It happened today - July 1, 2016
July 1 is, among many other things including Canada Day, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The First World War enjoys an evil reputation, but I think no battle is as widely condemned as this one, the apparent epitome of the entire war as a grotesquely massive exercise in mindless slaughter by callous generals at the behest of weak and unimaginative politicians. I think this interpretation is entirely wrong.
As I explain in the relevant sections of The Great War Remembered, the First World War was fought under very difficult circumstances. The technology of the late 19th century, of the “Second Industrial Revolution,” conferred an enormous advantage on the defence in war generally and the conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front in particular. But to say the war was hard to fight is not the same as saying giving up would have been appropriate.
For Allied commanders in particular, that was the stark choice. Germany had started the war, both by its prewar maneuverings and by its deliberate escalation of the crisis in the summer of 1914 to justify mobilization and an effort to crush France before Russia could mobilize. Even after that effort failed, the Kaiser’s armies occupied most of Belgium, much of France and a considerable portion of Russia. Should they have been allowed to remain there?
If not, what should have been done? In early 1916 the Germans sought to break the stalemate on the Western Front by bleeding the French white at Verdun. It was a cruel and cold strategy. But it might well have worked without a bold strike somewhere else. So should the British have occupied defensive positions, and the Russians, and waited for France to collapse and lose them the war after all the sacrifices already undergone? If not, they had to do something to relieve the pressure.
They did. Russia mounted the “Brusilov Offensive” beginning in June 1916 that enjoyed spectacular early success thanks in part to innovative tactics later adopted and refined by both sides on the Western front notably including the Canadians at Vimy. Then on July 1 the Somme offensive struck the Germans so hard their attack at Verdun did peter out without breaking French will or ability to fight.
The cost was horrendous. July 1st alone, the worst day in the history of the British army, saw some 19,000 killed and 38,000 wounded, including virtually the entire Newfoundland Regiment. And before the battle was done, Allied forces including Canadians had suffered a mind-boggling 620,000 killed or wounded, with a shocking proportion there as at Verdun simply “missing,” swallowed by the mud and the gunfire. But the battle was nevertheless a success.
First, German casualties were even higher, perhaps 680,000. That alone would be remarkable given the advantages defence enjoyed in general and the superior positions on high ground the Germans had mostly occupied since late 1914. Second, Verdun did not fall and France did not collapse. Third, the German army was so weakened that German leaders decided to withdraw into the Hindenburg line and resort to unrestricted submarine warfare, bringing the United States in and sealing their doom. Fourth, and it is worth pointing out, the Allies did win the war.
Well, not Russia. Overextended by the effort generally and the efforts of 1916 in particular, the feeble tsarist regime collapsed into chaos and then the horrors of Bolshevism. But Western leaders cannot be blamed for having gone to war with the ally they had not the ally they wished they had, any more than they can be blamed because too many Germans reacted to defeat and depression by embracing radical politics that ended with Hitler coming out on top.
The Versailles settlement did collapse and another dreadful war erupted a generation later. But the politicians of 1918 cannot be blamed for the actions of those in the 1930s, and certainly the generals cannot. And while the rows of crosses, and endless names of those with no known grave, remind us that war is a terrible thing, it is not the worst of things. As John Stuart Mill said, a worse thing is those who think nothing worth fighting for, and let others better than them fight and die in their place.
The fact is that in World War I the Western Allies found a series of plans, strategies and tactics that at terrible cost under terrible circumstances enabled them to withstand Germany’s aggressive onslaught, reject a negotiated peace that granted Germany the fruits of aggression, and win the war. And the Battle of the Somme, forced on them by unfavourable circumstances and fought under horrible ones, was a necessary part of the approach that resulted in victory.