Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Somme: an object lesson... in what?

       I had been thinking of blogging about children. While I was searching for angles on the topic, the latest issue of the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine plopped through my letterbox and I forgot about starting a new post - until I opened it.
       It wasn't a surprise that it was a Somme commemorative issue. Let's face it, bearing in mind all the activity of the past few months, it would have been more of a surprise if it hadn't had "Somme Special" plastered all over the cover. The first article I began reading was a summary of the Westminster Abbey Vigil that took place on the night of 30 June - 1 July; only when I got to the end did I discover that it was written by my friend Vivien Whelpton, an expert on the subject if ever there was one (as all the attendees at this year's AGM agreed).
     The article's contents took me back to the subject of children, as I read the poignant words of letters written by young men who anticipated their deaths and wanted to reassure their families that they were not afraid and that, if fate dictated it, they were prepared for an "honourable" death in the service of their country. That in turn made me think of Siegfried Sassoon's poem "The Hero", one that tells the truth about the nature of many of those deaths and what they actually meant in terms of service: "And no one seemed to care/except that lonely woman with white hair".
       Sassoon knew what he was talking about because he had actually been at the Battle of the Somme. Most of us now accept that the campaign was a waste of life that did not much advance the allied position, but, in recent years, General Haig has been rehabilitated and we have begun to make allowances for military commanders who were "a product of their time".
       Peter Barton's recent BBC documentary series, The Somme 1916: from both sides of the wire, told a somewhat different story. Tale after tale of British ineptitude, as described in contemporary accounts from both British and German participants, made for uncomfortable viewing, seeming to confirm what Sassoon believed at the time, not what he came to believe in his later, mellower years.  The casualties were, indeed, much greater than was necessary, partly due to Haig's tactics and partly to other disastrous decisions by Britain's leaders. One reviewer likened Britain's underestimation of the enemy to that of the England football team in recent years, and one can see his point.
         Let's take an example. Most people know that the British were depending on an artillery barrage that would cut through the German barbed wire and leave almost no resistance; our troops would be able to walk across No Man's Land and simply occupy the empty trenches. Over the years I've heard several explanations for this tactic, the most convincing being that the soldiers carried a heavy pack containing their supplies and it was simply not practical to run. Yet, Barton revealed, German machine-gunners watched their approach with incredulity, knowing that they would have been overwhelmed by the enemy's numbers "if they had only run".
     The over-confidence of the First World War commanders seems to me to be a typically British mindset, one we share with the United States of America. The world, we believe, revolves around us. The world could not survive without us. Europe cannot survive without us. Our Olympic Games were better than any others ever held. Our people are morally superior to those of any other country. When experience proves us wrong, we simply laugh and say, "Oh well, we're British, we're used to disappointment." Yet we continue to believe it.
      I'm not suggesting our nation should go round hanging its collective head and feeling inadequate and inferior - far from it. In a man like Siegfried Sassoon, we see the very best of British. We see not only talent and intelligence, but principles and true morality. 
       Let's suppose that you agree that the Somme was an "object lesson", as it is so often described. What exactly did it illustrate? Some would say "incompetence"; others would say "lack of foresight". For me, the kindest word I can find is "callousness"; failing that, I would feel obliged to say "cruelty".
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