“The protagonists of 1914,” historian Christopher Clark wrote, “were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” Sleepwalking, alas, is also an apt description of much of the military command of the Great War unleashed by European imperial rivalry; and is, incredibly, an almost literal description of the British Army as it confidently began the bloodiest day in its history: July 1, 1916.
Just as the war itself was, it was commonly assumed, ‘be over by Christmas,’ so the battle of the Somme seemed, from Allied Headquarters, likely to finally ‘turn the tide’ against Germany, breaking the atrocious stalemate that had reduced the French to the verge of collapse at Verdun and grievously depleted ‘Kitchener’s Army,’ the extraordinary volunteer force largely deployed as battalions of ‘Pals,’ men from the same towns and trades.
Victory, the men were assured, had been prepared by an artillery bombardment of unprecedented, surely unsurvivable intensity. For this reason, heavy pack was issued for the long march ahead, and strict orders were issued to ‘make haste slowly’: to walk upright and slowly, accompanied by bagpipers and officers dribbling footballs, to the devastated enemy lines. In the last silent seconds before the 7:30 a.m. assault, Lieutenant M. Asquith (1st Barnsley Pals) “walked up and down the footboards saying to the men, ‘It’s a walk-over.’ I had almost a feeling of disappointment. It was short lived.”
The wire had not been cut, the machine-gunners were waiting, and within an hour over 10,000 ‘pals’ were dead. By nightfall, 21,000 had perished, with twice that number wounded, many left abandoned and screaming, “crawling,” as historian Martin Middlebrook wrote, “over ground which had been green and level at dawn but was now a mass of shell craters, littered with discarded equipment and dead bodies.”
The Somme sleepwalk, led (from a safe distance) by Field Marshall Douglas Haig, would continue until mid-November, at the cost of at least 600,000 Allied, and half a million German, casualties. The gain? A mass grave, seven miles wide.
Even survival was cursed, or blighted, by the battle. Robert Clements, a Canadian Captain, posted behind the lines, would write years later of his encounter with “the shattered remnants if English battalions” that they looked like “zombies,” so “drained of physical and mental resistance that their response to direction was little more than automatic”. We feel,” Welsh infantryman David Jones wrote, “a Rubicon has been passed… We doubt the decency of our own intentions, and we are certainly in terror of their possibilities.” The Somme, German officer Ernst Jünger commented, “marked the end of the first and mildest part of the war; thereafter, it was like embarking on a different one altogether,” a “war of materiel of the most gigantic proportions.”
Perhaps because of the unimaginable quality of such suffering, combined with the passage of time, that some modern scholars are able to engage in some sleepwalking of their own. In 2003, for example, Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at the University of Birmingham, argued that the Somme, while “ not a ‘victory’ in the traditional sense,” was “certainly a success,” placing the British Army on a more professional footing, backed by a state now prepared for the demands of modern industrial conflict. “In contrast to the Germans,” Sheffield writes, “the British lost mainly inexperienced troops – while the survivors had, in a strictly military sense, benefited greatly from the experience.” The creation “of an economy capable of sustaining a total war against imperial Germany,” moreover, “was one of the greatest achievements of the British state and people in the twentieth century,” for which we largely have the Somme – that school of hard knocks, turning boys into men – to thank.
Germany was, it’s true, an imperial power, though a recent and minor one compared to Britain and France. On all sides, as Christopher’s Clark rightly insists, the war was justified in the political and public mind by a “fabric of assumptions” about the inevitability and desirability of (white, Christian) Empire. War (it was assumed) was periodically necessary to determine which Empires rose and fell, and perhaps to defeat and diffuse revolutionary anti-imperialist movements. And even (it was assumed) in an era of immense military-industrial power and violence, war retained its essentially human nature as a legitimate arena of struggle and sacrifice.
The Great War tore that ‘fabric’ (together with fifteen million souls) apart. For some, though, the ‘achievement’ was considerable, and the dream lives on.
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and a member of Peace Quest Cape Breton.