Deep Reads #3: What Is It Good For?
From Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.
The British fought the war for four years and three months. Its potential of ironic meaning, considered not now in relation to the complacencies of the past but in itself alone, emerges when we consider its events chronologically. The last five months of 1914, starting August 4, when the British declared war on the Central Powers, began with free maneuver in Belgium and northern France, and ended with both sides locked into the infamous trench system. Before this stalemate, the British engaged in one major retreat and fought two large battles, although ‘battles’ is perhaps not the best word, having been visited upon these events by subsequent historiography in the interest of neatness and the assumption of something like a rational causality. To call these things ‘battles’ is to imply an understandable continuity with earlier British history and to imply that the war makes sense in a traditional way. As Esme Wingfield-Stratford points out, “A vast literature has been produced in the attempt to bring [the Great War] into line with other wars by highlighting its so-called battles by such impressive names as Loos, Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele…” This is to try to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning.
The major retreat was the Retreat From Mons on August 24, necessitated when Sir John French’s four divisions — the whole of the British force engaged — found themselves outflanked. In early September, this retreat merged into the first of the ‘battles’, known as the Marne, where the British and the French gradually stopped the German advance on Paris, although at a cost of half a million casualties on each side. Prevented from going through to Paris, the Germans sought an opening further north, and each side now begin trying to turn its enemy’s western flank with the object of winning the war rapidly and economically; it was still thought by some that this was a compassable obkect. The ensuing maneuvers during late October and early November are variously misnamed ‘The First Battle Of Ypres’ and ‘The Race To The Sea’ — that is, to the Belgian seaports. The journalistic formula ‘The Race To The _______’ was ready to hand, familiar through its use in 1909 to describe Peary’s ‘Race To The (North) Pole’ against Cook. Rehabilitated and applied to these new events, the phrase had the advantage of a familiar sportsmanlike Explorer Club overtone, suggesting that what was happening was not too far distant from playing games, running races, and competing in a thoroughly decent way.
By the middle of November, these exertions had all but wiped out the original British Army. At the beginning of the war, a volunteer had to stand five feet eight to get into the army. By October 11 the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. And on November 5, after the thirty thousand casualties of October, one had to be only five feet three to get in. The permanent trenchline had been dug running from Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, all the way to the Swiss border, with the notorious Ypres salient built in. The perceptive could already see what the war was going to be like. As early as October 1914, Captain G.B. Pollard wrote home, using gingerly a novel word whose implications would turn more and more ghastly as time when on: “It’s absolutely, certainly a war of ‘attrition’, as somebody said here the other day, and we have got to stick it longer than the other side and go on producing men, money and material until they cry quits, and that’s all about it, as far as I can see.” Lord Kitchener was one who agreed with Captain Pollard. Near the end of October he issued his call for 300,000 volunteers. Most of them would be expended on the Somme in 1916. The first Christmas of the war saw an absolute deadlock in the trenches. Both British and German soldiers observed an informal, ad hoc Christmas day truce, meeting in No Man’s Land to exchange cigarettes and to take snapshots. Outraged, the Staff forbade this ever to happen again.
The new year, 1915, brought the repeated failure of British attempts to break through the German line and to unleash the cavalry in pursuit. They failed first because of insufficient artillery preparations — for years no one had any idea how much artillery fire would be needed to destroy the German barbed wire and to reach the solid German deep dugouts; second, because of insufficient reserves for exploiting a suddenly apparent weakness; and third, because the British attacked on excessively narrow frontages, enabling every part of the ground gained to be brought under retaliatory artillery fire.
However, the first failed attack of 1915 was not British but German. The area selected was near Ypres, and the fracas has been named the Second Battle Of Ypres, or simply Second Ypres. On April 22, after discharging chlorine gas from cylinders, the Germans attacked and advanced three miles. But then they faltered for lack of reserves. Gas had first been used by the Germans on October 27, 1914, when they fired a prototype of modern tear gas from artillery near Ypres. The German use of gas — soon to be imitated by the British — was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as Liddell Hart points out, gas is “the least inhumane of modern weapons”. Its bad press was the result of its novelty: “It was novel, and therefore labelled as an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations.” In the late-April attack at Ypres, the British were virtually unprotected against gas — the ‘box respirator’ was to come later — and even though the line was substantially held, the cost was 60,000 British casualties.
A few weeks later it was the British turn. On March 10, the first of the aborted British offensives was mounted at Neuve Chapelle. The attack was only 2000 yards wide, and, although it was successful at first, it died for lack of reserves and because the narrow frontage invited too much retributive German artillery. Again the British tried, on May 15 at Festubert, and with similar results: initial success turned into disaster. Going through the line was beginning to look impossible. It was thus essential to entertain hopes of going around it, even if going around took one as far away as Gallipoli, 2200 miles southeast of the Western Front, where the troops had begun landing on April 25.
Imagining themselves instructed by these occasions of abridged hope at Neuve Chapelle and Festubert, the British mounted a larger attack near Loos on September 15. Six divisions went forward at once, and this time the attack was preceded not only by the customary artillery barrage but by the discharge of what Robert Graves tells us was euphemized as “the accessory” — cylinders of chlorine gas. Most of it blew back into the British trenches, and the attack was another failure which even the Official History later stigmatized as a “useless slaughter of infantry”. The proceedings at Loos were called off eleven days after they had started, but not before 60,000 more British casualties had been added to the total.
Now volunteers were no longer sufficient to fill the ranks. In October, Lord Derby’s ‘scheme’ — a genteel form of conscription — was promulgated, and at the beginning of 1916, with the passing of the Military Service Act, England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world. Clearly the conscripts were needed, for things were going badly everywhere. The assault at Gallipoli was proving as unsuccessfil as the assaults elsewhere, and at the end of 1915 the forces there were withdrawn with nothing gained.
The need for a stiffening of the home-front morale at the beginning of 1916 can be gauged by the Poet Laureate’s issuing in January an anthology of uplifting literary passages of a neo-Platonic tendency titled The Spirit of Man. Such was the military situation, Robert Bridges implied in his introduction, that “we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls”. We will thus “look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and loving kindness.” The news from Belgium and France, not to mention Turkey, was making it more and more necessary to insist, as Bridges does, that “man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature…” Such an outlook is now indispensable, for we are confronted with “a grief that is intolerable constantly to face, nay, impossible to face without that trust in God which makes all things possible.”
The comforts purveyed by The Spirit of Man were badly needed, for 1915 had been one of the most depressing years in British history. It had been a year not only of ironic mistakes, but of a grossly unimaginative underestimation of the enemy, and of the profound difficulties of siege warfare. Poor Sir John French had to be sent home, to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as commander of British forces. One doesn’t want to be too hard on Haig, who doubtless did all he could and who has been well calumniated already. But it must be said that it now appears that one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant — especially of the French — and quite humorless. And he was a provincial: at his French headquarters he insisted on attending a Church of Scotland service every Sunday. Bullheaded as he was, he was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting. Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig’s performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm. His want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for Great Men ever since.
To Haid the lesson of 1915 was clear and plain. A successful attack leading to a breakthrough would have to be infinitely larger and wider and stronger and better planned than had been imagined. Wit this kind of attack in view, Haig and his staff spent the first six months of 1916 preparing an immense penetration of the German line on the Somme which he was confident would end the war. The number of men destined for the attack, equal to twenty-six World War II infantry divisions, constituted a seven-to-one superiority over the Germans. While the planning was underway, France was engaged at Verdun. Its defense bled her so badly that henceforth the main offensive effort on the Western Front had to be British. There were not enough French left, and those remaining were so broken in spirit that the mutinies of May 1917, given the stingy French leave and recreation policy, might have been predicted. The ironic structure of events was becoming conventional, even Hardyesque: if the patter of things in 1915 had been a number of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes, the pattern in 1916 was that of one vast optimistic hope leading to one vast ironic catastrophe. The Somme affair, destined to be known among the troops as the Great Fuck-Up, was the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization.
By the end of June 1916, Haig’s planning was finished and the attack on the Somme was ready. Sensing that this time the German defensive wire must be cut and the German front-line positions obliterated, Haig bombarded the enemy trenches for a full week, firing a million and a half shells from 1537 guns. At 7:30 on the morning of July 1, the artillery shifted to more distance targets, and the attacking waves of eleven British divisions climbed out of their trenches on a thirteen-mile front and began walking forward. And by 7:31, the mere six German divisions facing them had carried their machine guns upstairs from the deep dugouts where, during the bombardment, they had harbored safely — and even comfortably — and were hosing the attackers walking toward them in orderly rows or puzzling before the still uncut wire. Out of the 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded on this one day, the record so far. Over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in No Man’s Land stopped crying out.
The disaster had many causes. Lack of imagination was one: no one imagined that the Germans could have contrived such deep dugouts to hide in while the artillery pulverized the ground overhead, just as no one imagined that the German machine gunners could get up the stairs and mount their guns so fast once the bombardment moved away at precisely 7:30. Another cause was traceable to the class system and the assumptions it sanctioned. The regulars of the British staff entertained an implicit contempt for the rapidly trained new men of “Kitchener’s Army”, largely recruited among workingmen from the Midlands. The planners assumed that these troops — burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment — were too simple and animal to cross the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows or ‘waves’. It was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.
A final cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise. There was a hopeless absence of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of it author. The attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn — the expected hour for an attack — and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced German machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. But one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting. Whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the Somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending the cavalry through to end the war. Contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of July 1916, Blunden wrote eighteen years later: “By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning.”
Regardless of this perception, the British attempt on the Somme continued mechanically until stopped in November by freezing mud. A month earlier, the British had unveiled an innovation, the tank, on the road between Albert and Bapaume, to the total surprise and demoralization of the enemy. But only thirty-two had been used, and this was not enough for a significant breakthrough. A terrible gloom overcame everyone at the end of 1916. It was the bottom, even worse than the end of 1915. “We are going to lose this war,” Lloyd George was heard to say. And the dynamics of hope abridged continued to dominate 1917 with two exceptions — the actions at Messines in June and Cambrai in November.
On January 1, 1917, Haig was elevated to the rank of Field Marshal, and on March 17, Bapaume — one of the main first-day objectives of the Somme jump-off nine months before — was finally captured. The Germans had proclaimed their intention of practicing unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic on February 1, and by April 6, this had brought a declaration of war from the United States. Henceforth the more subtle allied strategists knew that winning the war would only be a matter of time, but they also knew that, since the United States was not ready, the time would not be short.
Meanwhile, something had to be done on the line. On April 9, the British again tried the old tactic of head-on assault, this time near Arras in an area embracing the infamous Vimy Ridge, which for years had dominated the southern part of the Ypres Salient. The attack, pressed for five days, gained 7000 yards at a cost of 160,000 killed and wounded. The same old thing. But on June 7, there was something new, something finally exploiting the tactic of surprise. Near Messines, south of Ypres, British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive a hundred feet below cruicial points in the German defense system. At 3:10 in the morning, these mines were set off all at once. Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 mies away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July 1955, injuring no one but forcibly reminding citizens of the nearby rebuilt town of Ploegsteert of the appalling persistence of the Great War. The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.
The attack at Messines following these explosions had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War. In sad contrast to Haig, he was unmilitary in appearance, being stout, chinless, white-haired and pot-bellied. But he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom where permanently entombed immediately. Seven thousand panicked and were taken prisoner. Nine British divisions and seventy-two tanks attacked straightway on a ten-mile front. At the relatively low cost of 16,000 casualties, they occupied Vimy Ridge.
If Messines showed what imagination and surprise could do, the attack toward Passchendaele, on the northern side of the Ypres Salient, indicated once more the old folly of reiterated abortive assaulting. Sometimes dignified as the Third Battle Of Ypres, this assault, beginning on July 31, was aimed, it was said, at the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. This time the artillery was relied on to prepare the ground for the attack, and with a vengeance: over ten days, four million shells were fired. The result was highly ironic, even in this war where irony was a staple. The bombardment churned up the ground; rain fell and turned the dirt to mud. In the mud, the British assaulted until the attack finally attenuated three and a half months later. Price: 370,000 British dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. Thousands literally drowned in the mud. It was a reprise of the Somme, but worse. Twenty years later, Wyndham Lewis looked back on Passchendaele as an all-but-inevitable collision between two “contrasted but, as it were, complementary types of idee fixe“: the German fondness for war on the one hand, and British muddle-headed “doggedness” on the other. These, he says, found their most perfect expression on the battlefield, or battle-bog, of Passchendaele.” Onomatopoeic speculations bring him finally to a point where again we glimpse Hardy as the presiding spirit: “The very name [Passchendaele], with its suggestion of splashiness and of passion at once, was subtly appropriate. This nonsense could not have come to its full flower at any other place but at Passchendaele. It was pre-ordained. The moment I saw the name on the trench-map, intuitively I knew what was going to happen.”
Ever since the first use of tanks in the autumn of 1916, it had been clear that, given sufficient numbers, here was a way of overcoming the gross superiority provided an entrenched enemy by the machine gun. But not until the attack near Cambrai on November 20 were tanks used in sufficient quantity. Now 381 of them coughed and crawled forward on a six-mile front, and this time with impressive success. But as usual, there were insufficient reserves to exploit the breakthrough.
The next major event was a shocking reversal. During the last half of 1917, the Germans had been quietly shifting their eastern forces to the Western Front. Their armistice with the Bolsheviks gave them the opportunity of increasing their western forces by 30 per cent. At 4:30 on the morning of March 21, 1918, they struck in the Somme area, and on a forty-mile front. It was a stunning victory. The British lost 150,000 men almost immediately — 90,000 as prisoners — and total British casualties rose to 300,000 within the next six days. The Germans plunged forty miles into the British rear.
The impact of this crisis on home-front morale can be inferred from London newspaper reaction. The following is typical: “WHAT CAN I DO? How the Civilian May Help in This Crisis. * Be cheerful. * Write encouragingly to friends at the front. * Don’t repeat foolish gossip. Don’t listen to idle rumours. Don’t think you know better than Haig.”
Haig, back-pedaling, felt sufficiently threatened to issue on April 12 his famous “Backs to the Wall” Order of the Day. This registered the insecurity of the British position in some very rigid and unencouraging terms: “Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one must fight on to the end.” In its dogged prohibition of maneuver or indeed of any tactics, this can stand as the model for Hitler’s later orders for the ultimate defense of positions like El Alamein and Stalingrad. There are conventions and styles in Orders of the Day just as for any literary documents.
Hardy would have been pleased to know that of this famous order one corporal noted: “We never received it. We to whom it was addressed, the infantry of the front line, were too scattered, too busy trying to survive, to be called into any formation to listen to orders of the day.”
During May and June, the Germans advanced to great effect near the rivers Lys and Marne. But unwittingly, they were engaged in demonstrating the most ironic point of all: namely, that successful attack ruins troops. In this way it is just like defeat. This is a way of reiterating Blunden’s point that it is the war that wins. The spectacular German advance finally stopped largely for this reason: the attackers, deprived of the sight of all ‘consumer goods by years of efficient Allied blockade, slowed down and finally halted to loot, get drunk, sleep it off, and peer about. The champagne cellars of the Marne proved especially tempting. The German Rudolf Binding records what happened with the attack reached Albert: “Today the advance of our infantry suddenly stopped near Albert. Nobody could understand why. Our airmen had reported no enemy between Albert and Amiens…I jumped into a car with orders to find out what was causing the stoppage in front…As soon as I got near [Albert] I began to see curious sights. Strange figures, which looked very little like soldiers, and certainly showed no signs of advancing, were making their way back out of the town. There were men driving cows before them…others who carried a hen under one arm and a box of notepaper under the other. Men carrying a bottle of wine under their arm and another one open in their hand. Men who had torn a silk drawing-room curtain from off its rods and were dragging it to the rear…More men with writing-paper and colored note-books…Men dressed up in comic disguise. Men with top-hats on their heads. Men staggering. Men who could hardly walk.”
By midsummer it was apparent that the German army had destroyed itself by attacking successfully. On August 8, designated by Ludendorff “The Black Day of the German Army”, the Allies counterattacked and broke through. In the German rear they found that maneuver was now possible for the first time since the autumn of 1914. From here to the end their advance was rapid as the German forces fell apart.
The German collapse was assisted by American attacks in September at the St. Mihiel Salient and between the River Meuse and the Argonne Forest. Simultaneously, the British were advancing near St. Quentin-Cambrai and the Belgians near Ghent. Despite exhaustion and depletion on all sides — half the British infantry were now younger than nineteen — the end was inevitable. On November 9, 1918, the Kaiser having fled, Germany declared herself a republic and two dsys later signed the Armistice in the Forest of Compiegne. The war had cost the Central Powers three and a half million men. It had cost the Allies over five million.