“See that little stream? We could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night
The walk began at 7:30 a.m., July 1, 1916, when British infantry advanced toward German trenches. In the first hours, eight British soldiers fell per second. By nightfall 19,240 were dead, another 38,230 were wounded. World War I, the worst manmade disaster in human experience, was the hinge of modern history. The war was the incubator of Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, World War II, and innumerable cultural consequences. The hinge of this war was the battle named for “that little stream,” the river Somme.
The scything fire of machine guns could not be nullified even by falling curtains of metal from creeping artillery barrages that moved in advance of infantry. Geoff Dyer, in The Missing of the Somme, notes: “By the time of the great battles of attrition of 1916–17 mass graves were dug in advance of major offenses. Singing columns of soldiers fell grimly silent as they marched by these gaping pits en route to the front-line trenches.”
William Philpott’s judicious assessment in Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century is that the Somme was “the cradle of modern combat,” proving that industrial war could only be won by protracted attrition. And hence by the new science of logistics. The 31 trains a day required to supply the British at the Somme became 70 when the offensive began. The romance of chivalric warfare died at the Somme, which was what the Germans called Materialschlacht, a battle of materials more than men. Geographic objectives — land seized — mattered less than the slow exhaustion of a nation’s material and human resources, civilians as well as soldiers.
In the next world war, the distinction between the front lines and the home front would be erased. In 1918, Randolph Bourne, witnessing the mass mobilization of society, including its thoughts, distilled into seven words the essence of the 20th century: “War is the health of the state.” Relations between government, the economy, and the individual were forever altered, to the advantage of government.
Military necessity is the most prolific mother of invention, and World War I was, Philpott writes, “a war of invention,” pitting “scientific-industrial complexes” against each other: “Gas, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers, sub-machine guns, trench mortars and cannon, fighter and bomber aircraft, tanks and self-propelled artillery all made their battlefield debuts between 1914 and 1918.”
Attritional war had begun in earnest at Verdun, which occupies in France’s memory a place comparable to that of the Somme in British memory. And the Somme offensive was begun in part to reduce pressure on Verdun and to demonstrate that Britain was bearing its share of the war’s burden.
Those who object to military spending love to refer back to such carnage of war as their motivation. World War I commenced due to ill-conceived alliances that tied nations together and subjected them to the irrational and over-reactionary actions of a single nation.
But, World War II was touched off due to the great nations striving to preserve peace at all costs and not realizing that aggression can only be stopped with superior strength and resolve. Trying to appease the aggression of Hitler by feeding his assumption that other nations would roll over and cede him whatever he wanted only led to more appetite for conquest. By the time Britain and France realize the existential threat to them of their appeasement, it was too late.
For three years, the allies denied the threat that faced them. We’ve been doing that for almost 8 years. Already, the foundation for the next war has been prepared for Obama’s successor. Let us hope it is someone willing to not lay the foundation for the NEXT.
The idiots hippy freakos who say we should disband our military forces need to GET A LIFE and stop their rediclous ideas they have gotten from their LSD trips
@Bill: The appeasers definitely allowed Hitler and Stalin to get away with mass murder and aggression. With regards to Hitler, we also need to keep in mind that part of the reason he was tolerated in the beginning was because he was seen as a check to Communism (hence the reason I believe the Cold War started post WWI and not post WWII). The liberal democracies of the West had the Russian Revolution and its ensuing carnage fresh on their minds. Marx called for violent, worldwide revolution and the initial “proving grounds” for his utopia was supposed to be Germany, not Russia.
Nowadays, there is no excuse for appeasing radical Islam. Back then it was one murdering dictatorship or the other. Today, throwing manmade global warming into the fold in order to downplay the current threat is ludicrous and compares in no way to the choices of the interwar period.