The Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

By Kenneth Anderson
Saturday, July 2, 2016, 2:04 AM

Americans (myself included) have tended not to be attentive to the Great War. Our attention is focused instead on World War II, and we think of the Great War as "World War I" - and regard the "First" merely as wind-up to the "Second." It took me a long time to understand intellectually that the 20th century (and the 21st as well, to judge by current events in the Middle East) takes place in the shadow of the towering mountain range of the First World War. In historical terms, the First World War stands above even the Second in its influence upon the world.

I learned this most vividly (and take the image of two mountain ranges towering over the 20th century) from reading the historian John Lukacs. But I didn't understand the emotions attached to the Great War - above all a revulsion for the slaughter of an entire generation of young men of all sides - until many years ago, having lunch with a close friend, my editor at the Times Literary Supplement in London. I noticed that my friend had a small felt poppy flower in his buttonhole. I had no idea what it signified, and had not so much as noticed that we were having lunch on Remembrance Day.

My friend rather patiently explained to me the meaning of Remembrance Day, and eventually I realized it was America's Veterans Day. For my friend (as for many others of the British baby boom generation; Christopher Hitchens once expressed virtually the same sentiments to me), Remembrance Day was a day for remembering the horrors of war. That is to say, it was a day for remembering, not the sacrifices made by the First World War generation for later generations (which is how the Allied dead of the Second World War are still remembered, the Greatest Generation's sacrifice for us). Instead it was a day for remembering that the Great War generation had merely been sacrificed. Cruelly, for no particularly worthy end, unintentionally even, by incompetent generals and murderously patriotic politicians, to the bloodthirsty and yet bloodless machines of war, to the machine gun and the artillery.

There are serious dissenters to the view that the First World War was essentially a pointless war, but for many, as for my friend, the so-called "Lost Generation's" sense of the utter senselessness of it all predominated. (The literature of the Great War - no small part of it arising from the Somme - is sympathetically analyzed in Paul Fussell's classic study, one that still bears reading or re-reading, The Great War and Modern Memory.)

Whatever the correct understanding of the Great War, however, no single battle so exemplifies the sense of pointless slaughter, of men being sacrificed, as the Battle of the Somme. It began one hundred years ago today, on July 1, 1916, when British forces left their trenches and attacked the equally entrenched German forces at the river Somme. The slaughter was beyond anything known to date or, on many measures, since. The British alone suffered an astounding 55,000 casualties, including 20,000 killed in action, just in that first day of fighting. Yet this was merely the beginning, as the British high command continued to press the attack for months, throwing more and more men into the kill zone of German machine guns, until the operation mercifully came to an inglorious and inconclusive close in November 1916. The final losses for all belligerents were around one million men killed or wounded. And there was little to show for it in military or political terms, all said and done.

There have been many good books published on the Battle of the Somme, a number of which have been re-issued, often updated, in anticipation of this year's centenary. Among those that have caught my attention over the years and might be of interest to readers: the chapter on the Somme in John Keegan's classic The Face of Battle; the updated 2016 edition of Peter Hart's The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front; and Andrew Roberts' Elegy: The First Day on the Battle of the Somme.

War is hell, it's perhaps redundant to add, on this centenary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The battle was the hell it was, however, in considerable part because of the yawning gap between the new technologies of war that had emerged out of the Industrial Revolution, on the one hand, and the received strategy and tactics of commanders of the day, on the other. (Many of these Industrial Revolution technologies underwent their "beta" test, so to speak, in the American Civil War, to achieve full flower in the Great War. But the American Civil War's lessons in industrialized warfare went largely unnoticed among the European militaries.) The new weapons of war greatly multiplied the kinetic load of weapons, the rate of mechanically automated fire and the power of single explosions - largely to the benefit of the tactical defensive and thus, in the case of the Somme, to the benefit of the German defenders. British commanders of the day had not taken on board the implications of the new firepower or, to the extent they had, had found no alternatives to offensive warfare as they knew it - including, remarkably, the horse-mounted calvary charge across the no-man's land.

That's far from the whole story, of course, but there is an important lesson today: The greatest revolution in military weaponry, one that took off in the 1980s, has been the increase in precision and discrimination of kinetic force. This precision revolution has many technological strands, but if one looks at the advances in weapons technologies that have mattered since the intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple nuclear warheads, they have essentially been about precision and efficiency in the use of force to operational ends of war.

This should be celebrated, it ought hardly to require saying - certainly not reviled. Indeed, it should be pushed forward to incorporate the benefits that emerging automation and AI technologies might be able to offer. The availability of precision weapon technologies is, in considerable part, after all, what separates the wars of the Western alliance today from those of yesterday, including the Great War and the Battle of the Somme. War is hell - but there is still a moral difference in the quality of wars that cost hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of lives, and wars that cost millions upon millions. There is more hell and less hell, and the Battle of the Somme testifies to that.