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Thursday, November 11, 2004
a satire of circumstance: 1916
the need for a stiffening of home-front morale at the beginning of 1916 can be gauged by the poet laureate's issuing in january an anthology of uplifting literary passages of a neo-platonic tendency titled the spirit of man. such was the military situation, robert bridges implied in his introduction, that "we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls." we will thus "look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and lovingkindness." the news from belgium and france, not to mention turkey, was making it more and more necessary to insist, as bridges does, that "man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature...." such an outlook is now indispensable, for we are confronted with "a grief that is intolerable constantly to face, nay impossible to face without that trust in god which makes all things possible."
the comforts purveyed by the spirit of man were badly needed, for 1915 had been one of the most depressing years in british history. it had been a year not only of ironic mistakes but of a grossly unimaginative underestimation of the enemy and of the profound difficulties of siege warfare. poor sir john french had to be sent home, to be replaced by sir douglas haig as commander of the british forces. one doesn't want to be too hard on haig, who doubtless did all he could and who has been well calumniated already. but it must be said that it now appears that one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. haig had none. he was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant -- especially of the french -- and quite humorless. and he was provincial: at his french headquarters he insisted on attending a church of scotland service every sunday. bullheaded as he was, he was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting. indeed, one powerful legacy of haig's performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. haig could be said to have established the paradigm. his want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for great men ever since.
to haig the lesson of 1915 was clear and plain. a successful attack leading to a breakthrough would have to be infinitely larger and wider and stronger and better planned than had been imagined. with this kind of attack in view, haig and his staff spent the first six months of 1916 preparing an immense penetration of the german line on the somme which he was confident would end the war. the number of men destined for the attack, equal to twenty-six world war two infantry divisions, constituted a seven-to-one superiority over the germans. while the planning was underway, france was engaged at verdun. its defense bled her so badly that henceforth the main offensive effort on the western front had to be british. there were not enough french left, and those remaining were so broken in spirit that the mutinies of may 1917, given the stingy french leave and recreation policy, might have been predicted. the ironic structure of events was becoming conventional, even hardyesque: if the pattern of things in 1915 had been a number of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes, the pattern of 1916 was that of one vast optimistic hope leading to one vast ironic catastrophe. the somme affair, destined to be known among the troops as The Great Fuck-Up, was the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization.
by the end of june 1916, haig's planning was finished and the attack on the somme was ready. Sensing that this time the german defensive wire must be cut and the german front line positions obliterated, haig bombarded the enemy trenches for a full week, firing a million and a half shells from 1537 guns. at 7:30 on the morning of july 1, the artillery shifted to more distant targets and the attacking waves of eleven british divisions climbed out of their trenches on a thirteen-mile front and began walking forward. and by 7:31 the mere six german divisions facing them had carried their machine guns upstairs from the deep dugouts where during the bombardment they had harbored safely -- and even comfortably -- and were hosing the attackers walking toward them in orderly rows or puzzling before the still uncut wire. out of 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded on this one day. over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in no man's land stopped crying out.
the disaster had many causes. lack of imagination was one: no one imagined that the germans could have contrived such deep dugouts to hide in while the artillery pulverized the ground overhead, just as no one imagined that the german machine gunners could get up the stairs and mount their guns so fast once the bombardment moved away at precisely 7:30. another cause was traceable to the class system and the assumptions it sanctioned. the regulars of the british staff entertained an implicit contempt for the rapidly trained new men of "kitchener's army", largely recruited among workingmen from the midlands. the planners assumed that these troops -- burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment -- were too simple and animal to cross the space between the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows or "waves". it was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.
a final cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise. there was a hopeless absence of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author. the attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn -- the expected hour for an attack -- and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced german machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. but one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting. whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending cavalry through to end the war. contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of july 1916, blunden wrote eighteen years later: "by the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. no road. no thoroughfare. neither race had won, nor could win, the war. the war had won, and would go on winning."
regardless of this perception, the british attempt on the somme continued mechanically until stopped in november by freezing mud. a month earlier the british had unveiled an innovation, the tank, on the road between albert and bapaume, to the total surprise and demoralization of the enemy. but only thirty-two had been used, and this was not enough for a significant breakthrough. a terrible gloom overcame everyone at the end of 1916. it was the bottom, even worse than the end of 1915. "we are going to lose this war," lloyd george was heard to say. and the dynamics of hope abridged continued to dominate 1917 with two exceptions, the actions at messines in june and at cambrai in november.