A favourite expression among the High Command on both sides of the conflict in 1916 was, “at all costs”. Falkenhayn, the German commander-in-chief, ordered that Verdun must be taken, and Joffre ordered that it must be defended, “at all costs”. Haig was to use the expression later, in the Battle of the Somme, and it was to come up again and again. A position must be held, or a wood must be captured, again at all costs. It was a change from the usual “regardless of losses”, but it meant the same thing. The cost was certainly paid, but not by the people who issued the orders.
This month brings the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in British history, the first day of the Somme. On Saturday 1 July 1916, some twenty thousand men died, This would represent the entire male population of a sizeable town. Thirty thousand more were wounded, many of them maimed for life. This was just the first day — the Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July until 18 November when, bogged down in mud and exhaustion, it was finally called off. By that time one million, two hundred thousand men — British, French and German — were dead or maimed; the British total was over half a million.
The use of the word battle to describe what was in fact a long campaign illustrates just how out of date the ideas of military strategists were. Until the middle of the last century battles, on however large a scale, lasted only a day, sometimes only a few hours. Even in the mid 19th century, as at Gettysburg, they lasted only two or three days. The Somme lasted over four months and during that time at least twelve massive engagements, that in any other age would have been called battles, took place. It was the same attitude that sent masses of men in waves against machine guns and modern artillery, as though against muzzle loading muskets. Nowhere was this more obvious than on the first day of the Somme. No doubt the anniversary will be marked by TV programmes, some of which will be critical of the whole ghastly mess up and there will be ceremonies. But not many of the survivors remain, time having taken most of those the German machine guns missed,
Germany opened the war on the Western Front with a massive attack on France and Belgium. In an attempt to repeat their victory of 1870, they poured a million and a half men into a great sweep to encircle Paris and knock France out of the war. They failed, and the war settled down into a static affair, with trenches extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border. But Germany had achieved great advantages. Their front line, apart from a small quiet section near the Swiss border, ran entirely through conquered territory. Thus all the destruction was away from their own borders and the coal mines and factories of Belgium and Northern France were at their disposal. Because the line was in foreign territory they were prepared to make strategic withdrawals to more favourable ground and there construct strong defences. But for the French army fighting on their own territory, public opinion would not allow any further losses, This was the theory that Falkenhayn was working on, when in early 1916 he decided on a mass attack on Verdun. He calculated that the French would never give the place up and he could “bleed the French army white”.
So in February 1916 a massive attack was launched on Verdun, a small town surrounded by forts. These the French, by a massive miscalculation, had stripped of their guns to use elsewhere. The logical thing for the French to do was to abandon the place and withdraw to a more easily defended line. But as with the British at Ypres in Belgium, Verdun had become more than a town. It had been built up by mass propaganda as a symbol of French resistance, which must be held at all costs. The battle raged right through until 18 December. The French army was indeed bled white but German losses were as great. Falkenhayn was sacked as a result, but this was no consolation for the seven hundred thousand dead. It was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun that the Somme offensive was launched.
The Somme battle marked a watershed in the general attitude to the war. Until then the wild hysteria with which the outbreak of war had been greeted still persisted. It was from 1 July 1916 that war weariness began and to this period belong the bitter war poems and the cynical war songs of the front line soldier. During early 1916 attempts were made to end the war with a compromise peace. Germany, realising that its gamble had failed, made several attempts to call it off. It was becoming obvious that the cost to the participants was outstripping the gains. But modem war is such that it can be fought only if the whole population is involved and this requires massive propaganda. Once having got the masses into a belligerent frame of mind it is difficult to get them out of it. After all, if the enemy are monsters who must be stopped at all costs, committing every type of barbarity, it is difficult to suddenly suggest a compromise peace instead of totally defeating them,
Before the outbreak of the 1914/18 war, many people believed that it could be prevented by a general strike across the frontiers. This was however a pipe dream, for having no knowledge of the system under which they lived, or how it worked, the workers could not accept such action. Instead they cheered in the streets. In 1914 Britain was the only European power not to have conscription. Its army, although highly efficient, was small, even when reinforced by reservists and territorials. A call went out, spearheaded by the famous poster showing Kitchener’s pointing finger. A hundred thousand volunteers were asked for, and over a million responded. In some cases private individuals or organisations raised unofficial companies that were later absorbed into the army. One practice was to form regiments of “Pals”, in which men from a factory or mine or sometimes a street or club joined together in one company. This was to have a devastating effect when a battalion was almost wiped out and whole areas were flooded with the dreaded telegrams. It took two years to weld this mass of volunteers into an army and they were ready just in time for the Somme.
The battle took place in Picardy in Northern France — an area of chalk hills, resembling parts of Wiltshire and Hampshire and crossed by the River Somme. It was an area of beechwoods and sunken roads but also of wide open downland, the hardest possible type of country to storm across, devoid of cover of any kind. This area had been a quiet part of the line, where battle weary troops had been sent for recuperation. The main reason it was chosen for the attack was that, as the British and French lines joined at this point, it could be a joint effort. This was as much for propaganda reasons as any other. The overall plan was to punch a hole in the German lines and then pour cavalry through to roll up the German lines. Large forces of cavalry were kept in the rear for this purpose but it was an impractical dream, which died on the Somme. The new cavalry, the tank. was only in its infancy and was slow and lumbering.
The main obsession of the high command was that artillery alone would do the trick. And by this time modern artillery had become devastating. The amount of high explosive used during the war was enormous, but the hopes that were placed on it were exaggerated. It was believed that the effect of a prolonged bombardment would so shatter the defenders that they would be unable to resist and the infantry would have a walk-over. But the Germans had constructed strong dugouts and defences that were able to withstand the bombardment. For days the German lines were pounded and a large number of massive mines were exploded under the enemy lines. The Allied commanders believed that this had destroyed the defenders but when the barrage stopped, the German soldiers emerged from their dugouts and set up their machine guns. It was against this that the British troops were sent, each soldier carrying a heavy pack that slowed movement, told to advance at a walk. They were mowed down in lines.
After the battle was over the Germans withdrew to a new prepared position, the Hindenburg line. It took a long time for the truth about July 1 to reach the British public but when it did it was to have long-lasting effects.
The Battle of the Somme has now passed into capitalism’s bloody history and the area where it was fought is restored, apart from the cemeteries and, in a few places, the shell holes which are covered in grass. But capitalism is still with us and wars still rage across the world. And so many workers, across the world still do not understand the system that kills them.