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 offensive … The 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 Russia … They 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.