July 1, 1916

Remembering and forgetting the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The first day of the battle of the Somme : the worst day in the history of the British Army. The butcher’s bill may well have been higher on September 7, 1812, August 2, 216 BC, February 14, 1945 and certainly on August 6, 1945; September 17, 1862 was a smaller slaughter. Still, the start of the Somme offensive stands out by its hallucinatory combination of stoic courage and abysmal generalship. It’s easier to believe in Cannae.

By evening, according to the military historian John Keegan (The Face of Battle, p.255):

The British had lost about sixty thousand, of whom twenty-one thousand had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps in the first few minutes…..There is something Treblinka-like about almost all the accounts of July 1st, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire.

By the time the battle petered out in November, with no strategic result apart from relieving the pressure on Verdun, 300,000 soldiers (British, British Empire, French and German) had died, and at least twice as many wounded. Compare the decisive three-month WWII Battle of Normandy: allied casualties on D-Day are estimated at 10,000, including 2500 dead; for the whole battle up to the closing of the Falaise pocket, about 110,000 dead on both sides and three times that wounded. British military deaths in the whole of WWII are given as 382,600, against the 90,000 on the Somme alone.

There a story in Julian Barnes’ fine collection Crossing the Channel about the mother of one such man, who goes back year after year to his grave and Lutyens’ huge monument at Thiepval, fighting a losing struggle against the healing oblivion of time. It’s not working out quite like that. There are more commemorations today than ever: as the survivors shrink to a tiny handful of very old men, squads of young enthusiasts march in uniform with pack across the sleepy sugar-beet fields and the wild poppies. What happens I think is that memory becomes stylised: a few points stick up from the general forgetting, the Somme, Verdun, D-Day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, like rock pillars on an eroded coast; the same is happening to the remembrance of the Holocaust, increasingly symbolised in the public mind by Auschwitz alone.

The danger in this inevitable process is the loss of individuality: the dead become mere pixels in a collective image, easily Photoshopped by politicians. There’s an interesting if unfair film by Bertrand Tavernier, La Vie et rien d’autre, set in 1920 around the work of a French army casualty identification unit, which is a polemic against the convenient cult of the “Unknown Soldier”. Lutyens was apparently aware of this problem, for the walls of the Thiepval arch are covered with the names of soldiers and their units; one inspiration for the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington. His friend and patron Gertrude Jekyll, the great gardener, designed the simple plantings for the British war graves, using the flowers the soldiers would have known in their childhoods.

You can look up your relatives on the austere website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The database of 1.2 million (from a lot of wars) includes of course a large number of Irish dead in WW I – contrary to the implication of Yeats’ fine but tendentious poem An Irish Airman foresees his Death, far more young Irishmen followed John Redmond’s call to volunteer, because they thought the cause was just, than joined the Easter Rising. There are also presumably a small number of American volunteers killed in British forces in both wars before 1917 and 1941. I’ve found two Wimberleys: a WW I infantryman in Boulogne, where he died in a base hospital, and a WW II airman in Cambridge (I imagine his damaged bomber just made it back).

The US Veterans Administration doesn’t seem to have a similar database. You can create a page for your fallen relative, but it’s up to you. The best virtual war memorial I’ve seen is the Canadian : it’s comprehensive like the British, and relatives are encouraged to add photographs and other memorabilia. Seems the obvious thing to do.

As is respecting the laws of war under which they fought and died.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “July 1, 1916”

  1. God, it's yet another horrible war and battle. Still, people like the adrenalin rush and the hate that precedes the horror.
    Thanks for the post. You should have at least one such post one-a-week in different blog of the Horrible Reality Based Community.

  2. It's the anniversary of Gettysburg, too. I used to read the Declaration this time of year. Now I tend to read about that battle and re-read the autobiographical sketch of a great-grandfather who was in a cavalry unit east of the main action at Cemetery Ridge. Every ancestor of present-day Southerners participated in PIckett's Charge, by family lore. But from the internet I learn that a distant cousin attained The Wall, the objective of the charge, only to take a bullet in the forehead. What an effing waste.

  3. Two points about the Somme.
    (1) It once again demonstrated the stupidity of the war and the reponsibility of the British political classes for the incredible waste of human life. If Britain had stepped aside, the Germans probably would have won the war quickly and we could have been spared the mass slaughter and possibly even the creation of the Soviet Union.
    (2) Why did you feel the need to slam the Irish in this post? I can think of several reasons why Irish people would play down the involvement of Irishmen in the British armed forces. There's the Black and Tans, which the British cynically used as fodder for death squads in Ireland after WWI was over. There's the blatant use of the Somme by the most ferocious and sectarian Unionists in Northern Ireland. And there is rather obvious point that had Britain been defeated, the Irish would have gotten a substantially better political deal than the ove they were later forced to sign.

  4. My feelings about WW I were reinforced by visits to small towns in Europe, where was memorials made it quite clear that most of the young men had died in the war. It, and Vietnam on the US side, were prime examples of the virtue in killing incompetent generals. Instead, they made them heads of state, where they did even more damage.

  5. Hektor Bim: I did not intend at all to "slam the Irish" in my post, and I tried to be respectful of the Irish as of all the other war dead.
    I do not however share the Republican myth that the only true strand of Irish patriotism is represented by the Easter Rising and Yeats (and propaganda of genius is still propaganda, like the fictional storming of the Winter Palace in Eisenstein's "October").
    John Redmond and the volunteers were patriots too; they were particularly sympathetic to the violation of the neutrality of Belgium, another small nation, and reasonably expected the Britain to deliver on the promise of Home Rule won in 1914. They were in fact the majority. It took the stupidly brutal repression of the Easter Rising to change that.
    You may have noticed that the Irish web page I linked to on the volunteers wasn't set up by some revisionist clique but by the Office of the Taoiseach.

  6. You did intend to "slam the Irish". You obviously fault them for not paying sufficient respect to the Irish war dead in WWI, and are pleasantly surprised to see them changing. That of course, is far more than Britain has done in recognizing the heroism of subjects of the British empire who fought in a just cause to relieve themselves of their British overlords.
    Yes, Redmond did expect Britain to deliver on the promises of Home Rule. Of course, he was completely wrong. After dying and shedding blood for the British empire, that same empire repaid them by shipping surplus veterans over to Ireland to burn its towns and massacre its citizens. The British government made it very clear that it would protect the Unionists come what may. In the end, the government they were serving wasn't just and proved that in a comprehensive way right after the Irish helped them win the war.
    So claiming that the cause was just is misleading. The greater cause of serving the British empire was not just and history is quite clear on that point.

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