On 1 July 1916, 150,000 British soldiers went “over the top” on the Western Front to attack the German trenches in the Somme region. The front, along which British and French armies confronted the German army, stretched from Switzerland to the Channel.
For 18 months there had been a stalemate. The German defences on the Somme were made up of consecutive lines of trenches and dug-outs, thousands of yards deep. They were defended by riflemen, machine guns, artillery and belts of impenetrable barbed wire.
By the end of the first day, 19,000 British soldiers were dead and a further 38,000 wounded. This was the bloodiest single day in British history. There had been no gains at all along most of the front.
The assault waves had been so effectively scythed by machine guns and blasted by artillery that some battalions had lost three quarters of their men within minutes of leaving the trenches.
Sheltering in a shell-hole near the German wire, Corporal Ashurst looked back across no man’s land. He said, “Hundreds of dead lay about, and wounded men were trying to crawl back to safety.
“As I lay there watching their painful efforts to get back to our line, I watched these poor fellows suddenly try to rise on their feet and then fall in a heap and lie very still.
“Shells whistled over my head and dropped among the poor fellows, blowing dead men into the air and putting others out of their agony.”
The men who fought on the Somme were the volunteer soldiers of a “new army” formed by mass recruitment in the patriotic fervour of autumn 1914.
The old regular army had been consumed in the trench battles of 1915. Many of the new units were “pals” battalions, where friends from the same towns and factories had joined up together.
The 31st Division included units from Accrington, Barnsley, Bradford, Durham, Halifax, Hull, Leeds, and Sheffield. On the first day of the Somme, the division suffered 3,600 casualties for no gains at all.
A swathe of working class towns across the north of England were plunged into grief. The lists of dead and maimed filled sheets and sheets in the local papers.
The British generals were undeterred. The battle continued for months, until rain and lack of reserves finally forced an end on 19 November.
By then, the British had advanced about five miles. It had cost them 432,000 men – roughly half the number the British were to lose in the entire Second World War.
For 90 years, in Britain at least, the Somme has symbolised the waste of war. Recently, however, a new generation of revisionist military historians has challenged this view. Revisionism is very much in vogue.
Revolutions are trivialised, empires are rehabilitated, wars are retrospectively justified and tarnished reputations are polished up. Revisionist history is an academic wing of neo-liberalism – the past is being recast to conform to a Blairite vision of the world.
The revisionists argue that the standard description of British soldiers in the First World War as “lions led by donkeys” – the donkeys being the generals – is false.
They defend the Somme as a strategically necessary “battle of attrition”, one designed to wear down the enemy on the path to final victory.
The contrast they make is with a “war of movement”, where skilful manoeuvre and tactics could deliver a quick victory. The war of attrition, like a great mincing machine, consumed men and material until one side or the other finally broke under the strain.
This, certainly, was an inherent characteristic of the First World War, where armies of millions, backed by “total war” industrial economies, confronted one another. There could, in the circumstances, be no quick fix.
Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief on the Western Front, called for “ceaseless attrition” to break the trench stalemate.
In his more rational moments – when not moving cavalry divisions across maps in imaginary “breakthroughs” at his headquarters – he understood that the conflict was likely to be long and costly.
It would require for success “the utmost efforts of the empire” – that is, ever more men, guns and shells.
It may be an exaggeration to describe Haig and other British generals as “donkeys”. They were intelligent enough members of the ruling class. But battlefield incompetence plagued British operations.
Successful attacks, even in the conditions of trench warfare, could be made. But they depended upon thorough planning, a huge concentration of guns, massive stockpiling of munitions, a great preponderance of infantry and flexible assault tactics.
Experience taught these lessons again and again. Much of the bitterness of junior officers in the trenches was directed at generals who endlessly repeated old mistakes when ordering new attacks.
Occasional stupidity is a human failing. This kind of endemic stupidity is a feature of the capitalist social order. There were reasons for the tactical failures and mountainous casualties of Western Front battles.
The whole war was built on lies. One of the biggest was that the war would be quick and easy.
The generals were under pressure to act – not just from allies facing attack elsewhere, but from politicians at home who wanted a return on their military investment, and from a public whose enthusiasm for war was fast draining away.
So the generals launched offensives without the strength to win. And to maintain morale, both in the trenches and at home, they were in denial about the monstrous reality of a war of attrition.
They promised great “breakthroughs”. They predicted the enemy’s imminent “morale collapse”. Each year was to be the last year of the war. They dared not admit that half a million men and 1,500 guns were not enough.
Like US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Iraq, who predicted victory on the cheap with a small specialised army, they probably deluded themselves. They certainly had to delude others.
The awful truth about the war could not be told – lest support for it collapse.
On the battlefield itself, class snobbery crippled tactical innovation. The generals were long service professional officers recruited, with few exceptions, from the upper classes, and trained in small scale colonial wars.
They doubted the discipline and fighting skills of the new mass army of working class volunteers.
“Neither our new formations nor the old divisions have the same discipline that obtained in our army of a year ago,” complained General Rawlinson, Haig’s commander on the Somme. So on the battlefield they were to be kept under tight rein, denied the initiative and flexibility essential to modern infantry tactics.
“The assaulting troops must push forward at a steady pace in successive lines,” intoned Rawlinson. Men walking in lines can be monitored and controlled – and easily shot down.
The real criticism of Haig and Rawlinson is not, however, that they were bad generals. Had they been good generals, the casualties might have been fewer, but there would still have been slaughter, destruction and waste on a mindnumbing scale.
The real criticism is that they were leading members of a rapacious ruling class prepared to sacrifice millions in a war for empire and profit. The battle of the Somme, by any rational assessment, was barbaric and insane.
The politicians, generals and profiteers had produced a world in which millions of soldiers were grappling with death in a blasted landscape of mud, blood and wire. And millions of workers and peasants were having their lives torn apart by hunger, poverty and disease.