Skip to Content

The Battle of the Somme

The recent 90th anniversary of the human tragedy of the Somme saw the politicians, the churches and the organisations charged with remembrance giving history a makeover.

The Allied warlords planned a massive assault set for mid-summer 1916. The offensive was to be carried through by the combined Allied armies and was intended to break through the German lines on the Western, Eastern and Italian fronts imposing a defeat of such magnitude on Germany as to bring a speedy end to the First World War.

 Doubtless it all worked out well for the generals and marshals as they threw clay representatives of thousands of human beings into homicidal battle against one another on the sands table. But battles are not won on sands tables and in the early spring of 1916 the Germans spoiled the plot by opening up a massive assault against the French city of Verdun which absorbed French divisions planned into the attack on the Western Front at the Somme.

 In the week before the 1st of July Allied artillery carried out a ceaseless bombardment of German positions on a five mile stretch of the front. In all they fired 1.6 million shells but many of the British shells failed to explode and the German fortifications not only proved largely resistant to the shelling but also provided subterranean tunnelling where soldiers could take refuge from the bombardment.

 Such was the confidence of the British Command that an enervated German line would crumble before the ferocity of a massed attack that they ordered their 11 divisions to walk steadily across No-Man's- Land towards the German fortifications. At 7.30 hours on July 1st the men arose out of their entrenchments in response to the blowing of whistles and proceeded to walk towards their objectives.

 Immediately they were confronted with a deadly fusillade from German machine-guns. Like lemmings they offered their bodies like blades of grass before a scythe; wave after wave of them, the cared prodigy of wives and mothers learning the falsehood of patriotism or paying the price for volunteering away from poverty or the dull, hum-drum meanness of wage slavery. 60,000 of them fell that day, 20,000 dead, the rest flawed statistics.

 The chaplains were busy intoning their prayers to a remorseless god and the generals, too, were brutal and remorseless for it didn't stop; it continued the next day and for four more months. In October the torrential rains came changing the blood-soaked ground into a quagmire where putrefying human flesh mingled with the mud and obstructed men as they were striven to further slaughter. When this single phase of the hellish conflict was exhausted in mid- November those designated as 'British' were 420,000 fewer while the French lost 195,00 men and the Germans over 600,000. There were no generals killed or wounded and the Allied forces had advanced 5 miles over wasted, barren land.

 The Somme, Passendale, Salonika, Suvla Bay, names of strange places that became prominent in the lexicon of war and its brutalities. 'Lions led by donkeys' was the popular alibi for the monstrous slaughter and the ineptitude of warlords like the British Somme commander, Earl Haig becamethe focus of bitter criticism and sick jokes.

 There was no poetry now in the killing; the avalanche of stereotyped telegrams expressing official regret at the death of a husband or son began to speak louder than the xenophobic vapourings of politicians and the media and officialdom may well have been haunted by the thought that workers turned soldiers might catch on to the duality of their exploitation and the brutally obvious fact that a social system that required periodic bloodletting was fatally flawed.

 Time has accounted for those who survived the battle; those who ploughed through the detritus of decaying human flesh and wept for dead comrades. If you were a tourist from Mars attending the Somme commemoration the vital question you might want to ask is why were millions of men, men of no property and no financial interests, men who had never met those they were now told were their enemies and with whom they did not share a language that would allow them to curse at one another, why were they killing? Why were they dying?

 The answer is that they were fighting over markets and the political and economic appurtenances of trade; that war was, and is, simply a logical extension of a brutally competitive system of social organisation predicted on profit and ongoing expansion; a system that dominated their lives, took away their human dignity and reduced them to the status of wage slaves and cannon fodder.

 So the question must be avoided at all costs; capitalism's obsequious apologists, its politicians, its beholden clergy and media hacks will change the script: Tell the fools how brave they were and how proud they should be; that'll keep them happy to the next time. "Give a benediction, bless them with a prayer, And tell them how the son of God was longing to be there!" In the circumstances of the conflict bravery is a empty virtue; an abuse of language that must surely add insult to injury.

RICHARD MONTAGUE

These may be related...