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Paul T Horgan: Tommy Atkins scored an heroic victory for democracy at the Somme

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War is Hell. It is the inversion of all that is good about humanity. Instead of building there is destruction, instead of creating life there is causing death in numerous grisly ways. It leaves individuals, communities and whole countries permanently scarred in its wake.

The horror of war has been concealed from those fortunate enough not to directly experience it for decades, if not centuries. The glamorous façade of organised combat was broken when the camera was invented. However,  there was some form of consensus amongst the media providers to preserve the insulation of the public. I have collected numerous illustrated periodicals published during the First World War containing photographs of the battles. There are none that bring home to the reader the grisly carnage that must have been the direct experience of millions of combatants. Any scenes of actual combat are artist’s renderings after the fact.

It was only in the televisual age that people began to see the true nature of war. American viewers saw a South Vietnamese general blow out the brains of a Viet Cong suspect in a city centre on their evening news shows. They also saw a United States Air Force strike a Vietnamese village suspected of enemy affiliations with napalm and the inhabitants, including a crying, naked, girl no more than eight years old, fleeing the inferno with burnt skin hanging off their bodies. They saw demonstrations by Buddhist monks in Saigon, killing themselves by self-immolation as a protest against the South Vietnamese government that was being defended by the lives of American soldiers. It became difficult to determine the difference between the goodies and the baddies, whether this conformed to jus ad bellum. Images like these and Walter Kronkite’s disapproval did it for Lyndon Johnson, who stood down in 1968 as US President when he could have tried to stay until 1972, as demoralised as his country by the nightly depictions of horror.

Unless people do proper research by reading numerous books on the topic, they will be highly ignorant about war, especially if they derive all their knowledge from war films. Most people know defining events of the wars, but little about the wars themselves.

We all celebrate the Battle of Agincourt, where the flower of French nobility was cut down by the stout English yeomanry and their longbows. Henry V was acknowledged to be heir to the throne of France. He had married the daughter of the King of France and thus the two thrones were in personal union. However, for some reason this is not the case today. All of France is now in French hands. Most people who know about Agincourt do not know why.

Similarly, the Charge of the Light Brigade has entered the popular consciousness. Few people who can quote Tennyson will know it was part of the Battle of Balaclava, or indeed was part of the Crimean War. The cause of the Crimean War is also not widely known, nor is how it ended. The war that created the concept of ‘jingoism’ is outside the popular consciousness.

War is sometimes necessary. A socialist myth has built up that World War I was unleashed by competing imperialists who hoodwinked the working classes into mutual destruction, and as such the war was actually against the proletarian masses irrespective of nationality.

This is simply not true.

Imperial Germany was a militarist state where civilian politicians had less political influence than the armed forces. The country initiated an unnecessary naval arms race against Britain based only on the whims of the Kaiser and had planned a pre-emptive war in Europe to curb Russia as well as to annex territory n Europe and colonies in Africa by crushing Russia’s ally, France. Its plans were well known in general if they were not precisely understood in detail. Indeed Winston Churchill was able to map out Germany’s 1914 campaign in Belgium and France in 1911, even predicting the Battle of the Marne. Once Imperial Germany’s soldiers were on the march, a war had to be fought, and fought well.

The defining event of the First World War for most British people is the Battle of the Somme, or more specifically, its first day. There were fifty thousand British casualties, of which twenty thousand were fatalities. This is widely regarded as a historic military blunder. The generals are viewed as inflexible and incompetent, tied to fixed plans that were not altered, even when events demanded them. The battle itself is seen as inconclusive. The truth is different. The Battle of the Somme sealed the fate of Imperial Germany. Its execution marked the start of the ascendancy of British military strategy, tactics and technology against a highly militarised state.

The first misconception of the public is about the nature of battles in 20th Century warfare. Up to the First World War, battles lasted little more than a day. This was because generals were restricted in their ability to deploy forces to those that were only a days’ march away from the battlefield. In World War 1, generals were able to continuously feed troops into a developing battle due to the rapid mass transport facilities that had revolutionised Europe in the past century. Soldiers based in the North of Scotland could be inserted into the fighting in under two days if need be. Think of the fighting like a game of chess where every piece that has been captured can be almost immediately replaced with one or two more. Chess games involve manoeuvre and giving up pieces to secure positional advantage. Endgames take place after there has been this mutual shedding of pieces and the remnants fail to protect one of the Kings from capture. To do this when pieces are constantly replaced when they are lost would prolong the game potentially infinitely.

This is the case in the Somme. The battle actually lasted a total of five months. Judging a battle from less than one hundredth of its duration, and that being the start, is to have a skewed perspective. The Battle of Normandy started on June 6th 1944 with D-Day. By nightfall the Allies had actually failed to achieve any of their goals. Using the same basis by which people judge the Battle of the Somme, someone could judge that the invasion of North-West Europe was a disaster. It wasn’t. The Allies were able to keep feeding soldiers into Northern France from across the English Channel. Montgomery had pre-planned phase lines indicating where he expected his forces to be by certain dates. He made them. By late September, France had been liberated. Eight months later, Nazi Germany, battered from the east and west, surrendered. Anglo-American action allowed the restoration of democratic government to Western Europe.

The second misconception is about incompetent generals using inflexible plans that sent men to their doom in futile attacks when more initiative and intelligence could have saved lives. This is to misunderstand the kind of army that was put into the field by the British Empire. Alone of the European countries, Britain did not maintain a large army. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, given that Britain did not have a land border with any country, it did not need an army to guard something that was not there; Britain had a massive navy that was sized to be larger than the next two largest navies combined. Secondly, there was a historical mistrust of a large standing army by the civilian government, possibly dating from the political agitation performed by Cromwell’s forces while Parliament deliberated the future governance of England after the execution of Charles I.

Thus the army deployed to attack the German trenches on July 1st 1916 had been in uniform for less than two years, and that included most of the officers. On July 1st 1914, these men had been civilians enjoying peacetime activities in a country that did not have a predominantly militaristic culture, who had glanced at newspaper article about the death of some foreign royalty on an inside page before going on to read something disturbing about the agitation for Home Rule for Ireland. When war came, they volunteered to serve King, Country and Empire in their thousands. In the intervening period, they had to be equipped and trained to fight a modern battle. There simply was not enough time.

By contrast their opponents had all received military training as part of a state policy of conscription and public militarisation. The officers were part of the country’s political elite, seen as better than the ordinary citizen, part of the militaristic ‘state within a state; that answered to no-one but the Supreme Warlord, the Kaiser. The German Army at the Somme also had the advantage of being able to fight defensively from well-built fortifications, including shell-proof concrete bunkers, that had been built up during months of static warfare.

It is not disputed that the Battle of the Somme was a battle that had to be fought, and it had to be fought at the time it was fought, which was a time not of the British Army’s choosing. Imperial Germany had initiated a policy of attrition by forcing France to defend Verdun. The Germans’ aim was to ‘bleed France white’ until she could fight no more. Anglo-French action at the Somme forced Germany to take pressure off Verdun. But for the British, the battle had to be fought using the forces that were available at the time and in the state they were in. This was an army of civilians being asked to take on a well-trained and fortified enemy. This army could not be trained in battlefield conditions with a range of sophisticated responses. However by 1918, The British Army was the most powerful, sophisticated and technologically advanced army in the world, but this feat was acquired from the blood-price of experience. In July 1916 that experience was not there.

The third misconception is of that British tactics exclusively consisted of lines of soldiers walking to their deaths in a hail of German machine-gun bullets. The slaughter on the first day was not uniform across the front, and not one-sided. The plan had been to have the enemy’s forces pinned down by artillery and also to have the barbed wire breached. Mass fatalities occurred when these conditions were not met, but this was not by design. Troops did not uniformly march slowly across no-man’s land. There was variation in how they tried to achieve their objectives. Some methods worked, some didn’t. To advance in the face of sustained machine-gun fire was to be slaughtered, but this did not happen everywhere. There was a mistaken policy of having men from the same locality serving together in ‘pals battalions’. A single burst of a German Maschinengewehr 08 could wipe out all the young men from half a street. This amplified the emotional and cultural impact of the battle to communities for decades afterwards.

The fourth misconception is about the objective of the battle . This was was not to breach the enemy lines, let the cavalry through, rout the Germans and march onto Berlin after liberating Belgium. Instead the plan was to relieve pressure on the French Army and to advance the line. The German positions had to be disputed, otherwise the war was pointless.

Allied policy was to eject the Germans from the occupied territory and to impose its will on the enemy. The end of the war had to be a military, not political solution, or Germany would have won. Germany was not to be rewarded for its aggression. In this case the line had to be attacked until victory. Critics of the war, notably socialists, uniformly fail to offer a valid counterfactual that does not reward Prussian militarism apart from wishing ‘A plague a’ both your houses’, forgetting that Mercutio actually dies when he is saying this. Numerous other alternatives to battle on the Western Front were considered and some implemented. But in the end, the war could only be determined in Flanders fields. There were no flanks to turn. The enemy had to be attacked head on. Head-on attacks cause the greatest casualties. Thus casualties were unavoidable and were hard to minimise.

The Battle of the Somme achieved its objectives, but it also achieved many other things. It made the war unwinnable for Germany on the field of battle. This army of civilians also degraded the professionalism of the German Army. True, more British were killed than Germans, but the while the quantitative exchange slightly favoured the Germans, the qualitative exchange favoured the British. This body-count exchange is terrible, but then, as I have said, War is Hell.

Germany mounted no offensives in 1917on the Western Front, and this has to be due to the drubbing received at the Somme. British action at the Somme was the second setback for Germany in the space of a little over a month. At Jutland, a superior British naval forces had halted the Imperial German Navy and forced it back to port, never to challenge Britain for mastery of the North Sea, or indeed any of the world’s oceans, again. The British blockade persisted and Germany continued to starve. Its disaffected and hungry sailors, cooped up in port on decaying dreadnoughts, mutinied in November 1918 and triggered a national revolution amongst the underfed masses after they were asked to sail on a ‘death ride’ for obscure political reasons connected with the armistice negotiations.

After the Somme, Germany realised it could not force a decision on land. Events followed from this. The head of the army was fired and replaced by the ‘silent dictatorship’ of Hindenburg and Ludendorff that usurped civilian government and militarised the population and reduced the Supreme Warlord Wilhelm Hohenzollern to a crippled cipher. Six years later, Ludendorff’s militarisation of German society informed a certain former corporal’s ambitions as both ex-soldiers attempted a coup in Munich with a bunch of their friends. It failed.  The former corporal went on to write a book that remains controversial to this day.

Germany retreated to the ‘Hindenburg Line’, a set of fortifications that were more defensible by the slowly dying German army. German naval policy changed from surface engagements after its humiliation at Jutland to a submarine-based counter-blockade of the British Isles to starve us intro defeat. It was based on unrestricted warfare, sinking any ship sighted, and it brought America into the war. Germany’s fate was then sealed.

After the defensive fighting of 1917 in the West by the Germans, they mounted a series of desperate offensives in Spring 1918 that nearly came off, but not quite. In Summer 1918 the Allies mounted their own offensive that in only one hundred days led to the decisive defeat in the field of the Imperial German Army. There was an armistice, requested by the Germans just before their army collapsed, the terms of which meant Germany could not resume fighting. Our civilian armies had delivered peace.

The turning point in Allied fortunes was the Battle of the Somme. The fighting marked the beginning of the professionalism in battle by a massive British army of civilian volunteers, later augmented by conscripts. There were the first deployments of the war machine known as the tank. It also saw the end of the professional German Army as their pre-war ranks were depleted, only to be replaced by civilians from their starving homeland.

But the British losses at the Somme as the gateway to eventual victory at great human cost will not form any basis of official commemoration of the battle. Instead the focus will be only be only on the deaths. The myths will not be challenged. The Government shies away from any suggestion of achievement to counter the naysayers. Most people have never heard of the British victory at the Battle of Amiens, the ‘Black Day of the German Army’ that started the One Hundred Days that ended the war. But this is to be expected.

My MP, a Conservative, calls the war deaths a ‘sacrifice’. A sacrifice is a ritual destruction of life or property in the hope that a deity will be appeased or influenced to favourable action. There is no link between cause and effect.

Lives were not ‘sacrificed’ at the Somme. They were lost in the direct service of a noble cause, to effect a military victory and to demonstrate that peace-loving civilians living in freedom can turn their arms to war and bring down fanatic militarists anywhere, anytime in the name of humanity.

Freedom is not free. War is Hell. It is right we are distressed by it and the losses caused by it. But the fighting at the Somme was not futile or an incompetent betrayal of one class by another. Our soldiers put the beast of unrestrained militarism back in its cage for a generation until a succeeding set of politicians casually re-released it.

For their service, their achievement, Tommy Atkins and his comrades who fell on the Western Front should be honoured for their part in victory for democracy and not pitied as victims of plutocrats.

(Image: Ian Cochrane)

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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