The Pity of War

Is leading one’s own troops to slaughter ever justified?
Marc Yankus

Many years ago, I went to the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament in London to keep an appointment with the almost picturesquely reactionary Conservative politician Alan Clark. He was the son of Kenneth (later Lord) Clark—the art historian and author of the Civilisation series—and the heir to Saltwood Castle, in Kent. He was also the author of a 1961 book, The Donkeys, which was a history of the British General Staff in the First World War. The title came from a famous comment that had supposedly been made at that epoch by a German military strategist. Told by the highly impressed Quartermaster General Ludendorff that “these British soldiers fight like lions,” General Max Hoffmann had responded: “Yes, but lions led by donkeys.”

Probably no historical image would be harder to dislodge from the collective memory than that of the teak-headed, red-faced, white-moustached general, his tactics derived from long-ago cavalry maneuvers, sitting in a château headquarters well behind the lines as he orders waves of infantry across minefields and through barbed wire, forcing them like the Light Brigade itself “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,” and into the waiting German machine guns. Clark’s history of this cataclysmic episode was in some ways the least of it: the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon, together with the memoirs of Robert Graves, now constitute a sort of separate department of English literature, centered around not just “the pity of war,” but also its futility. However, The Donkeys attained a relevance well beyond its shelf life because it was adapted by Joan Littlewood and mutated into the mighty stage and then screen triumph of Oh! What a Lovely War. This work made the teak-headed, red-faced, white-moustached version into something practically unchallengeable for the first generation that had no memory of the conflict itself.

As I marched across Parliament Square, semiconsciously falling into step with the military pace of the right-wing half of this right-left collaboration, Clark said to me: “I suppose you have heard people say that I am a bit of a fascist?” We had a whole lunch ahead of us and I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot, but something told me he would despise me if I pretended otherwise, so I agreed that this was indeed a thumbnail summary in common use. “That’s all balls,” he replied with complete equanimity. “I’m really much more of a Nazi.” This was what Bertie Wooster would have called “a bit of a facer”; I was groping for an apt response when Clark pressed on. “Your fascist is a little middle-class creep who worries about his dividends and rents. The true National Socialist feels that the ruling class has a debt and a tie to the working class. We sent the British workers off to die en masse in the trenches along the Somme, and then we rewarded them with a slump and mass unemployment, and then that led to another war that gutted them again.” For Clark, the lesson of this bloodletting was that a truly national, racial, and patriotic class collaboration was the main thing.

Peter Hart is one of the chief historians at what the British still call the Imperial War Museum, in London, and he is a member of that tremendously tenacious group of scholars—the late (somehow magically named) John Terraine being the veteran of the group—who cannot rest until honor and credit have been restored to those who made up the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders. Hart writes like this: “The remorseless rhythms of global war had already wrapped themselves around the British Empire” (a sentence that would work just as well, if not indeed better, if it were the British Empire wrapping itself around the global rhythms), and he alludes scornfully to those who moan on about “the pity of it all,” although that phrasing doesn’t occur in Wilfred Owen, who wrote firsthand of “war, and the pity of war,” and said, “The poetry is in the pity.” Hart has no big-picture sense of the place of the Great War in the narrative of the 20th century—he is as committed to the mud of Flanders and Picardy as his forebears were. Nonetheless, as one turns his pages, one is compelled to be impressed by the way he builds his relentless and one-dimensional case. The battles along the Somme were not one repetitive fiasco after another, but rather represented a very steep and painful learning curve, up which the British army agonizingly inched, to eventually acquire the skills and sinews that wore down Prussian militarism.

This doesn’t alter the fact, which Hart scarcely bothers to conceal, that there was something doomed about the first assault. A purely political calculation was involved. The French army had been so terribly mauled and demoralized at Verdun that the British feared it might actually disintegrate unless they shored up its flanks. According to General Sir Douglas Haig himself, quoting General Joffre at what had obviously been a panic meeting:

He [Joffre] therefore was of the opinion that 1 July was the latest date for the combined offensiveThe moment I mentioned 15 August Joffre at once got very excited and shouted that “The French Army would cease to exist, if we did nothing till then”! The rest of us looked on at this outburst of excitement, and then I pointed out that, in spite of the 15th August being the most favorable date for the British Army to take action, yet, in view of what he had said regarding the unfortunate condition of the French Army, I was prepared to commence operations on the 1st July or thereabouts.

The first day of July 1916 it finally was, and I dare say people still remember that on just that first day of the attack, the British suffered about 57,000 casualties, more than one-third of them fatal. (A pair of lovely old villages in the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire is quaintly named Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter. Upper Slaughter is well known locally because it is one of the tiny number of villages in the country that did not lose any men in the Great War.) Hart has no time for details such as the foregoing, but almost 200 pages after that ominous Haig-Joffre citation, he makes the same point about the continued bloodletting in his own brisk and businesslike way:

Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and RussiaThey were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the “butcher’s bill.”

So the Hart line can be followed and understood once one accepts that British mass casualties were a political question: a price worth paying for the continued good opinion of the Russian czar and of the future leadership of Vichy. But then it does happen to be true that soldiers are the subordinates of politicians and that war is the continuation and extension of politics by other means, just as it happens to be true that a field headquarters more or less has to be in the rear of the action, because no general can command from a shifting front line.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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