before had been 'noble', became 'horrible'. The prospect of victory was now 'more terrible than defeat'.
Writing in his diary after the battle, he quoted Mr Britling, the main character in a new novel by H G Wells:
It is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul; it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species.
Sassoon dreamed of turning his own soldiers against 'the corpse-commanders in red and gold', 'the junkers in Parliament', and 'the yellow-pressmen' who bayed for war. After the Somme, a gulf separated the soldiers who had served at the front from civilians back home fed on lies. 'England looked strange to us returned soldiers,' wrote Robert Graves, another war-poet who fought on the Somme.
We could not understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.
Graves now found himself disgusted by the military:
The training principles had recently been revised. Infantry Training, 1914 laid it down politely that the soldier's ultimate aim was to put out of action or render ineffective the armed forces of the enemy. The War Office no longer considered this statement direct enough for a war of attrition. Troops learned instead that they must HATE the Germans, and KILL as many of them as possible. In bayonet-practice, the men had to make horrible grimaces and utter blood-curdling yells as they charged. The instructors' faces were set in a permanent ghastly grin. 'Hurt him, now! In at the belly! Tear his guts out!' they would scream as the men charged the dummies.
A new generation of academics is at work 'revising' the history of the First World War. They tell us that 'the lions led by donkeys' stereotype of British generalship is false; that the British Army learned to fight on the Somme; that the battle was part of a process of attrition to break German resistance; that this was necessary because Germany was a threat to world peace and the balance of power; and also that Germany was an exceptionally aggressive, militaristic, and autocratic imperial power.
This academic revisionism is supported by Tory politicians. They want to use the centenary of the First World War to celebrate 'Britishness' and what they call 'our national spirit'. They want to use Britain's role in the First World War to justify imperialism and war today. The popular view – that the war was a collective human tragedy – must be rejected as naïve and unsophisticated.
The revisionist perspective is deeply flawed. It narrows the view to the machinations of statesmen and the manoeuvres of generals. It ignores the wider context and takes as given a dysfunctional world of competing corporations and rival empires. It accepts uncritically a geopolitical system ruled by bankers, arms manufacturers, and militarists.
This pamphlet sets the record straight. It stands with the victims of imperialism and war – with the workers and peasants of Europe, and with the colonial people of Africa and Asia. It argues that the Somme, by any rational assessment, represents a world gone mad.
Have you forgotten yet? The truth about the Somme, is published by No Glory, and available here...
Source: No Glory in War
Dr Neil Faulkner is a leading First World War archaeologist. His latest book is Lawrence of Arabia’s War: The Arabs, The British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WW1. He is also author of the best-selling pamphlet, No Glory: The real history of world war one
Siegfried Sassoon's Aftermath read by Jeremy Irons
The title of the No Glory pamphlet, Have you forgotten yet? is taken from Siegfried Sassoon's poem Aftermath, written in 1919 and read in this video by Jeremy Irons