Thursday, November 10, 2011


This is a previous post (2005) which I have bumped up to the head of the queue. Nothing has changed in the facts nor in the feelings and opinions expressed since the time it was first written. "Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori" (It is Sweet and Just/ to die for your Country) may have been an idea scorned and even abhorred in the minds of the young men of the time. Too many of them did die anyway.

Some of the links may be out-of-date. The original post is six years old.

Canadian Memorial, Ypres

Reflections on the Great War of 1914-18

The Great War of 1914-18 has exercised a fascination over me ever since I was a young child. I can remember as a small boy seeing elderly veterans in Dublin barber shops, several of them missing an arm or a leg. I was too young to be taken seriously, of course, and they would just ignore me after a smile or a pat on the head and address themselves to each other. I can't remember much of their talk but there was something in the wry way they would look at one another and smile that I have never forgotten. Memory is selective: when we try to write down the truth of the past we often end up writing fiction, sometimes lies. But I can still remember those faces. Like most children, I realized that the adult world was full of mysteries, yet there was something about the understanding between these men that was different from anything else I had encountered before in the world of Big People. There was a knowledge of some kind which they shared and, whatever it was, it was clear they were never going to share it with me or with anyone else.

The First World War was not popular in Ireland. More than 300,000 young Irishmen went over to fight in France, Gallipoli and the Middle East and 50,000 never returned. A large number of these volunteers won medals for heroic actions but there is no public recognition of their bravery and no public memorials to the sacrifice of the dead. There are no symbols of remembrance. Our country ignores and forgets these young men because they were fighting for the Wrong People in the Wrong War. They have been erased from the national consciousness.

Sunk off the Irish coast, en route from New York to England

I have always felt there was something wrong about this. The President of the Republic went to Ypres a few years ago and joined hands with the Queen of England to honour the Irish dead of the First World War: two middle-aged ladies worried about the rain and their hairdos and what to say at lunch. It was a well-meaning gesture but I don't think it would have made much impression on my soldiers in the barber shop.

The people we are taught to admire in the Irish Republic are the militants who refused to join the British Army for the sake of 'Poor Little Belgium' and who instigated a very serious behind-the-lines rebellion for Poor Little Ireland instead. Our streets and railway stations are named after these rebels of 1916 and all the nondescript concrete statues in every country town are dedicated to local heroes of the independence struggle. Any connection with the British military, however glorious the deeds or hardwon the medals, is considered embarrassing and unmentionable, like a rude noise in church.

When you cross the Border into the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, everything changes. The statues and monuments tell a different story. In each (Protestant) village and town there are prominent memorials to the Glorious Dead of the First World War. The Second World War, and the names of the dead, serve merely as a footnote. There is a very good reason for this. The First World War was a Blood Sacrifice, with casualties in every village and city street and it is held up dripping red in the face of each successive UK government whenever they talk of accommodation or compromise with the Irish Republic. We fought and died for you, say the Northern Loyalists, and these people in the South tried to stab you in the back. And don't you forget it!

This was at the back of my mind when I rented a car and drove around the battlefields of the Somme. To understand the logic behind what happened here you need to strip your mind of emotion and sentiment and look at the technology of the war, the mathematical calculations that controlled mass slaughter. This may indeed be what you set out to do, but it becomes impossible as the day wears on. The horror and the pity soon breaks through any attempt at a brisk and objective approach. Try as you may to keep your imagination in check, the cumulative effect of the rows and rows of headstones in the many — the so many — neatly-tended cemeteries bears down on you throughout the day. You feel sorry for all these young men. Then you begin to feel a rising anger at the way all these young lives were cut off. As the day progresses you become more and more benumbed by the enormity of the slaughter and your mind slips into a state of helplessness and dull disbelief.

The pressure to enlist was unrelenting Posted by Hello

In 1914 the Germans had been stopped in their push through Belgium into Northern France because they had allowed gaps to open between their three separate attacking armies. In a clumsy attempt to close these gaps they had suffered attack on their right flank by Gallieni and the new Paris army (hurried to the front in taxi cabs). They fell back from the River Marne to the River Aisne and dug in. The French and British attacked, took losses, and dug in also. Each side then tried to outflank the other to the west in a 'Race to the Sea' but this ended in a line of trenches stretching from the Belgian coastline south of Ostend to the Swiss border more than 900 kilometres away. A stalemate ensued, but the pressure was on the French and their British allies to recover lost territory.

French Mobilisation Order, August 1914 Posted by Hello

How had this mass slaughter begun? Historians explain it in terms of rivalries and alliances set in motion by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne. By early 1915 the causes of the war hardly mattered any more for the nations involved. Each was engaged in a struggle for national survival.

It was a new kind of warfare. Cavalry soon proved to be useless and infantry attacks on defended positions produced horrific casualties. It became an artillery war with each side pounding the defenses of the other. In September 1915 there was a major British offensive in which the poison gas they planned to use came floating back into their own trenches. As Robert Graves describes it: 'Come on!- 'Get back, you bastards!' - 'Gas turning on us!' - 'Keep your heads, you men!' -'Back like hell, boys!' - 'Whose orders?' - 'What's happening?' -'Gas!' - 'Back!' -'Come on!' - 'Gas!' - ''Back'. A 'bloody balls-up' is what the troops called it. The historians call it the Battle of Loos.

Mud and rain were a constant misery Posted by Hello

Warfare had entered the industrial age with a vengeance. There had been forewarnings in the American Civil War (repeating rifles, massed artillery), the Boer War (barbed wire, concrete strongpoints) and the Russo-Japanese War (better artillery, machine guns) but it took a long time for the First World War generals, many of them cavalry officers, to come to grips with these new conditions. The essential problem was that the infantry could not cover the ground to the enemy trenches, in spite of heavy bombardment, before the enemy reappeared from its deep dugouts to direct machine gun fire on the attackers and call in accurate artillery fire. Even if an attack were successful and overran the first line of trenches, the defenders could run back to a second or third line. The railways ran up to the support areas of the defending side so that reinforcements could be rushed into the battle more quickly and in far greater numbers than the surviving soldiers of the other side could press home an attack.

German bunker, Ypres Posted by Hello

In 1916 these facts had not yet been assimilated by the Allied Command. The British were planning a 'Big Push' to take some of the pressure off their French allies who were being hard pressed at Verdun. The attack was to be on a 40 km. front along the previously quiet sector of the Somme/Ancre valley. Three hundred thousand troops were shipped from England to rear areas in France and moved up to the line. Most of them were volunteers of Kitchener's New Army. These were young men with no previous military experience who had joined up in a rush of enthusiasm in 1914. Many of them had joined up together in the 'Pal's Battalions' which assured them of serving together with their friends and workmates. "Perhaps no story of the First World War is as poignant as that of the Pals," writes John Keegan, "It is a story of a spontaneous and genuinely popular mass movement which has no counterpart in the modern, English-speaking world and perhaps could have none outside its own time and place: a time of intense, almost mystical patriotism." This policy later turned out to be a public relations disaster when the casualty lists came to be posted: a whole generation of young local men were wiped out almost overnight so that factories, workplaces, city streets and whole villages were plunged into mass mourning.

 Posted by Hello

The pressure to enlist was unrelenting (2) Posted by Hello

One of these groups was much larger than a battalion (about 800-1000 men), or a brigade (3 battalions). It was a Division which numbered between 10-12,000 men and which saw upwards of 80,000 men pass through it before the war had ended. These were the hardline Sons of Ulster, the Protestant stalwarts of Northern Ireland who had joined the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) to oppose Home Rule for Ireland and fight against the British themselves, if need be, for the right to remain British. Civil war in Ireland had been the overriding concern in Britain during the summer of 1914, as the newspapers and diaries of the time show clearly. The illegal and possibly treasonous UVF (they had imported arms from Germany) enlisted en masse at the outbreak of war and were granted separate unit status within the British Army under their own officers. Under Kitchener's orders, Southern Irish volunteers were denied the same privilege and scattered among a variety of pre-existing regiments under English officers.

Kitchener makes it personal Posted by Hello

General Haig was the British Commander-in-Chief in France who planned the Somme offensive. He was a Lowland Scot, authoritarian, hardworking, dull, unimaginative; he planned to hurl his unseasoned troops at the enemy positions in hopes of a major breakthrough. He actually intended to send in the cavalry on the Somme -- this happened on one occasion near High Wood: horses and men were shot and blown to pieces -- since his main concern was to overrun the German trenches and restore a war of movement in the open land behind the enemy lines. He called up 1500 guns and laid down an onslaught on the German forward and support trenches that continued non-stop for 7 days and nights. When it was over he believed the New Army troops could simply walk over and take possession of the battered German defenses. As untrained troops, they were instructed to walk not run in order to keep their lines straight and orderly. The young citizen-soldiers were enthusiastic and eager to "have a crack at the Hun" as they collected in huge numbers at the junction of the Somme and Ancre rivers.

To get to this area of France (Picardy) you take the high-speed TGV from Paris to Lille then transfer to the local line to Arras. When you get to Arras you would do well to head for the Ould Shebeen, the Irish pub across the square from the station. This could save you a lot of time, particularly if your command of the French language is not that great (and the French outside Paris are resolutely monolingual). John O'Rourke, the owner, or Eoin or one of the boys will help you to find a hotel room and talk you through the particulars of a Rentacar contract. You need a car if you want to get about because the battlefields are extended over a wide area. If you are lucky (as I was) then Chris Farrell from the Commonwealth Graves Commission will drop by the pub and get talking to you. He will invite you to his office the following morning to get all the latest maps (modern roads marked with the old trenchlines) and give you much useful advice if you're not sure where to begin.

I knew where I was going to begin. I drove south on the main road to Bapaume and turned off on the road to Auchonvilliers ('Ocean Villas') which lies northwest of the town. Just outside this village is Beaumont Hamel, the jumping off point for the 29th Division. You can walk it, you can see what happened. The troops were getting pounded as they moved into their forward trenches (still there) even before the battle began because the Germans -- as usual -- were on higher ground.

Jumping-off trenches, Beaumont-Hamel Posted by Hello

When they went over the top the ground fell away in a slope and this left them lined up in rows for the machine guns. They were mowed down and slaughtered. The German lines in the Y-Ravine were only 400 metres away. You can walk that distance today over the grassy lumpy field (lots of grown-over shell holes ) and when you look back from the German side you can see how exposed they were, such perfect targets. The Newfoundland Regiment, fresh from Canada, took 75% casualties in this failed attack. In his novel "Tender is the Night" Scott Fitzgerald has his main character Dick Diver visit these same trenches with a group of friends: 'See that little stream --we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it -- a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs ... This western-front business couldn't be done again, not for a long time ... This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation between the classes.'

The Y-Ravine, Beaumont-Hamel Posted by Hello

Beyond these trenches on a high ridge to the right lies Thiepval. Here the 36th (Ulster) Division went over into a hailstorm of fire. So much for the destruction of the opposition by artillery. The Germans survived the high explosives in their deep dugouts and came out to meet the attack with machine guns. The trusting young soldiers who walked over in rows (walk, don't run) were shot down in their hundreds and thousands --'We were very surprised to see them walking," a German machine-gunner recalls, "We had never seen that before ... When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them." It was murder. Even the Germans sickened of the slaughter and ceased firing when the dazed survivors began stumbling back to their own lines. The young Edmund Blunden (war poet and later Professor of English at Tokyo University) concluded that the stalemate was hopeless. "By the end of the day," he wrote, "both sides had seen ... the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither (side) had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning." Idealism and patriotic fervour died on the killing fields of the Somme. Youth entered a hard new era in which 'abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.' Hemingway could write this in 1929 ('A Farewell to Arms'); in the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what he was talking about.

The Ulster Division did as well as it could. In some parts of the line they managed to gain the opposing trenches but had to fall back later in the day. Many of them went over the top wearing their Orange Sashes screaming 'Fuck the Pope!' and 'King Billy Forever' and were machine-gunned into the mud. They died in droves. At the end of the day they had lost most of their officers and more than half of their men. It was a shambles.

On that one day, July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered 57,000 casualties, 20,000 dead. The wounded cried out for three days in the wasteland between the trenches. The British Army had never before and has never since lost so many men in a single attack.

It was reported , of course, as a victory. Truth is the first casualty of any war, and it had completely flown out the window by 1916 as both sides, aided by patriotic journalists, kept the factual horrors of the war carefully distant from the people at home. Haig persisted in a series of follow-up attacks which gained him about 4000 yards between August and November when the offensive was called off. He had lost 420,000 troops by then. The Germans had lost 280,000.

When you drive around this peaceful undulating landscape its occasional forests or collection of small woodlands (so deadly during the conflict) seem to be placed here and there with a very French sense of propriety, as if the inhabitants were in agreement with their forefathers that such long stretches of yellow and green farmlands needed to be interspersed with several tastefully placed acres of trees. It is hard to believe, it is inconceivable that so much concentrated violence took place over these rolling farmlands -- then little more than a sea of mud -- in which tens of thousands of young soldiers died. But the reminders are ever present in the form of the cemeteries.

The cemeteries are a map of the various attacks because they were built where the soldiers died. There are hundreds of these cemeteries scattered about the fields of Belgium and France, more than 400 in the region of the Somme alone, and each of them is carefully tended to this day by the Commonwealth (formerly Imperial) War Graves Commission. The larger ones such as Tyne Cot on the Passchendaele Ridge in Flanders contain thousands of graves in row after row after row. It is a chastening thing to walk among the headstones: name, regiment, 19 years old; name, regiment, 21 years old; name, regiment, 23 years old; name, regiment, 20 years old. On many of the headstones there are no names at all. The inscription reads 'A Soldier of the Great War' and underneath it says 'Known Unto God'. This means the poor fellow was blown into smithereens and they couldn't put the bits together. There are 73,077 names on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme and another 54,896 on the Menin Gate in Ypres which simply records the names of the men who disappeared. Many just sank into the mud and their bodies were never recovered.

War Graves near Albert (Somme), Posted by Hello

Even today the soil turns up its grim reminders. In Flanders and on the fields of the Somme the farmers turn up several tons of rusting shells every year. They are still dangerous and explosions claim the lives of about a dozen local people each year. The unexploded shells are placed at the sides of the road for the Army bomb squads to collect and detonate and this is done every year during the ploughing season. You can see them in small rusting heaps as you drive by on the road. You can stop and handle them. You can take one home as a souvenir if you like. After 88 years these things are still capable of exploding.

About 800 metres east of the village of La Boiselle on the Albert-Bapaume road is an enormous mine crater. The English dug under the German lines and blew them up with several tons of explosive. The crater sits in the fields today by the side of a narrow farm road: it is 30 metres deep and at least 50 metres in diametre. There is a cross nearby and because it was July (July is the anniversary of the 1916 battle and many, many English come over each summer) the cross was surrounded by hundreds of blood-red paper poppies, the symbol of the fallen soldiers. There were dozens of hand-written notes and prayers: But one note in particular caught my attention: surrounded by a wreath of poppies it read "In Memory of Private George Nugent, 3rd Tyneside Scottish, Killed 1st July 1916. Found at Lochnagar Crater October 1998." George Nugent had been missing for 82 years.

Of all the verses which recall the sacrifice of this army of the dead -- and it is a veritable army, since it has been calculated that it would take three and a half days for the dead of the British Empire alone, marching four abreast, to pass through central London -- the one that we have all heard seems to have passed into collective memory; "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them. " Geoff Dyer, in a gentle but penetrating meditation on the meaning of this war and the way we remember it, points out that the words were written by Laurence Binyon in September 1914: before the fallen actually fell. " 'For the Fallen'", he writes, "is a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determination."

Menin Gate interior, Ypres Posted by Hello

And this brings me back to the question which I am still unable to answer, and which compelled me to visit the battlefields that summer. Why does this war still exert such a mesmerising hold over the European (particularly British) imagination? It occurred nearly a century ago and within a short number of years -- if not already -- there will be no living survivors. Yet it resonates in our collective memory to a far greater extent than even the Second World War. Perhaps this is because we recognize that the Second War, for all its horrors, could never have been possible without the First. Hitler could never have become the leader of Germany without the humiliation of the German defeat in 1918. It would have been unthinkable for a civilized European nation at the heart of Europe to be taken over by a band of political thugs -- unless it had suffered such a shattering blow to its self-esteem that the social verities and the shared assumptions of the past quite simply fell apart. Nor, it must be said, would the French or British (not to mention the Americans) have tolerated Hitler's rise to power without the memories of the carnage of 1914-18. It was this memory of the countless dead which stayed their hands in the hope of a peaceful outcome.

It could be argued -- and I, for one, am inclined to believe this -- that the 20th century really only lasted for 75 years. It began with the guns of August 1914 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire in November 1989. The First World War and its repercussions created this world.

This deeply traumatic war could probably have been avoided. The inevitability of history is a myth. When we look back on the past we tend to be severely critical in our judgements and conclusions with regard to the statesmen and politicians of the time, and even to the vagaries of popular opinion, because we already know what happens next. What we need to remember is that the past was the "present" for the people who lived through it and that for them the future was just as unknowable and as full of possible outcomes as it is for us today. Things could have turned out quite differently.

In August 1914 all the options had run out. War could no longer be avoided. After weeks of frantic but fruitless diplomacy the statesmen of Europe watched their stable and confident world march to the brink of a catastrophe whose horrors none of them could fully comprehend. One of them, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, had an inkling of what was to happen. As he gazed from his office over the darkening streets of Whitehall he murmured, "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

(There is also a thoughtful article in the "New Yorker" -- mid-August 2004 -- which I would urge you to read).