Sunday, July 01, 2007

Big Push

What were you doing, fellow New Yorkers, around seven o'clock on this perfect summer morning? Walking the dog, buying the paper, getting ready to attend the church of your choice? Were you taking advantage of the respite from heat and humidity to run in the park, bike through the lightly populated streets, or just sleep in? What you weren't doing was strapping on more than sixty pounds of equipment, uttering a brief prayer, and preparing to die.

Eighty-nine years ago, July 1, 1916, at 7:30 in the morning, British and French forces attacked the entrenched German army along the Somme River in a battle that would drag on until mid-November and kill -- nobody knows exactly how many. Estimates range from 200,000 to 600,000 dead on both sides. There was no strategic advantage when the snow finally fell and ended the fighting, but the Allies called it a victory because Britain and its vast empire could afford to lose more men than Germany. Like the medieval sieges that once took place within walking distance of the Western Front, it was a war of attrition on a gigantic scale. It changed everything, and nothing.

The Somme featured both a cavalry charge (horses, sabers, bugles even) and the first use of tanks. The cavalry came up late to hold a patch of ground laboriously taken by infantry, and then melted away. The tanks were ineptly used by commanders who adapted slowly, if at all, to new technology and scattered them along the line, where they frightened some Germans shitless but soon bogged down in mud or were blown to pieces by artillery as they lumbered at half a mile an hour in and out of craters and trenches. The battle also changed the clothing style of the British Expeditionary Force. Initially, officers wore distinctive uniforms and were also much taller than the working-class men they commanded, owing to superior nutrition. After the Somme, they dressed in khaki like the Other Ranks and, I should think, slouched a bit. It was also at the Somme that the Germans began using phosgene, or mustard gas, instead of the teargas they had used before.

Generals aside, we hardly know the names of French and German participants, apart from an Austrian-born corporal who served as a runner for the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, one Adolf Hitler. The British, by contrast, fielded an anthology of writers: H.H. Munro (Saki), Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, Wilfred Owen, the historian Basil Liddell Hart, and from the publishing family, Harold Macmillan. Their accounts of the battle, in fiction, memoir and poetry, continue to shape our perceptions of a war that began as glorious patriotism and quickly became pointless slaughter, a quagmire with no way out but exhaustion, starvation, and world-wide epidemic.

I'm not a historian, though I've read as much as I could about this war, which seems to me unbearably poignant, the real end of the nineteenth century with its limitless belief in progress and technology. I rattle these facts off because last night, completely by chance (or was it?), I happened to pick up an article I had removed from a long-gone copy of Horizon magazine, probably written in the 1970s, by Robert Cowley. He walked the battlefield, examined the Thiepval memorial arch with its 73,077 names, talked to survivors. (According to the invaluable blogger This Old Brit, only one veteran survives today, with the wonderfully English name Harry Patch.) All credit, then, to Mr. Cowley.

There aren't a lot of parallels with the current Mesopotamian quagmire, apart from the obvious ones (commanders in constant communication with the Divine, dead and displaced civilians by the millions, phony outrage over WMDs versus phony outrage over a dead archduke nobody liked). So it goes. The vast conscript armies of World War I dwarf the "volunteers" of the US military and the shadowy "insurgents" they oppose. The fighting stretched from, well, Baghdad to Siberia to the English Channel. Of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom has lasted longer, will soon have lasted longer than the Seven Years War, unless Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi suddenly sprout backbones.

If we have learned anything, it's that the peace is even more important than the war, and the peace that followed 1918 was what Harry Patch and his mates would have called a complete bollocks. The Treaty of Versailles might as well have been subtitled "A Blueprint for World War II." Well-meaning outsiders, mostly for their own convenience, created new states called Yugoslavia and Iraq, which maintained their structural integrity as long as ruthless dictators were in place to solder the cracks of internal strife. When Tito died in his bed and Saddam Hussein fell afoul of the Bush Crime Family, ancient hatreds broke free. Tired old empires disappeared from the world stage (the Ottoman, the Austrian), thrusting new ones took their place (the American, the Soviet). Civil liberties suffered a kick to the groin from the Wilson Administration, and in some ways never recovered. Black Americans won the Croix de Guerre in France and came home to The Birth of a Nation. All Americans came home to Prohibition. A majority thought we could return to our old isolated ways, protected by oceans. A generation was lost.

The Somme "breakthrough" was called the Big Push, which is a lot more fun to say than Surge, and even more sexually suggestive. (No, I'm not going into the weirdly erotic language of war, not at this time.) When the pushing stopped, the war had another two years to run, and countless more lives to destroy. A grateful nation made Haig an earl and gave him a whopping cash reward. I have no idea why. He died insisting that mounted cavalry, sabers flashing, would always have a place in war.


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