90 years ago today witnessed the commencement of the battle of the Somme in 1916, in which more men were killed in the first two days than America lost in the entire 12-year Vietnam War. Through the course of that one battle, more British men were slaughtered than the combined number of American fatalities in both World Wars I and II, such was its terrible scale. In the U.K. and in much of Europe "remembrance-day" refers to WWI, "The Great War", as much as any other. Billed "The war to end all wars", it was to prove hardly that, though it erased much of an entire generation of European young men. There were the "pals" brigades, where all the young men of a village would join-up collectively. For some communities this proud send-off was the last they ever saw of their "boys". Letters from a commanding officer, reassuring shattered parents that "...he felt no pain..." were all that came back from the killing fields.
Lined up according to traditional battlefield strategies, and led by cavalry officers, the blood of nations was poured into conditions of such horror and atrocity as to fall beyond our imaginings. "Lions led by donkeys", was how the German soldiers referred to their British counterpart. "Rat food", was how I heard an old man describe his comrades, on a recent documentary. There are now only three veterans left alive from WW1, including just one who had fought in the Somme, a man aged 110.
The Battle of the Somme was planned as a joint French and British operation, being devised by the French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre, and meeting with the approval of General Sir Douglas Haig, who was the British Expeditionary Force commander. Intent both on a gain in territory and an assault on German manpower, at first Joffre intended to use mainly French soldiers. However, the German attack on Verdun in February 1916 turned the Somme offensive into a large-scale British attack. Haig adopted responsibility for the operation and with the help of General Sir Henry Rawlinson devised his own plan of attack. The central component of Haig's strategy was a preliminary eight-day bombardment which he thought sufficient to completely destroy the German forward defenses. As it turned out, neither the German barbed-wire nor the concrete bunkers, which provided protection for the German soldiers, were destroyed.
Haig used 27 divisions of men (750,000 men in all) against the German front-line of 16 divisions. This meant that the Germans were able to exploit their good defensive positions on higher ground. When the British and French troops attacked at 7.30 on the morning of the 1st July (90 years ago today), the BEF suffered 58,000 casualties (a third of them killed), the greatest loss in any single day of the British Army's history. Remarkably, Haig was not disheartened by these heavy losses and ordered General (Sir Henry) Rawlinson to continue the offensive against the German front-line. A night attack on 13th July did achieve a temporary breakthrough but German reinforcements arrived in time to close the gap. Haig believed that a war of attrition would break German morale, and that they were at the point of collapse. He was wrong.
It was bad winter weather with heavy snow that finally compelled Haig to call an end to the Somme offensive which since the 1st July, had incurred 420,000 casualties upon the British. The French lost nearly 200,000 and it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000.
My grandfather would never talk about the war. He died aged just 60, when I was a year old, so this is among the few scraps that I know him from, according to what my father and grandmother told me. He joined-up at 14, in 1914 - a tall boy claiming to be 18, the minimum age for active service. Perhaps they believed him or just didn't ask too many questions. During his military career of four years, he was gassed with chlorine, shot and blown-up. The latter not fatally, but his right arm was partially severed, and in the field hospital he pleaded with the surgeon not to amputate as was common practice under those conditions, and so he was sent home as an invalid, the broken tendons having been repaired with "silver" wires.
"Silver wires" were how my grandmother described them, I suppose they may have been made from platinum, to provide an inert framework around which new tissue might mend. He also served in the Royal Flying Corp (the precursor to the Royal Air Force - RAF), as a "bomber". The plane was kitted out with hand grenades hanging from meat-hooks over its sides and would be flown over the German positions; the bomber would pull the pin out, and aim by hand to drop the grenades onto the enemy below. Returning from one such sortie, the plane lurched and my grandfather fell through its underside, which was flimsily patched from canvas and "bacon boxes". He landed in a tree and survived with just a few scratches. He was a resourceful man who managed to avoid "trench-rot" (gangrene of the feet caused by continual immersion for days or weeks in cold mud) by filling his boots with the grease they used to oil the wheels of the carts, drawn by horses, upon which most supplies of food, water and ammunition were transported. It was horse-power too that pulled the field guns; these animals frequently suffering a similar fate to their human comrades. My grandfather suffered from shell-shock (post-traumatic stress disorder), and probably his war-shattered nerves couldn't bear the stress of working all hours of his spare time to qualify as a "City of London" accountant, and the high-powered job this proved to be. The outcome was that although he was very successful for a number of years, he suffered a nervous breakdown aged 38.
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (who was a Welshman), are defined in English poetry among the "war poets". Their lines portray some of the most emotionally shattering images that could be expressed, delineating collective horrors in terms of the suffering of individuals. Underpinning but almost overwhelming this is the knowledge that the men writing these words were only too aware that all of this misery and loss was utterly pointless; the futility of WWI being enshrouded back home in terms of "Honour" and "For my country", as transparently as the "Emperor's clothes".
Sassoon wrote, "Does it matter, losing your sight? There's such splendid work for the blind, And people will always be kind...."; surely among the most bitter ever written of ironies.
To me, Wilfred Owen trumps even this and opens the ironic wound still deeper in his Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori ("It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country").
This poem makes especially poignant reading given that Owen was shot to death at the age of 25 only a week before the armistice of the Great War, and describes an unfortunate Tommy who has fatally breathed in mustard gas (2,2'-dichlorodiethyl sulphide):
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I dedicate this article to my grandfather, Ronald Victor Rhodes, who was awarded the Military Medal in 1919, and all the other very brave men - English, German and of all nationalities - who have sacrificed so much "pro patria" in all wars.