The Pity of War

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

From Hart’s book I was able to learn and grasp (and even picture) the historic importance of the “creeping,” or perhaps better say “staggered,” barrage. The descriptions one has so often seen, of entire ranks and files of British infantry lying dead almost symmetrically, like so much freshly scythed wheat, are all true. But these men were being expended while the British artillery struggled to evolve a system of covering bombardment that “walked” in front of them, smashing trench after trench and clearing them a path. Painstakingly leading us through a series of terrible engagements, Hart succeeds in showing how the gunners got steadily better (as did the guns). He also succeeds in giving one an enhanced respect for the German soldiers who held positions under this unbelievable rain of fire and were still—almost always—ready to fight. Sometimes they were too stunned and deafened and dazed to do anything but surrender, or rather, try to do so. An unpleasantly recurrent theme in the diaries and letters of British soldiers—Niall Ferguson has also been able to be honest about this often-avoided question—is the casual or even gloating way in which the Tommys boasted of killing German prisoners. In many instances they were more or less under orders to do so, from men such as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Maxwell of the Middlesex Regiment:

And I must say that they fought most stubbornly and bravely. Probably not more than 300–500 put their hands upI have no shame in saying so—as every German should in my opinion be exterminated—I don’t know that we took one. I have not seen a man or officer yet who did anyway.

It used to be said of the American Civil War that it was the last of the old wars and the first of the new, but on the Western Front in the early days of the war there were still some traces of a more gallant and less mechanized age. Here is the admittedly rather ridiculous Chaplain Leonard Jeeves of the 18th Division, describing one episode of over-the-top quixotry on that first awful day:

A few hundred yards away from where we were fast becoming busy, my good and brave friend, Captain Nevill, led his men into the fight with footballs. And thus he died. With the Englishman’s way of fighting, he went on his way. The War was a game which was to be played to the end in a clean and straight manner.

This is perhaps too much like a stiff-upper-lip caricature to have much effect on the reader’s emotions, but if you have tears to shed, you will prepare to do so when you read of the “Pals” battalions that were formed out of men from single localities and neighborhoods. This often gave a great impetus to recruitment, with entire streets of men joining up together. But the devastating effect of mass casualties on such communities was correspondingly intense. (John Harris’s neglected masterpiece of a novel, Covenant With Death, is the success that it is because it follows a group of Sheffield workers from their flag-waving sign-up to the hecatomb on the Somme.)

Hart doesn’t mention it, but the massacre of the Ulster Protestants of Belfast, which also took place on July 1, was a major contributing cause to the sectarian warfare that has only just ended in that city. The influence of the Vimy Ridge fighting on the formation of Canadian nationalism, of Gallipoli and the Somme on the emergence of an Australian identity, together with the role played by Indian regiments in fueling demands for self-government, would themselves make a book on empire. Most people have never heard of Delville Wood, but if you mention it in South Africa you will find that it is still a place of fame: only 780 out of the 3,153 men in the South African Regiment were present to answer the roll call by the time the wood itself had been obliterated and they had been withdrawn from it. This horror came, regrettably enough for them, in the early days of the learning curve, and many of these casualties were the result of British shells bursting in their midst.

The attitude and personality of General Sir Douglas Haig—personification of the bovine British militarist—is one of those subjective factors that no amount of historical revisionism can erase. Reacting to an extremely painful and costly reverse suffered by an Australian division whose soldiers had been flung into an ill-advised attack through no fault of its own, Haig snootily informed the Aussies that they were not fighting Turks anymore, and wrote in his diary:

Some of their divisional generals are so ignorant and (like so many Colonials) so conceited, that they cannot be trusted to work out unaided the plans of attack.

He could also, when it suited him, invert the Clausewitzian cliché and intervene directly in British politics. By the end of July 1916, Winston Churchill had become so concerned about the appalling butcher’s bill and the lack of compensating terrain gained from the Germans that he wrote a confidential memo for the eyes of the War Cabinet. Haig sent a reply, in which he spoke of the Somme as a demonstration to the world of “the fighting power of the British race” and stressed the importance of the campaign in relieving pressure on the Russians (who were little more than a year away from total capitulation). He also told King George V that Churchill’s “head is gone from taking drugs.” Hart describes that latter statement as “delightfully waspish.”

Every now and then there is a real “find” among the journals kept and books written by soldiers: I was especially engrossed by the pungency of one Lieutenant Lawrence Gameson, a medical officer with the Royal Field Artillery. His unbearably vivid description of health conditions among his men makes it easier to understand why the casualty figures went so high and stayed so high: this was a very dirty war, where even a slight wound or infection was in many cases a death sentence. Gameson used understatement to great effect and also knew when it was being employed for euphemism: informed by his superiors that “the wet season [was] approaching,” when many of his trenches were already “waist deep in liquid mud,” he described their choice of the word wet as “scarcely short of criminal meiosis.”

But language is not the dimension in which Hart excels. To some of us, mention of “the river Somme” is the opening of Act III, Scene v of Henry V, a coincidence that he never mentions. “We would not seek a battle as we are,” King Henry soon tells the French herald Montjoy, adding imperishably, “nor as we are, we say, we will not shun it.” That could sum up the attitude of many a stoic British lion as he shouldered the burden the Donkeys had laid upon him: this play is the one above all others that gives voices to the soldiery. (Alas, as Shakespeare didn’t flinch from showing in Act IV, Scenes vi–vii, before that day at Agincourt was done, the British had massacred all their French prisoners, too.) Henry’s rhetoric places a constant emphasis on the way that the struggle dissolved the barrier between king and subject, creating a “band of brothers.” That was fanciful enough, to be sure, but the carnage of 1914–18, which led to the greatest fall of monarchies in history, also widened and deepened the class chasms and led to the spewing-up of Nazism from the wreckage of defeated Germany. “The darkest hour”—Hart’s subtitle—is naively supposed to be the one just before dawn. The mortal combat in Flanders fields, by contrast, was the prelude to a continental darkness far more Stygian than anything that could even have been imagined before it.

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