As I write this post, the sun is setting over the River Somme in northern France. One hundred years ago today, in the middle of World War I, nightfall hid the grisly sight of nearly 20,000 dead British and Commonwealth soldiers. One of them was a twenty-year old officer named John Sherwin Engall, who had written to his parents the night before:
I have a strong feeling that I shall come through safely but nevertheless, should it be God’s holy will to call me away, I am quite prepared to go; and, I could not wish for a finer death; and you, dear Mother and Dad, will know that I died doing my duty to God, my Country and my King, I ask that you should look upon it as an honour that you have given a son for King & Country.
Today you have to use your imagination to see what war poet Robert Nichols called the “scarred plateau” of the Somme battlefield. Even in January, when our WWI travel course takes us to these fields outside the village of Beaumont-Hamel, No Man’s Land grows green. In the photo above (taken in 2013 by my colleague Sam Mulberry), we’ve climbed a muddy lane to stand in front of a small copse of trees. On July 1, 1916, it was the site of a German machine gun position, looking down a slope at the former British trenches.
Our skillful guide, Carl Ooghe, helped us to imagine the storm of steel flying from us towards the doomed Tommies going over the top. If we can’t quite see the carnage in our mind’s eye, we can squint off in the distance to see a series of Commonwealth cemeteries tracing the line where that khaki advance was halted.
But the fighting continued when the sun rose on July 2nd, and then again and again until mid-November. By then over 600,000 Allied troops (and not that many fewer Germans) had been killed, wounded, captured, or gone missing. If it weren’t that the Battle of Verdun had already been bleeding the French and German armies white since February of the same year (and continue into mid-December), the Somme would go down as the most terrible battle of what was then the most terrible war in history.
So the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, has often been remembered as “The Butcher of the Somme.” Almost twenty years after he served under Haig as a young officer, military historian Basil Liddell Hart confided to his diary this harsh assessment:
[Haig] was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple – who, to his overweaning ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal.
Of late, revisionist historians like Gary Sheffield have been more sympathetic to Haig, arguing that he understood that the war had become one of attrition. In Sheffield’s judgment, Haig deserves some credit for altering the strategic balance of the war, ruthlessly prosecuting a battle that left the Germans “utterly worn out” and convinced that they had to risk American entry by restarting unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic. “The term victory is simply inappropriate for an affair that in the end was aimed at inflicting massive damage on the enemy,” admits Sheffield, but “The Somme, or something very like it, was an essential stepping-stone to victory.”
Journalist Adam Hochschild is no admirer of Haig and his strategy (“What made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them”), but he acknowledges that German chief of staff Erich Falkenhayn and his officers “brought their own kind of fatal stubbornness to the battle….” Hundreds of futile German counterattacks “helped make the Somme almost as costly in lives for the Germans as for the Allies” (To End All Wars, p. 214).
Those who survived would do much to shape the political and cultural history of the 20th century: on the British side, Harold Macmillan, Siegfried Sassoon, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien, who began to envision Mordor while serving on the Somme; on the German, Adolf Hitler, whose twisted imagination somehow conjured still worse slaughter, and Otto Frank, whose daughter Anne was one of Hitler’s most famous victims.
That another such clash between those two nations seems so unlikely is one reason that so many Europeans and Britons are nervous to see the long-term ramifications of Brexit. “A future conflict pitting Britain against its neighbours remains unlikely,” wrote one Guardian writer yesterday. “But it is not quite as unimaginable as it appeared last Thursday.”
But for now, the commemoration has been both somber and hopeful. At the service where young Engall’s letter was read, bishop of Manchester David Walker offered this prayer:
We remember those whose names are inscribed on the hearts of those whom they left behind as they departed for the battlefield. Names inscribed on memorials in this and many lands, names for whom there is no memorial, names of those known only to yourself, O Lord God.
We represent today the many peoples and creeds that were ensnared in this deadliest of conflicts that took more than a million lives from 50 nations.
We pledge ourselves afresh today to work for a world where justice, peace and mercy will be sovereign – and war shall be no more.
May it be so.