The media are reminding us of the 1916 slaughter of the Somme during World War One. Few commentators are asking the questions raised by the Socialist Standard article on the 90th anniversary of this battle.
“If you were a tourist from Mars attending the Somme commemoration the vital question you might want to ask is why were millions of men, men of no property and no financial interests, men who had never met those they were now told were their enemies and with whom they did not share a language that would allow them to curse at one another, why were they killing? Why were they dying?”
And even fewer are responding with the answer “…that they were fighting over markets and the political and economic appurtenances of trade; that war was, and is, simply a logical extension of a brutally competitive system of social organisation predicted on profit and ongoing expansion; a system that dominated their lives, took away their human dignity and reduced them to the status of wage slaves and cannon fodder.”
Haig achieved his ambition to replace Sir John French as commander of the BEF in France in 1916, after a long campaign of intrigue and character denigration. He installed himself in a château near Montreuil – a small, agreeable town where his officers could ease the stress of commanding the thousands of British soldiers in the trenches by visiting their club where a subscription of five francs ensured them three good meals and afternoon tea each day and access to vintage claret and burgundy at prices far lower than those in Paris or London. Haig's immediate concern was to implement the decisions of the joint conference at Chantilly, to launch a series of devastating Allied attacks across the trench line to drive the German army into subjection. This was to be tested in the Battle of the Somme, lasting from 1 July 1916 until November. Before the reality of the casualties emerged that battle was represented as a proud example of British valour and fortitude which would crucially re-arrange the shape of the Western Front and so the future of the war. It turned out to be a gruesome failure costing thousands of lives but bringing little significant change.
The conferring overlords at Chantilly were not, of course, distracted by any contributions from the people whose lives were for disposal – the Allied soldiers who would be ordered out of their trenches to face the storm of bullets and shells in order to kill as many of the enemy as possible before putting the rest to flight. All over Britain – as in Germany, France and the rest – there was a powerful surge in enthusiasm for the war and a restless ambition to get into military uniform and into the front line as soon as possible.
An example of the war, and of Haig's reaction to the fate of the soldiers, was the 49th. Division of the West Yorkshire Regiment who on 3 September 1916 were ordered to attack a heavily fortified area which included the infamous Triangle and the Pope's Nose. Those troops were supposed to be resting before going over the top but in the event, they had to spend their waking time dragging ammunition and reserve rations for miles up to the dumps near the front. Their condition was such that one of their sergeants said his platoon's normal strength of 33 was reduced to 'eighteen decrepit old men'. The result was, then, predictable. Of the 350 men who attacked in the first wave on that day 244 were killed or wounded. Haig's view of the incident was that those men '...did not really attack and some men did not follow their officers ... I had occasion a fortnight ago to call the attention of the Army and Corps Commanders ...to the lack of smartness, and slackness of one of its Battalions in the matter of saluting when I was motoring through the village where it was billeted. I expressed my opinion that such men were too sleepy to fight well, etc.'
More information on World War One can be found in our pamphlet ‘Strange Meeting’.