Remembering the unromantic reality of World War I
The Somme, France — Almost a century later, the scars still blight the open field. The grass has grown back and the birds have returned, but they fly now over traumatized and disfigured terrain — sacred land that will never fully heal. At Beaumont-Hamel, in a remote corner of northwestern France, embryonic trenches zigzag across the meadows. Between them are a host of craters, each four or five feet deep and almost preternaturally rounded, as if cut out by a tablespoon. In the corner of one dugout, bent and rusted steel spikes still thrust upward to the sky — in preparation, perhaps, for a moment that never came.
It was here, in this quiet corner of the Somme, that boys from the British colony of Newfoundland traded their fishing gear for rifles and bayonets and walked, in catastrophic numbers, to their deaths. Theirs was a common fate. Over its four and a half months, the battle cost the British and the French a staggering 1.2 million lives — all to push the line forward a pitiful ten miles. On the first day of fighting, 60,000 of the 100,000 deployed British and Commonwealth soldiers were either killed or injured — tués ou blessés, in a French phrase that one sees dotted around the museums. By the time the fighting finished, those men would be joined by hundreds of thousands more from around the world — from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia, India, Bermuda, and beyond. All of them came to play their parts in the worst catastrophe in British military history, and in the darkest moment that the Empire would ever see.
At the Musée de Somme 1916, a beautiful exhibition that has been installed into the crypt beneath the Basilica at Albert, curators have made a feature of the detritus that they have been patiently recovering from under the ground. All is rust: the broken helmets, the bent rifles and shrunken pistols, the shells and bullets and leather-encased pocketknives, the medals, flashlights and the lamps, which, defying Sir Edward Grey’s somber prediction, did not go out in Europe for four long years. On display in one cabinet are a couple of pristine machine guns — one a British “Vickers,” the other its German equivalent. My stomach turns inside out at the sight of them. These are the water-cooled monstrosities that were instrumental in producing the great stasis and all of its horrors. Capable of pushing out 500 rounds per minute (eight per second), it convinced both sides that defense was the safest course. The machine gun, the British journalist Philip Gibbs observed, afforded its bearers the capacity to construct “not a line but a fortress position.” “No chance,” he noted, “for cavalry!”
And yet, though the world’s generals knew from experience in Manchuria, from Thrace, and from the killing fields of the American Civil War just how obsolete established military tactics had been rendered by technological change, for much of the First World War the cavalry was given plenty of chances. Mounted or not, advancing forces at the Somme hewed largely to the techniques of old — failing tragically to overcome the conviction that charging with sufficient gusto would, eventually, lead to a glorious breakthrough. It was thus that the poet Rupert Brooke’s romantic conceptions of some “corner of a foreign field that is forever England” gave way to unlovely reality, and those optimistic volunteers who had followed the Ruritanian glory of all that his sonnets promised were met instead with the full might of the Industrial Revolution. There were few fair fights in the Great War — little chivalry or skill or heroism. There was just boredom, and then attrition. Just factory-style death. Just Siegfried Sassoon’s embittered “continuous roar,” and the apocalyptic collision of impregnable defense with naïve attack. In the days of muskets and cannon, one could reasonably expect to push forward to glory. Now, the lions were fed into the meat grinder with everybody else. When soldiers were brave enough to leave their hiding places, the novelist Sebastian Faulks recorded in Birdsong, “the air turned to lead.”
The necessity of violence can often be lost on the pacifist’s mind, as can the recognition that human beings cannot realistically be expected to stand idly by while their countries are invaded and their lives are upturned. And yet whatever abstract or strategic justifications might be recruited to condone the fighting in France — and there are many, many more than the popular modern narrative allows — one struggles to intuit them when standing on the battlefields. The powers that be had dreaded a conflict in which both sides dug in, and yet that, alas, was what they got. In consequence, they were presented with a historical oddity — not with an urgent and fluid crisis that changed by the minute, but with what appeared to be a sick and contrived game, whose participants left and came back to a fixed field in organized shifts, as might a cricket team at bat. We like now to romanticize the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, during which British and German soldiers left their trenches to play soccer in No Man’s Land. But we rarely acknowledge what that tells us. The conflicts of our imagination don’t leave much time for sports, nor do they permit their participants to go home for two weeks at a time and then return to the battlefield when asked to do so by telegram.
At the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum in Péronne, a collection of pre-war picture books reveals what Europeans at the time imagined a world conflict might look like. Typically, the fancied aesthetic is that of François Gérard, the celebrated French-Italian painter who, in the early 19th century, turned his talents away from European society and its leading lights and toward Napoleon’s endeavors on the continent. Gérard’s heroic depictions of the fighting at Austerlitz and Waterloo are troublingly whimsical. But, for all their poetic license, they are infinitely preferable to the real thing. Walking around the remainder of the exhibition, I was struck by something that had not occurred to me before: The First World War was unconscionably ugly. Can there exist a more dehumanizing sight than a man in a gas mask? Is there a more terrifying prospect than a field of barbed wire? And what should we make of the mud — of the endless mud that covered the land for as far as the eye could see, without trees or flowers to puncture the monotony? This was the moment at which panache and individualism were removed from the battlefield, never to return — the bright colors and pageantry of old being replaced with the brutal styles of heavy industry, the crushing homogeneity that earthy and functional uniforms impose rendering all men pawns. Of course the prognosticators got it wrong. Nobody could have imagined this.
Appalled by what they were seeing above the dugout, disillusioned soldiers at the Somme and beyond took to transforming the grotesque into the beautiful. Spent shells were a favorite material, as were bullets, knives, and screwdrivers. From these, dilettantes fashioned spectacular chalices, vases, and wine buckets — often replete with remarkably intricate engravings. At Albert, which has one of the finest collections of trench art in the world, I saw a detailed windmill, the back of which was formed from an unexploded shell, the sails from blunted razor blades. From the surfeit of scrap metal, others had shaped model aircraft, primitive toy tanks, letter openers, pens, tobacco boxes, wine glasses, ersatz coins, flags, a working clock, a butterfly on a stand, and what appeared to be a series of delicate pocket-watch cases. There was even a crucifix, poignantly made from the 7.7-millimeter bullet cases that fed the Vickers.
The observation that one death is a “catastrophe,” one hundred thousand deaths a “statistic,” is both callous and flippant. But it carries with it some truth. How do we begin to conceptualize death on the Great War’s scale? In England, the chosen medium is ceramic poppies, which have been laid before the Tower of London en masse. On August 5, when this memorial was inaugurated, just 120,000 were in place — still enough to encircle the building. By November 11, there will be 888,246 — one for each British or Commonwealth soldier who died abroad. The installation has a fitting, if macabre, title: “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.” Marking the occasion on opening day, Princes William and Harry walked through channels that have been left in the field — an homage, perhaps, to the trenches. From a distance, they seemed to be wading slowly through blood.