The Somme: Remember…and explain

Ian Birchall reviews Neil Faulkner’s new pamphlet, Have You Forgotten Yet? The Truth about the Somme

Wiltshire_Regiment_Thiepval_7_August_1916

I happened to be on Waterloo Station on 1st July. When I saw dozens of young soldiers assembling, I wondered for a moment if our rulers had launched a military coup to reverse the referendum. Later I learned that it was a remarkable commemoration of the first day of the battle of the Somme, organised by artist Jeremy Deller in cooperation with various theatres; 1400 uniformed volunteers appeared in public places throughout Britain.[1] It was a powerful and dignified memorial; there was no triumphalism or national pride about these young men, looking dazed and weary. As the organisers stated: “Each participant represented an individual soldier who was killed on that day. The work is partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.”

In some ways the commemoration made a refreshing contrast with the mood two years ago, when the centenary of the start of the First World War was “celebrated”. Then Education Secretary Michael Gove assured us that “The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war. …And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”[2]

Two years on Gove has been tipped into oblivion by his own party, and the mood is more sombre. In the New Statesman Simon Heffer gave a moving account of his own father who had fought at the Somme as a teenager. Heffer is a right-wing conservative and an admirer of the vile racist Enoch Powell; yet he reported that his father “was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians.”[3]

In some ways the shift in mood reflects how the situation developed a hundred years ago. It is true that in the summer of 1914 there was considerable enthusiasm for the war and many thousands volunteered to fight. Many were indeed eager to fight for “their” country – though there was also a massive ideological offensive by the state, combined with various forms of more or less subtle intimidation; the opposition and resistance to the war has largely been written out of history.[4] But enthusiasm there certainly was.

Two years on and things had changed. The supply of volunteers, large as it seemed, had soon been used up in the continuing horror of trench warfare. By 1916 conscription had been brought in, and the unwilling joined the willing in the front line. It was the battle of the Somme, which lasted from June to November 1916 which marked a turning-point.

We live in an age of slaughter – as I writing this the failed coup in Turkey was already eclipsing the massacre in Nice less than a week earlier, when it was overshadowed by the Munich killings. The killings of a hundred years ago may seem very remote. Yet the sheer scale of the battle of the Somme – over a million casualties, some 40% of them British – means that it cannot easily be forgotten. On just one day, 1st July, 19,000 British soldiers died and another 38,000 were wounded – many horrifically, and left with physical and mental damage that would mar the rest of their lives. And though in some ways the world of 1916 was very different from our own, in others there are features which remind us that it was all too similar.

Millions of words have been written about the Somme. It is good that the sheer horror and brutality are not forgotten. But all too often the events are either glorified, or, almost as bad, seen as “tragedy”, an inexplicable necessity of the human condition. So we should welcome the new pamphlet by Neil Faulkner, Have You Forgotten Yet? The Truth about the Somme,[5] produced by the excellent “No Glory In War”,[6] set up to counter myths and lies about the 1914-1918 war. In a brief and easily readable account, Faulkner attempts to challenge and respond to some recent historians and to explain why and how the horrors of the Somme occurred.

Faulkner insists that this was an “imperialist war”. This is not just a cliché or a bit of Marxist jargon; the ultimate cause of the war was the competing imperial ambitions of the European powers. Britain was concerned to prevent German colonial expansion in North Africa and Latin America, and to exclude Germany from other foreign markets. Moreover, Britain had made a secret deal with France and Russia to carve up the Ottoman Empire. British “victory” in World War I meant that the British Empire was larger in the 1920s than it had ever been before. (That fifty years later it would virtually all be gone is another story – but one that serves to underline the sheer futility of the war.)

That Britain represented a superior model of society, so that its fight against Germany was somehow “progressive”, is a nonsense. As Faulkner points out:

The British could match the Germans atrocity for atrocity. While the Germans were exterminating the Herero people of Namibia, for example, the British in neighbouring South Africa were machine-gunning Zulu farmers to enforce a poll tax designed to drive them off the land and into the gold mines – that is, they were inventing the apartheid system.

One of the main criticisms in the Chilcot report is that Blair failed to foresee the consequences of the invasion of Iraq and to plan for the aftermath. If there had ever been a Chilcot report on the First World War it would have come to very similar conclusions. The politicians who launched the war, backed up by the military and by fawning journalists, believed that the war would be over in a few months at worst. It was a massive miscalculation, and it was not a result of the fact that individual politicians or generals were stupid – although many certainly were – but was deeply rooted in the whole social system.

As Faulkner shows, the course of events was the product of the “industrialisation of war”. The logic of the conflict was a drive to the development of ever more effective weaponry – machine-guns, artillery, planes and tanks. But though both sides became ever more efficient at killing, neither side managed to establish the advantage that would have led to victory. As Faulkner describes:

The achievements of the industrial revolution – the inventions, the machines, the factories,, the mass production, the exponential increases in the capacity to satisfy human need – had been transformed into their opposite: a vast mechanism of death, concentrated in thick bands of mud and blood stretched across the European continent. The result was military stalemate.

The politicians demanded results. So many men, so much materiel, such cost, such heaping up of debt: how come, despite all this, no breakthrough? So the generals ordered a succession of frontal attacks. Each failed, and the generals said it was for lack of firepower, and demanded more. So the politicians ramped up the war economy, increasing the flow of men, machines, and munitions into the blood-grinder.

In particular he notes the horrible irony that as working-class men were sent to the trenches, working-class women were mobilised to make armaments. “Millions of working-class women toiling to make weapons to destroy millions of working-class men – and profits for the arms manufacturers.”

Was there any way out of the stalemate? In February 1916 the Germans launched a major offensive against the French fortress-city at Verdun. The aim, as Faulkner points out, was not to make a breakthrough, but “simply to kill”. Since the French could not afford to lose their position here, they would have to suffer massive losses – as German Field-Marshal Falkenhayn put it, the “forces of France will bleed to death”. In part he got his wish; the battle of Verdun lasted ten months and there were a million casualties.

The British army therefore attempted to relieve the pressure on its French allies by launching a major offensive in the Somme Valley to the north of Verdun. On 1 July  1916 150,000 British soldiers assaulted the German trench system in what was to be the biggest infantry attack in British history. As Faulkner describes:

The German defences on the Somme were made up of consecutive lines of trenches, emplacements, and dug-outs, defended by riflemen, machine-guns, artillery and barbed wire. The defended zone was thousands of yards deep, so even those who got across no-man’s land into the enemy trenches entered a labyrinth of death.

Most did not get that far. The assault waves were so effectively scythed by machine-guns and blasted by artillery that some battalions lost three-quarters of their men within minutes of leaving their trenches ….

It was the British Empire’s bloodiest day. Along most of the front, there had been no gains at all.

Yet the battle continued for almost five months; in the end there were more than a million casualties, about 40% of them British.

Like vampires sucking blood from the corpses, a number of “revisionist” historians – Hew Strachan, Gary Sheffield, Paddy Griffith – have sought to further their careers by arguing that the battle of the Somme actually achieved something. (For Griffith, quite literally, the whole thing was a “game” – he helped to found Wargame Developments, a group consisting of professional military personnel, civil servants, educators, and professional and amateur wargame designers, and was a wargame designer for the Ministry of Defence.)

But as Faulkner shows, there are no reasonable grounds for claiming that the Somme was in any sense a step on the road to British and French victory. The German side was not significantly weakened and the war continued for another two years. The whole operation was a massive and futile waste of human life.

Much of the blame must be attributed to the British military leadership, and in particular to the odious Douglas Haig, overall British commander on the Western Front. As a student at Oxford, Haig had been, like David Cameron and Boris Johnson, a member of the Bullingdon club.[7] Haig had believed the Somme would lead to a breakthrough, and he continued obstinately to let others die for five months while he pursued his increasingly illusory goal. He even complained that the losses sustained by one division were not high enough.

Yet this vile hypocrite would not face up to the consequences of his decisions. He refused to visit front-line medical posts on the grounds that such visits “made him physically ill”. Instead he relayed at second hand lying claims that the wounded were “very cheery, and full of pluck.”

The Liverpool poet Adrian Henri, satirising a popular whisky advertisement (for the very brand which had made the family fortune that launched Haig’s military career) wrote the only epitaph Haig deserves” “DON’T BE VAGUE ­ BLAME GENERAL HAIG”.[8]

But all this has to be understood in terms of the class relations in the British army. As Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas show in their excellent book The Unknown Army[9] (which Verso should be put under very heavy pressure to reissue) the British military feared and hated the working class. Army officers preferred “country lads” to “slum birds”.

Things changed in 1914, when there was initial enthusiasm for the war. Half a million men volunteered in the first six weeks, many of them workers from factories and pits. By 1918 nearly five million industrial workers had entered the army. The army responded with brutal discipline; the death penalty was used widely. One man was shot merely for refusing to put on his cap. But trade union experience was not forgotten, and anti-authoritarian attitudes survived.

Many of those working-class soldiers found themselves at the Somme. The 31st Division for example, was formed of so-called “pals’ battalions”, consisting of friends from the same factories and neighbourhoods. These battalions came from Northern towns such as Accrington, Barnsley, Bradford, Durham, Halifax, Hull, Leeds and Sheffield – they were mill workers, metal workers and miners. They suffered 3600 casualties on the first day.

They were victims, not just of the German “enemy”, but of their real class enemies. As Faulkner shows, it was class that explained the disastrous tactics of the British military:

At zero hour on 1 July, the attackers went over the top. They should have raced across no-man’s-land to reach the enemy trenches before the Germans could emerge from their dugouts and man their parapets.

But General Rawlinson, the British commander on the Somme, did not trust his soldiers. “Neither our new formations nor the old divisions have the same discipline that obtained in our army a year ago,” he claimed. He feared the new working-class volunteers would go to ground and stay put. So they were to be kept on a tight leash. “The assaulting troops must forward at a steady pace in successive lines …”

The German machine-gunners won the race to the parapet on the Somme because of the class character of the British army in 1916. It was a bourgeois army fighting an imperialist war in which upper-class generals distrusted the “workers in uniform” under their command.

But in a sense rather different from that imagined by the revisionist historians, the Somme did mark a turning-point. After the appalling slaughter the mood of 1914 was quite gone, among soldiers at the front and among their friends and relatives at home. The supply of volunteers, impressive as it had been, had come to an end, and no conscription was brought in; but as Faulkner points out “some 200,000 people signed an anti-conscription petition, and within six months, three-quarters of a million men had appealed against their call-up”. By the spring of 1917 200,000 workers were on strike across northern Britain. In the course of the war union membership rose from 4.1 million to 6.5 million.

And the growing discontent at a war that seemed unwinnable on both sides infected the troops at the front. In May-June 1917 there were mutinies in the French army, involving between thirty and eighty thousand men, about which the full truth has not yet come out. In Russia up to two million soldiers deserted, making the October Revolution possible.[10] In the British Army September 1917 saw the mutiny at the Étaples Base, one of the base camps through which troops passed on their way to the front, and the site of the notorious “Bull Ring”, where training was so brutal that some men with unhealed wounds preferred to return to the front than stay there.[11] It will be interesting to see how this is commemorated next year – or if it will be left unmentioned.

As Faulkner shows, the war came to an end not because of the “strategy” of the British and French generals, but because ultimately soldiers and sailors would not go on any longer: “There was nothing inevitable about the fact that German Army buckled first on the Western Front. The popular revolt against the war and the system that had caused it were global.”

Among the many obscene and hypocritical phrases used by those who celebrate war, one of the most disgusting is the tribute to those “who gave their lives” for their country. As Faulkner shows quite clearly in this excellent pamphlet, the great majority of those who died did not “give” their lives – they were robbed of them by venal politicians and inept military leaders.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dbGv1s2IaU

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2532923/Michael-Gove-blasts-Blackadder-myths-First-World-War-spread-television-sit-coms-left-wing-academics.html

[3] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/06/weeks-magazine-divided-britain

[4] See Ken Weller’s Don’t Be a Soldier! for an account of the situation in North London https://libcom.org/history/dont-be-soldier-radical-anti-war-movement-north-london-1914-1918-ken-weller

[5] £4.00, available from http://www.noglory.org/index.php/resources/547-have-you-forgotten-yet-the-truth-about-the-somme

[6] http://www.noglory.org/

[7] H Sebag-Montefiore, Somme : Into the Breach, London, 2016, p. 28.

[8] http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/adrian-henri/great-war-poems/

[9] London, 1985.

[10] On the mutinies see I Birchall, “From Slaughter to Mutiny”, http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2014-from-slaughter-to-mutiny/

[11] For the fullest account see Gill & Dallas, The Unknown Army.

There is one comment

  1. Brian Parkin

    I knew a simple soldier boy
    Who grinned at life in happy joy
    Slept soundly through the lonesome dark
    And whistled early with the lark

    In winter trenches cowed and glum
    With crumps and lice and lack of rum
    He put a bullet in his brain
    No-one spoke of him again

    You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
    Who cheer when soldier lads march by
    Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
    The hell where youth and laughter go

    Siegfried Sassoon, 23 Feb 1918.

    Or…..
    If I were fierce and bald and short of breath
    I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base
    And speed glum heroes up the line to death
    You’d see my puffy petulant face
    Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel
    Reading the roll of honour- ‘Poor young chap’
    I’d say- ‘I used to know his father well;
    Yes, we lost heavily in that last scrap’
    And when the war is done and youth stone dead
    I’ll toddle safely home and die- in bed.

    Sassoon 4th March 1917.

    Liked by 1 person

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