The hinge of the Great War

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

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Heather Moore is a spokes­woman for The PETA Foun­da­tion. ”See that lit­tle stream? We could walk to it in two min­utes. It took the Bri­tish a month to walk to it — a whole em­pire walk­ing very slowly, dy­ing in front and push­ing for­ward be­hind.” — F. Scott Fitzger­ald, “Ten­der Is The Night”

— The walk be­gan at 7:30 a.m., July 1, 1916, when Bri­tish in­fantry ad­vanced to­ward Ger­man trenches. In the first hours, eight Bri­tish sol­diers fell per se­cond. By night­fall 19,240 were dead, an­other 38,230 were wounded. World War I, the worst man­made dis­as­ter in hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, was the hinge of mod­ern his­tory. The war was the in­cu­ba­tor of Com­mu­nist Rus­sia, Nazi Ger­many, World War II and in­nu­mer­able cul­tural con­se­quences. The hinge of this war was the bat­tle named for “that lit­tle stream,” the river Somme.

The scyth­ing fire of ma­chine guns could not be nul­li­fied even by fall­ing cur­tains of me­tal from creep­ing ar­tillery bar­rages that moved in ad­vance of in­fantry. Ge­off Dyer, in “The Miss­ing of the Somme,” notes: “By the time of the great bat­tles of at­tri­tion of 1916-17 mass graves were dug in ad­vance of ma­jor of­fenses. Singing columns of sol­diers fell grimly silent as they marched by these gap­ing pits en route to the front-line trenches.”

Wil­liam Philpott’s ju­di­cious as­sess­ment in “Three Armies on the Somme: The First Bat­tle of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury” is that the Somme was “the cra­dle of mod­ern com­bat,” prov­ing that in­dus­trial war could only be won by pro­tracted at­tri­tion. And hence by the new science of lo­gis­tics. The 31 trains a day re­quired to sup­ply the Bri­tish at the Somme be­came 70 when the of­fen­sive be­gan. The ro­mance of chival­ric war­fare died at the Somme, which was what the Ger­mans called Ma­te­ri­alschlacht, a bat­tle of ma­te­ri­als more than men. Geo­graphic ob­jec­tives — land seized — mat­tered less than the slow ex­haus­tion of a na­tion’s ma­te­rial and hu­man re­sources, civil­ians as well as sol­diers.

In the next world war, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the front lines and the home front would be erased. In 1918, Ran­dolph Bourne, wit­ness­ing the mass mo­bi­liza­tion of so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing its thoughts, dis­tilled into seven words the essence of the 20th cen­tury: “War is the health of the state.” Re­la­tions be­tween govern­ment, the econ­omy and the in­di­vid­ual were for­ever al­tered, to the ad­van­tage of govern­ment.

Mil­i­tary ne­ces­sity is the most pro­lific mother of in­ven­tion, and World War I was, Philpott writes, “a war of in­ven­tion,” pit­ting “sci­en­tific-in­dus­trial com­plexes” against each other: “Gas, flame-throw­ers, grenade-launch­ers, sub-ma­chine guns, trench mor­tars and can­non, fighter and bomber air­craft, tanks and self-pro­pelled ar­tillery all made their bat­tle­field de­buts be­tween 1914 and 1918.”

At­tri­tional war had be­gun in earnest at Ver­dun, which oc­cu­pies in France’s mem­ory a place com­pa­ra­ble to that of the Somme in Bri­tish mem­ory. And the Somme of­fen­sive was be­gun in part to re­duce pres­sure on Ver­dun and to de­mon­strate that Bri­tain was bear­ing its share of the war’s bur­den.

In De­cem­ber 1915, Win­ston Churchill, then 41, said, “In this war the ten­den­cies are far more im­por­tant than the episodes. With­out win­ning any sen­sa­tional vic­to­ries we may win this war.” The war it­self may have been be­gun by a con­cate­na­tion of blunders, but once be­gun it was worth win­ning, and the Somme, this “lin­ear siege” (Philpott), set the ten­dency for that. Ger­many, try­ing to slow the trans-At­lantic flow of ma­teriel, re­sorted to un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare, which, five months af­ter the Somme ended, brought the United States into the war and, in a sense, into the world.

Thomas Hardy’s de­scrip­tion of the 1813 Bat­tle of Leipzig — “a miles-wide pant of pain” — fit the bat­tle of the Somme, where a soldier wrote, “From No Man’s Land ... comes one great groan.” The Somme ended on Nov. 18, with men drown­ing in gluti­nous lakes of cling­ing mud some­times five feet deep. This was the war that Bri­tish poet Ru­pert Brooke had wel­comed as God’s gift to youth awak­ened from sleep­ing, “as swim­mers into clean­ness leap­ing.” By Novem­ber a mil­lion men on both sides were dead — 72,000 Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth bod­ies were never re­cov­ered — or wounded. Twenty-two miles of front had been moved six miles.

But be­cause of this bat­tle, which broke Ger­many’s brit­tle con­fi­dence, the war’s out­come was dis­cernible. Not so its re­ver­ber­a­tions, one of which was an Aus­trian cor­po­ral whose Bavar­ian unit de­ployed to the Somme on Oct. 2. Adolf Hitler was wounded on his third day in the line.

The bat­tle of the Somme is, in Dyer’s words, “deeply buried in its own af­ter­math.” As is Europe, still.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­


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