Douglas Haig was the British General who planned and executed the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916. Visiting the battlefield on March 31, 1917, Haig reflected (De Groot, 1989) upon the hundreds of thousands of British casualties:
Credit must be paid to the splendid young officers who were able time and time again to attack these tremendous positions…To many it meant certain death, and all must have known that before they started.
A young German soldier
Modris Eksteins observes that the “victimized crowd of attackers” moving into no man’s land has become the “supreme image” of the First World War. Attackers moved forward, usually without seeking cover, and were “mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass.”
A German machine-gunner wrote of his experience of a British attack on the first day of the Somme: “We were surprised to see them walking. The officers went in front. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”
The experience of this machine-gunner was not unusual; it was the norm. John Buchan described the first day of the offensive at the Somme in his pamphlet, The Battle of the Somme (1916):
The British moved forward in line after line, dressed as if on parade; not a man wavered or broke ranks; but minute by minute the ordered lines melted away under the deluge of high explosives, shrapnel, rifle, and machine-gun fire. The troops shed their blood like water for the liberty of the world.
Contemplating the nature of “heroic death,” Haig cited a speech by the Moghul Emperor Babur to his troops on March 16, 1527 (De Groot, 1989) which, he said, “is curiously appropriate now”:
The most high God has been propitious to us: If we fall in the field, we die the death of martyrs. If we survive, we rise victorious the avengers of the cause of God.
This, Haig claimed, is the “root matter of the present war.”
Like Muslim warriors who died for Allah, British soldiers died for Great Britain. Hopefully, England would rise victorious. If not, the soldiers would have died “the death of martyrs.”
What is the difference between the Islamic warrior who died for Allah and the British soldier who died for God and country in the First World War? The magnitude of slaughter. In his report of August 22, 1919—Features of the War—Haig summarized British casualties, stating that they were “no larger than to be expected.” The total British casualties in all theaters of war, killed, wounded, missing and prisoners—including native troops—are approximately three million (3,076,388).
British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded—probably more casualties suffered by any army in any war on any single day. Clare Tisdale wrote about her experiences as a nurse working at a casualty clearing station during the battle:
We practically never stopped. I was up for seventeen nights before I had a night in bed. A lot of the boys had legs blown off, or hastily amputated at the front-line. These boys were the ones who were in the greatest pain, and I very often used to have to hold the stump up in the ambulance for the whole journey, so that it wouldn’t bump on the stretcher.
The worse case I saw – and it still haunts me – was of a man being carried past us. It was at night, and in the dim light I thought that his face was covered with a black cloth. But as he came nearer, I was horrified to realize that the whole lower half of his face had been completely blown off and what had appeared to be a black cloth was a huge gaping hole. It was the only time I nearly fainted.
Horrific experiences like those reported by Nurse Tisdale occurred millions of times during the First World War. Historians don’t focus on the dead and mutilated human bodies as much as they do upon the political machinations that led to and continued the war. Despite its massive destructiveness and wastefulness, many historians write about the war as if it was about rational “interests”: the “great powers in contention” (Michael Vlahos, personal correspondence), struggling for dominance.
Given the volume of research and number of books written about the First World War, do we really understand why it occurred and kept going? One of the best historians of the war—Jay Winters—concludes his magnificent video series (The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, 1996) with humility—in a tone of baffled bewilderment. Summing up, he says: “The war solved no problems. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.”
The First World War was not generated as a form of primitive aggression, but was undertaken in the name of “civilization.” People died and killed in the name of—for the sake of—their societies. Lives were sacrificed to entities with names such as “France” and “Germany” and “Great Britain.” These “symbolic objects” justified slaughter and made it seem meaningful.
We have not adequately interrogated the slaughter that occurred in the First World War: this monumental episode of destruction and self-destruction. Why did Generals persist in deploying a futile battle strategy that resulted in the deaths of millions of human beings?
We turn our eyes away. We don’t want to encounter the reality of what occurred: What human societies did to human beings: the massive, pathological destruction that was generated by civilization. In the face of such horror, historians lose their resolve: “The Generals were stupid and incompetent.” “They underestimated the effectiveness of the machine-gun.”
Arriving home from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson set about the task of convincing the Congress to ratify the treaty and to approve American participation in the League of Nations. Wilson toured the country to canvass support in favor of both the treaty and the League, giving one of his final addresses as President in support of the League in Pueblo, Colorado, on Sept. 15, 1919.
He spoke to his audience about “our pledges to the men that lie dead in France.” Americans went over there, he said, not to prove the prowess of America, but to ensure that “there never was such a war again.” His “clients,” Wilson said, were the next generation of children. He wanted to “redeem his pledge” that they should “not be sent on a similar errand.”
Wilson told his audience that again and again during his tour of the United States, mothers who lost their sons in France came up to him, took his hand, and while shedding tears said, “God bless you, Mr. President.” Why, he asks, should these ladies ask God to bless him? It was he that created the situation that led to the death of their sons, who ordered their sons overseas and consented to them being put in battle lines where “death was certain.”
Where death was certain! As General Haig put it: soldiers who attacked at battles like the Somme “knew before they started” that their actions meant “certain death.” Why this willingness—on the part of men like Wilson, Haig and numerous other national leaders—to put young men in situations where death was a certainty?
Haig claimed that three million British casualties were worth the cost because the issues involved in the “stupendous struggle” were “far greater than those concerned in any war in recent history. Civilization itself was at stake.”
Why, Wilson asks, did the mothers of young men who died in the First World War weep upon his hand and “call down the blessings of God upon me?” Because they agreed that their boys had died for something that “vastly transcends any of the immediate and palpable objects of the war.” These men were “crusaders.” By virtue of their sacrifices—giving the “gift of their life”—these men “saved the liberty of the world.”
As Islamic warriors died for Allah and British soldiers sacrificed their lives for civilization, so did American soldiers die in order to “save the liberty of the world.”
But Germany also fought the First World War in the name of civilization. In his study, God, Germany and Britain in the Great War (1989), Arlie Hoover conveys how Germans conceived of their superiority. One pastor explained that the German nation surpassed every nation in “extolling the command of duty.” As compared with the British who practiced the “sin of materialism,” Germany embraced idealistic values. For the German, nothing was greater than heroism: the willingness to “lay down one’s life for one’s brother.”
Hitler in Mein Kampf (1925) stated that the most precious blood in the First World War had “sacrificed itself joyfully” in the faith that it was “preserving the independence and freedom of the fatherland.” More than once, Hitler said, thousands and thousands of young Germans had stepped forward to “sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the beloved fatherland.”
One can say Allah or the British Empire or the spirit of France or the German fatherland or the liberty of the world. What is the nature of this relationship linking sacrificial death and devotion to the sacred ideals of civilization?
We have yet to understand the massive political violence that characterized the Twentieth Century. History books record what occurred—but are unable to explain why. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we have failed to interrogate the central variables that generated slaughter. Terms like “civilization” and “society” and “the country” are taken for granted.
The objects or entities to which these terms refer are present within each episode of political violence. However, we don’t analyze these objects or entities. They are accepted and embraced as constituting the essence of reality. Political history is dominated by reified entities endowed with a will—and possessing the capacity to act. It is Great Britain that performs acts of violence, or France, or Germany or America.
Many people feel that dying and killing in the name of Allah makes no sense. Suicide bombings seem fantastic. Allah is just a word to us—an empty construct. Why would human beings die and kill in the name of “Allah”?
However, when we discuss people dying and killing in the name of “France,” “Germany” or “Great Britain”—this seems to make perfect sense. To this day, we believe in the reality of these entities. We don’t understand the First World War—from which 20th Century political history descends—because we have not interrogated our relationship to the objects in whose names slaughter occurs.
Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Director, Library of Social Science
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