Snapshot from Hell: A Day in the Life of the Great War

As we approach Remembrance Day, at the midpoint of the centenary of the First World War, it is instructive to consider a day in the life of that terrible time: Saturday, November 11, 1916.

Canadian troops returning from the trenches. November, 1916. Battle of the Somme. (Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada.)

Canadian troops returning from the trenches. November, 1916. Battle of the Somme. (Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada.)

An online chronology documents the weather on the Western Front—“Rain, trace. 55°-32°, misty day with low cloud, also frosty”—and the main military action—“The British bombard the Germans on the Ancre. German aircraft bombed at night and caused casualties.” Ancre lies in the Somme region of France, and November 11 saw the last Canadian fighting in the infamous battle launched with unprecedented ferocity and bloodshed—20,000 Allied dead and missing, 40,000 wounded—on July 1 that year.

The main Canadian ‘achievement,’ secured at the cost of 24,000 casualties, was the capture and defence of what was once the village of Courcelete. Fighters from the Nova Scotia Regiment were in the thick of the action, portrayed by the Canadian government and press as a major victory. But in his damning memoir Merry Hell, Captain Robert N. Clements details the terrible “price paid for half a broken-down small French town and a few acres of muddy clay.” “Call it glory if you like,” Clements continues, but “some of those who were there and managed to survive had other words for it and for those higher up who had sent them and their wonderful young friends into that deadly trap.”

A few days before the offensive was officially called off (November 18), British officer Max Plowman wrote in his front-line journal that “we seem to be here under the constraint of some malevolent idiot. …What base, pathetic slaves we are to endure such idiocy! No doubt it’s good to fight when indignation and hatred boil up as they did in 1914. But these passions have long since spent themselves. Why are we fighting still?” By battle’s end over half a million men on each side were dead. The British lost an average 893 men per day. And gained seven miles.

The same tragedy played out in the other main ‘theaters’ of war. On the Eastern Front, two Empires, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian, were busy tearing themselves apart; or, as it was doubtless reported in St. Petersburg, on November 11 the loyal sons of the Tsarist Fatherland, nobly aided by their Romanian brothers, finally succeeded in capturing the small town of Topalu on the east bank of the Danube. And in the Middle East that day, the British indulged in that new mode of murder, the air raid, against Ottoman (Turkish) forces in in Beersheba in Palestine and Maghdaba in the Sinai Desert.

Canadian heavy howitzer on the Somme, November 1916. (Photo via the Canadian Library and Archives

Canadian heavy howitzer on the Somme, November 1916. (Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada.)

The new, rabidly anti-Turkish British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was already dreaming of British control of the Holy Land, including the town his forces bombed that day. At the Versailles Conference in 1919, as David Fromkin writes in A Peace to End All Peace, Lloyd George who, “kept demanding that Britain should rule Palestine from (in the Biblical phrase) Dan to Beersheba, did not know where Dan was. He searched for it in a nineteenth-century Biblical Atlas, but it was not until nearly a year after the Armistice that General Allenby [the commander of British forces in Jerusalem] was able to report to him that Dan had been located and, as it was not where the Prime Minister wanted it to be, Britain asked for a boundary further north.”

Throughout 1916, in fact, the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) were painstakingly, often cantankerously plotting the post-war carve up of the region, a secret gleefully revealed by the Bolsheviks soon after they seized power. And at Versailles and subsequent conferences, London and Paris would eventually get—and soon struggle to hold—much of what they wanted, redrawing borders to create the new, radically and persistently unstable states of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq (the ‘well-rooted land’). In the summer of 1917, the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon would publicly voice his fear “that this War, upon which I entered as a War of defence, has now become a War of aggression and conquest…deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Germany, he correctly guessed, was to be shelled, spent and starved into submission, and the Ottoman Empire utterly crushed, to satisfy the Allies’ insatiable colonial appetite.

A strong case can be made that long before the War started plans were being laid, by all the major belligerents, for just such an imperial struggle. This was certainly the widespread view in the United States, which on November 7, 1916, re-elected Democratic President Woodrow Wilson in large measure due to his commitment to maintain American neutrality. Wilson’s main campaign slogan, in fact, was “He Kept Us Out of the War.” Just five months later, goaded by the desperate German ploy of unrestricted submarine warfare, he took the fateful step of intervening on the Allied side in the vain hope of building a world “safe for democracy.” And while Germany’s mad U-boat gamble clearly violated international law, it was taken in the context of an equally illegal Allied blockade responsible for the deaths of at least a million German, Austrian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and other civilians. Nor would the blockade by lifted on November 11, 1918, but rather maintained in full force until June 28, 1919, the date Germany finally capitulated at Versailles to a Treaty turning Wilson’s dream into a nightmare.

German prisoners carrying stretchers. Battle of the Somme, November 1916.

German prisoners carrying stretchers. Battle of the Somme, November 1916. (Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada.)

“I saw a film today, oh boy!” John Lennon sang in A Day in the Life: “The English Army had just won the war. A crowd of people turned away, but I just had to look…” Every Canadian Remembrance Day, we see the same, moving, black-and-white picture of the Glorious Fallen of Flanders Field, the heroes who died for freedom, etc. But if you look closely—zooming in, say, on an arbitrarily-selected 24 hours—a shocking possibility arises: that the version of the War we’ve been trained to revere isn’t real. And that we, the people, are still being duped.

 

 

Sean Howard

 

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He can be reached here.

 

 

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