April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Before the war ended mankind was at the mercy of its own machines of destruction. It had perfected the techniques of mass slaughter without mastering them, indeed without even thinking about them coherently, and it could do no more than stretch itself on a rack of its own construction. Dreadful as it was, Verdun was not really unique. There was also the Somme.
In a way, this battle at least rested on a brighter base. Sir Douglas Haig, who commanded the British army in France, believed that he could make an outright breakthrough, piercing the German line, rolling up the broken defenses, and going on with a powerful stroke that would win the war then and there. But Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French commander whose troops took a share in this offensive and who exercised a good deal of influence over Haig, saw it from the beginning as an exercise in simple attrition—a notion just about on Falkenhayn’s level—and in the end that is what it became. It may even have destroyed more men than were destroyed at Verdun, but possibly the density of corpses per square yard was somewhat lower.
In any case, the Somme offensive marked the first full-dress appearance of Kitchener’s “new army”—the great army of volunteers which Lord Kitchener raised and which contained the very flower of Britain’s young manhood. To find out what happened to this magnificent army read The Big Push by Brian Gardner, who tells a story which in its own way is as appalling as Mr. Home’s.
It began on the morning of July 1, 1916, when fourteen British divisions attacked along an eighteen-mile front. There had been a tremendous artillery bombardment, lasting the better part of a week, and in the rear there were massed cavalry divisions ready to charge through the anticipated breakthrough and go romping through the German rear areas. The infantrymen had high morale; they had been told, and devoutly believed, that this was the attack that would end the war, and although they were so overloaded with rations and incidental equipment (approximately sixty-six pounds per man) that they could not move faster than a sluggish walk, they went bravely forward in long, unbroken lines, confident that the bombardment had broken the German defenses.
The Big Push, by Brian Gardner. William Morrow and Co. 177 pp. $5.00.
Disillusionment came immediately. At the end of that day no gains worth mentioning had been made. Sixty thousand British soldiers had been shot down, a third of them dead or doomed to die of their wounds; all in all, it was, as Mr. Gardner says, “the most costly day the British Army has ever known.”
To suppose that this fearful disaster cost the British commander his job and led to an immediate cancellation of the offensive is to give way to a delusion. For one thing, army headquarters never at any time really knew just what was happening along the front line; for another, it paid little attention to anything the government at London wanted anyway; and Sir Douglas Haig was a most determined man who would carry out his plans, or at least persevere with them, though the heavens fell. So this doomed offensive went on, and on—during the second week, casualties averaged 10,000 a day—and the fight continued all summer, coming to a dismal close at last on November 18. If it had never come close to breaking the German line, it had at least dented it: along a twelve-mile front it made gains running in some places up to nearly eight miles; and, like Verdun, it has to go down in the books as a battle that might as well not have been fought …
… Except that the cost of it was so infernal. Exact figures are hard to come by. Officially, the British War Office says that the British Army lost about 420,000 men. The French lost 200,000, and the Germans lost about what the British lost. Altogether, the Somme offensive probably exacted at least a million casualties from the three armies involved.
The figures are bad enough. The way the thing was done was even worse. Not only was it directed by men who hardly knew what they were doing; the fighting men were not so much engaging in mortal combat as going into a hurricane created by superefficient instruments of destruction. Thousands of men died without once seeing their enemies, without even seeing anything they could recognize as the enemy’s position. The military men had learned how to use high explosives so that whole counties could be reduced to pulverized rubble; and they could think of nothing better to do with this discovery than to keep on shoving living men into the inferno, day after day and week after week. If, in the end, those who survived were somewhat disillusioned, their disillusionment is understandable.