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Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Battle of the Somme
by Batocchio

The eleventh of November is primarily known as Veterans Day in the United States, but it's also known as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day. These holidays typically dovetail well, but Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the "Great War," is the part I've been pondering most. Veterans Day honors military veterans, which is only right, but Armistice Day seems to ask us to reflect on war and peace.

Americans tend to remember the Second World War much better that the First, and the Second is far more heavily featured in American feature films, TV shows, books and documentaries. The U.S. entered the First World War fairly late, we weren't directly involved in some of its most horrific events, plus the Second had more moral clarity; we can feel like the good guys. (Stud Terkel's great oral history of that war is called "The Good War" in quotation marks because although many of the interviewees justifiably feel proud of their service, no war is truly "good.") I do wish as a country we considered more aspects of the First World War, including the lessons of the Battle of the Somme, which started a little over one hundred and one years ago. As the BBC explains:

The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. For five months the British and French armies fought the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front. The aims of the battle were to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German Army. However, the Allies were unable to break through German lines. In total, there were over one million dead and wounded on all sides.

The battle is much more strongly etched into British memories because its start on July 1st, 1916, entailed the highest single-day death count of British soldiers in history. British decisions were criticized at the time (by Winston Churchill, among others) and are still discussed. The British had initiated a massive military recruitment effort, led by Secretary of State of War Lord Kitchener, but because of British losses, the "Kitchener divisions" were rushed to battle with relatively little training and often short on equipment. For the Battle of the Somme, the British plan was basically for artillery to destroy German barbed wire so that British soldiers could advance from their trenches to take over the German ones. British military historian John Keegan sets the scene in his 1976 book, The Face of Battle:

French small-unit tactics, perfected painfully over two years of warfare, laid emphasis on the advance of small groups by rushes, one meanwhile supporting another by fire – the sort of tactics which were to become commonplace in the Second World War. This sophistication of traditional 'fire and movement' was known to the British but was thought by the staff to be too difficult to be taught to the Kitchener divisions. They may well have been right. But the alternative tactical order they laid down for them was over-simplified: divisions were to attack on front of about a mile, generally with two brigades 'up' and one in reserve. What this meant, in terms of soldiers on the ground, was that two battalions each of a thousand men, forming the leading wave of the brigade, would leave their front trenches, using scaling-ladders to climb the parapet, extend their soldiers in four lines, a company to each, the men two to three yards apart, the lines about fifty to a hundred yards behind each other, and advance to the German wire. This they would expect to find flat, or at least widely gapped, and, passing through, they would then jump down into the German trenches, shoot, bomb or bayonet any who opposed them, and take possession. Later the reserve waves would pass through and advance to capture the German second position by similar methods.

The manoeuvre was to be done slowly and deliberately, for the men were to be laden with about sixty pounds of equipment, their re-supply with food and ammunition during the battle being one of the thing the staff could not guarantee. In the circumstances, it did indeed seem that success would depend upon what the artillery could do for the infantry, both before the advance and once it was under way.
p. 230 (1988 edition)

If there's an image associated with the First World War, it's trench warfare. If there's a specific weapon, it might be mustard gas, but more likely the machine gun, used on a greater scale than ever before. As Keegan explains:

The machine-gun was to be described by Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, one of the great enragés of military theory produced by the war, as 'concentrated essence of infantry,' by which he meant his readers to grasp that its invention put into the hands of one man the fire-power formerly wielded by forty. Given that a good rifleman could fire only fifteen shots a minute, to a machine-gunner's 600, the point is well made. But, as Fuller would have no doubt conceded if taxed, a machine-gun team did not simply represent the equivalent of so many infantrymen compressed into a small compass. Infantrymen, however well-trained and well-armed, however resolute, however ready to kill, remain erratic agents of death. Unless centrally directed, they will choose, perhaps badly, their own targets, will open and cease fire individually, will be put off their aim by the enemy's return of fire, will be distracted by wounding of those near them, will yield to excitement, will fire high, low or wide. It was to overcome influences and tendencies of this sort – as well as to avert the danger of accident in closely packed ranks – that seventeeth- and eighteenth-century armies had put such effort into perfecting volley by square, line and column. . . .

The machine-gunner is best thought of, in short, as a sort of machine-minder, whose principal task was to feed ammunition belt into the breech, something which could be done while the gun was in full operation, top up the fluid in the cooling jacket, and traverse the gun from left to right and back again within the limits set by its firing platform. Traversing was achieved by a technique known, in the British Army, as the 'two inch tap': by constant practice, the machine-gunner learned to hit the side of the breech with the palm of his hand just hard enough to move the muzzle exactly two inches against the resistance of the traversing screw. A succession of 'two-inch taps' first on one side of the breech until the stop was reached, then on the other, would keep in the air a stream of bullets so dense that no one could walk upright across the front of the machine-gunner's position without being hit – given, of course, that the gunner had set his machine to fire low and that the ground as devoid of cover. The appearance of the machine-gun, therefore, had not so much disciplined the act of killing – which was what seventeenth-century drill had done – as mechanized or industrialized it.
pp. 232–234

On the first day of battle, July 1st, 1916, the British artillery started its job, and the British soldiers, many of them relatively untrained, advanced:

Most soldiers were encountering heavy fire within seconds of leaving the trenches. The 10th West Yorks, attacking towards the ruined village of Fricourt in the little valley of the River Ancre, had its two follow-up companies caught in the open by German machine-gunners who emerged from their dug-outs after the leading waves has passed over the top and onward. They were 'practically annihilated and lay shot down in waves'. In the neighbouring 34th Division, the 5th and 16th Royal Scots, two Edinburgh Pals' Battalions contained a high proportion of Mancunians, were caught in flank by machine-gun firing from the ruins of La Boiselle and lost several hundred men in a few minutes, thought the survivors marched on to enter German lines. Their neighbouring battalions, the 10th Lincolns and 11th Suffolks (the Grimsby Chums and the Cambridge Battalion) were caught by the same flanking fire; of those who pressed on to the German trenches, some, to quote the official history 'were burnt to death by flame throwers as [they] reached the [German] parapet'; others were caught again by machine-gun fire as they entered the German position. An artillery officer who walked across later came on 'line after line of dead men lying where they had fallen'. Behind the Edinburghs, the four Tyneside Irish battalions of the 103rd Brigade underwent a bizarre and pointless massacre. The 34th Division's commander had decided to move all twelve of his battalions simultaneously towards the German front, the 101st and 102nd Brigades from the front trench, the 103rd from the support line (called the Tara-Usna Line, in a little re-entrant know to the brigade as the Avoca Valley – all three names allusions to Irish beauty spots celebrated by Yeats and the Irish literary nationalists). This decision gave the last brigade a mile of open ground to cover before it reached its own front line, a safe enough passage if the enemy's machine-guns had been extinguished, otherwise a funeral march. A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish (26th Northumberland Fusiliers) describes how it was: 'I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the "patter, patter" of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I'd gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.' Not all went down so soon. A few heroic souls pressed on to the British front line, crossed no-man's-land and entered the German trenches. But the brigade was destroyed; one of its battalions had lost over 600 men killed or wounded, another, 500; the brigadier and two battalions commanders had been hit, a third lay dead. Militarily, the advance had achieved nothing. Most of the bodies lay on the territory British before the battle had begun.
pp. 248–249

As for the overall results:

The first day of the Somme had not been a complete military failure. But it had been a human tragedy. The Germans, with about sixty battalions on the British Somme front, though about forty in the line, say about 35,000 soldiers, had had killed or wounded 6,000. Bad enough; but it was in the enormous disparity between their losses and the British that the weight of the tragedy lies: the German 180th Regiment lost 280 men on 1 July out of about 3,000; attacking it, the British had lost 5,121 out of 12,000. In all the British had lost about 60,000, of whom 21,000 had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps the first minutes. 'The trenches,' wrote Robert Kee fifty years later, 'were the concentration camps of the First World War'; and though the analogy is what an academic reviewer would call unhistorical, there is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of 1 July, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered across their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire. Accounts of the Somme produce in readers and audiences much the same range of emotions as do descriptions of the running of Auschwitz – guilty fascination, incredulity, horror, disgust, pity and anger – and not just from the pacific and tender-hearted; not only from the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethargy, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly towards the foot of the page; but also from professional soldiers. Anger is the response which the story of the Somme most commonly evokes among professionals. Why did the commanders not do something about it? Why did they let the attack go on? Why did they not stop one battalion following in the wake of another to join it in death?
pp. 259–260

It's a striking account of senseless, unnecessary death. (It's stuck with me since I first read it ages ago.) The battle grew to be criticized, but it took a while for the public to get a fuller picture. The newpaper Times of London, published by Lord Northcliffe, consistently painted a rosy view of the British soldier's life. As Paul Fussell recounts in The Great War and Modern Memory:

It is no surprise to find Northcliffe's Times on July 3, 1916, reporting the first day's attack on the Somme with an airy confidence which could not help but deepen the division between those on the spot and those at home, "[Commander] Sir Douglas Haig telephoned last night," says the Times, "that the general situation was favorable," and the account goes on to speak of "effective progress," nay, "substantial progress." It soon ascends to the rhetoric of heroic romance: "There is a fair field and no favor, and [at the Somme] we have elected to fight out our quarrel with the Germans and to give them as much battle as they want." In short, "everything has gone well"; "we got our first thrust well home, and there is every reason to be sanguine as to the result." No wonder communication failed between the troops and those who could credit prose like that as factual testimony.
p. 106 (in the Illustrated Edition)

Fussell presents another familiar story – a government that doesn't want the public to know what happened in a war (and at least one media outlet happy to play along). Some Americans might be reminded of U.S. government efforts to suppress the news about the Vietnam War and Walter Cronkite's 1968 public commentary that the war was a stalemate and the U.S should negotiate an end. But similar dynamics play out with many wars.

It makes perfect sense that the Battle of the Somme remains a more powerful event for the British than for Americans, or even the French or Germans; it's one of many events that shape my personal thoughts on Armistice Day, but that mix will be different for everyone. But if contemplating Armistice Day entails any lessons, for me they're fairly straightforward: some wars may be necessary. Others definitely aren't. The same goes for battles; military history is full of disastrous decisions. If you must go to war, prepare well. Going to war should require a high threshold; it shouldn't be done capriciously. Distrust anyone who wants to go to war. Challenge anyone who tries bully others to go to war and attacks their patriotism or lies or offers frequently shifting rationales. Discuss matters of war and peace honestly and openly as a democracy. Obtain as much accurate information as possible and question suspect accounts (and certainly challenge outright propaganda). Treat veterans well, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. Listen to their stories. Remember that the best way to support current military personnel is to avoid sending them into an unnecessary war or sending them into a pointless battle or poorly preparing them. Challenge anyone who tries to pretend that either skepticism about going to war or questioning a specific war-related decision shows a lack of "support for the troops." Resist authoritarian bullying.

In our current day, it's worth remembering that although some veterans go on to become fine public servants, others become political hacks. Generals may serve as wise counsel for presidents, or may agitate for nuclear war, as Curtis LeMay did to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As political figures, generals may act as a sobering influences, but they can also be authoritarian bullies who lie and slander for attempted political gain, and misunderstand or disdain democracy. They have a voice, but undue deference to them can be dangerous.

Thanks to all who has served on this Veterans Day. As for Remembrance Day and Armistice Day, in 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.