If Gallipoli is the troubled centre of the foundation myths of Australia, the First Day of the Somme has a far darker place in British mythology. When I was at school we learnt the statistics: 60,00 casualties, 20, 00 of them dead. One morning, between 7.30am and “lunch time”. By the end of the battle, which got them nowhere, when the snows closed it down in November, British, Empire and allied troops had suffered over half a million casualties.
So I once met a man who claimed that the history of Europe in the twentieth century could be read as that culture’s inability to come to terms with the first world war. And the first day on the Somme seems like a fault line, that makes it difficult to see across to the nineteenth century, with its values and assumptions.
It’s trendy today to talk about “a patriarchal discourse” in terms of the terrible way the nineteenth century ideology of gender treated women. Or Homosexuals. But gender binaries crucify in both directions. We tend to forget the ideology that drilled it into young men that when the time came to step over a parapet and walk into machine gun fire, they should do it to prove their manhood.
Historians rewrite history: it’s their job. They do it to be accurate, to reinterpret in the light of new material, because they see the past through the lenses of their own cultural assumptions and ideological bias. They do it, cynically, because it’s how to make a career as an historian.
So Peter Hart (2005) gives the statistics as 57,470 of which 19,240 were killed which are repeated in Carlyon’s “the great war”.
Carlyon states categorically: “The Somme didn’t ruin a generation”.
Hart claims: “Yes, It is equally inane to adopt the morbid sentimentality of portraying the men who took part as helpless
victims mere stooges in a titanic battle, that somehow engulfed them unawares.”
They lined up and walked steadily into machine gun fire. They didn’t have a choice. Not even in the act of joining up. You can’t strip away the ideology of your upbringing for one moment of pure logical clarity. And a society where men signed up because war was preferable to their work in mill and mine, is irrevocably wrong.
Blame is pointless. Was Haig an idiot? Should Rawlinson have stood his ground? Was the Somme necessary so the British army could learn how to fight “modern warfare”? These are Military questions.
In human terms, a system that asks its young men to do this is intolerable. It’s not a class thing. The well-educated public school officers walked out first, because it was the done thing to lead from the front. They died. The rest of the army went after them; to prove itself “as warriors”; not to let its friends down, to be ”men”; to be there, to show willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice’ for King and country. They died. Fathers, Husbands, brothers, lovers, sons.
The statistics are awful. But it’s the personal that still hurts.
Lieutenant Noel Hodgson, 9th Battalion, Devonshire regiment:
Before Action 30/6/1916
I that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of they sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice
‘Ere the sun sheathes his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this.
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O lord.
(qtd in Hart, Peter The Somme cassell 2005)