Artefacts: German soldiers sent pictures like this one as postcards from the front line. This man sits next to this ammunition from 1916
Treasure trove: Pictures like this one show the London Scottish regiment on a troop train before battle at Messines in 1914
Horrifying: This salvaged image shows the terrible conditions from the First World War, where this trench is strewn with bodies and rubbish while servicemen watch on
Remarkable treasure trove: Dustman Bob Smethurst spent 36 years saving World War One pictures thrown away as veterans of the conflict passed away
Incredible: This picture, along with thousands of others, were tossed in the rubbish when the soldiers passed away, Mr Smethurst said
Destroyed: Two men stand next to a damaged cannon which had sunk into the mud of the European battlefield
Historic: Soldiers wearing kilts worn by Scottish regiments sleep or try to relax in the trenches while battle goes on around them
A French view of the Great War’s terrors
French soldiers in action at Verdun, the longest battle in military history. Photo: Getty
By Charles Moore
8:35PM BST 30 Mar 2014
Here is a book about the First World War that never mentions the British. I notice it as part of this column’s occasional efforts, in this centenary year, to look at the Great War more widely.
Four weeks ago, I wrote about Storm of Steel by the German combatant and writer Ernst Junger. Maurice Genevoix was, in a way, his French equivalent. He was mobilised on August 2 1914 and fought from that month until badly wounded at Éparges in April 1915.
Junger fought in the same battle, and sustained the first of his 14 war wounds there. Both men lived to a great age, and achieved great distinction. Genevoix became a famous novelist and secretary of the Academie Francaise.
Like Storm of Steel, ’Neath Verdun is based on the author’s diary of the war. Unlike Junger, though, Genevoix published almost immediately. The book first appeared in 1916. This makes it artistically slightly less satisfying than Junger’s work (though certainly beautifully written), because it expresses wartime attitudes unfiltered by the return of peace. On the other hand, it is especially interesting because it reveals the attitudes of the moment.
For example, although clearly an honest and humane man, Genevoix sometimes bursts out against the Boches in an almost propagandist way. He says how “vile and loathsome” they all are “when at the mercy of the conqueror”, and he complains of the smell they leave behind in houses they occupy, “compounded of skim-milk, rats, perspiration and other indescribable things”. It reminds him of the “stench” of his German teacher in hot summer days before the war. Given the appalling circumstances, however, presumably the French did not smell much sweeter.
Genevoix’s power lies in his evocation of the experience of war – how men behave, what they say, and what the places they fight in are like. Although a young lieutenant himself, he gives a voice to the poilus (hairy ones), the French counterparts of Tommy Atkins. He fears he sometimes represses the men’s spirits, like “an owl suddenly alighting in a flock of sparrows” (though at 23, he was a very young owl), but he listens to them with love and respect.
One of the greatest shocks, of course, was the first moment of combat in those late summer days. Crossing the Meuse at the beginning of September, they come under shell-fire: “At the very first explosion, a reservist, a big man, fair and ruddy, turns round sharply to tell me he is wounded. He is pale and trembling violently. I discover he has been pricked by a thorn as he was bending down.”
It takes a little time for the author to feel the reality of his own situation: “About me the wheat bows down beneath a heavy, languid breeze, and with a certain feverishness I repeat to myself again and again: ‘I am in it now! This is war and I am in it!’ ” Yet at the same time, he feels physically altered “as if my body had undergone some change… that I experience different sensations with different organs.”
As the men go forward, later in the month, they meet their predecessors coming back, injured and exhausted. One of the wounded jokingly thanks the Boches: now he can get “a billet at Nice, the Cote d’Azur and the Casinos where you can scratch up the gold with little rakes”. But, says Genevoix, “gaiety finds no echo”.
His men are terrified, and soon they encounter two injured men rushing back from the firing, one with his lower jaw blown off: “Almost half his face is no more than a soft, hanging, crimson piece of flesh, from which blood and saliva trickle in a viscous stream.
“Above this horror peer out two, round, blue, boyish eyes; they stare at me, eloquent with unendurable distress.” Quite large passages of the book were censored by the French authorities. The contemporary translation also observes this censorship, marking where it occurs. Given what was allowed to appear, it is grim to imagine what was forbidden.
Despite the grimness, there are passages of delight, and moments that are pleasingly French. Maurice writes home: “You have a cloth on your table? Spoons, forks, all kinds of forks – for the oysters, the fruits, the snails and so on… isn’t it funny? Glasses of all shapes and sizes are placed before you.” He and his have only their knives, mugs and hands, he says. Genevoix was the son of a provincial grocer. One cannot imagine a British shopkeeper’s son recalling such culinary splendour.
One night, Maurice and his brave, cheerful fellow officer and best friend, Porchon, find a bed with clean sheets (“a real bed, a complete bed”) and jump into it. They are so happy that they burst into “shouts of laughter” and the couple sheltering them laugh, and soon their hostess goes out and collects six village women and they come in and laugh too.
Genevoix was a great observer of nature. This enables him to fix each place in the reader’s mind, and identify the shifting role of natural terrain in war. Thus the forest, often so delightful in the shapes of trees and the subtlety of its greens, quickly becomes unbearably sinister and threatening.
The final scene is of a night battle in the wood, with the “storm of fear”’ that assails Genevoix as he peers into the shadows and thinks he sees Germans. The firing starts. Then he hears: “Someone is coming, walking evenly and steadily through the mortal hail”, speaking nonchalantly to those hidden in the trenches he passes, “thrusting aside the branches with a stick in his hand.” It is Porchon. He was killed the following year at Éparges.
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Massacre of the innocents – the day 21,000 British men walked bravely to their deaths
Just after 7.30am on 1 July, 1916, Musketier Karl Blenk of the German 169th regiment scrambled to the parapet of his shattered trench near the village of Serre in northern France.
Strolling up the gentle slope towards him, he saw rank after rank of amateur British soldiers – “Pals” from east Lancashire and south Yorkshire.
“We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before,” he told the British historian, Martin Middlebrook, more than a half century later.
“I could see them everywhere. There were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick,” he went on.
“When we started firing, we just had to reload and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. If only they had run, they would have overwhelmed us.”
The attack on Serre was one of the most bloody and futile episodes on the most-murderous single day in the history of the British army – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The Accrington Pals (11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment) were mill workers and shopkeepers’ assistants, railwaymen and solicitors, brothers, cousins, neighbours and friends from Accrington, Burnley and Blackburn. They had volunteered together in the first flush of patriotic enthusiasm in August and September 1914.
This was their first time in combat – as it was also for the Barnsley Pals and the Sheffield City Battalion who walked towards the German lines alongside them. In many cases, their experience of war lasted 30 minutes or less.
There were 720 Accrington Pals in “the Big Push” – the largest British offensive of the war so far – at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. By 8am, 584 of then had been killed or wounded. Some Pals in the first wave reached the German trenches. The second and third waves were machine-gunned behind the British front line before they even reached No Man’s Land. Those who got to the German lines were cut off and rapidly wiped out or forced back.
Much the same kind of thing happened along most of the 16 miles of front assaulted by the British army (two thirds composed of 1914 volunteers) that morning.
Of the 66,000 troops in the first waves – under orders to walk not run, variously laden with food, ammunition, barbed wire, telegraph wire, shovels, and even pigeons – Mr Middlebrook estimates that almost half were killed or wounded in the first 60 minutes. By the end of the day, after several equally calamitous frontal assaults and some successes, 21,000 British soldiers were dead and more than 30,000 wounded.
The first day of the Somme was a sacrificial slaughter of the amateur army raised in 1914 which had been expected by British public opinion to roll over “the Huns” and march to Berlin. Never such innocence again.
The scale of the calamity was almost entirely the fault of the professionals – and especially General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the main commander on the Somme. He was contemptuous of the fighting skills of his amateur soldiers, who made up two-thirds of his command – and especially his amateur, willing but scarcely trained front-line officers. He devised a battle plan that denied them any right of initiative and misread the lessons of the bloody but smaller, failed offensives of 1915 (Neuve-Chapelle; Loos). Instead, Rawlinson tried to copy the successful German tactics which had opened the battle of Verdun that February.
A seven-day bombardment by more than a million shells would crush the German front line, destroy the German artillery and scatter the German wire. The heavily encumbered British soldiers would leave their trenches at 7.30am, not at dawn but in broad daylight.
They would walk, not run, in order to stay in formation. They would not creep forward while their own bombardment was in progress. They were given no instruction in how to rush defended positions. In any case, they were told, all Germans would have been killed or cowed by the shelling. The British infantry would merely occupy the German lines, like pawns advancing across a chess board. The Germans would be forced by their standing orders to counter-attack – incurring crippling losses.
Rawlinson did not believe in “breakthrough”. He believed in attrition, preferably attrition of Germans. He imposed his plan over the misgivings of the overall British commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. The result amounted to mass-murder of his own troops.
The bombardment, though the largest in British military history to that date, failed. One shell in three was a dud. The German wire remained undisturbed in most places.
The German defenders took shelter in dug-outs scooped up to six storeys deep in the chalk. The German artillery was damaged but operational.
When the Pals battalions and others rose from their trenches, they were mown down by German machine guns that could strike targets up to a mile away. They were bombarded by the German artillery. Several units – the four battalions of the Tyneside Irish, the Newfoundlanders – were destroyed before they even reached the British front line.
Those who did make it as far as the German trenches found that the barbed wire had not been destroyed as promised.
Private J.S. Reid of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders (a regular army unit) recalled: “I could see that our leading waves got caught by their kilts. They were killed hanging on the wire, riddled with bullets, like crows shot on a dyke.”
The areas where the British did capture the German lines – mostly in the southern part of the battlefield, alongside a broadly victorious French attack – proved that Rawlinson had been doubly wrong.
His amateur soldiers showed themselves to be impossibly brave when asked to do the impossible. If given half a chance, they could also be enterprising and successful. The Manchester and Liverpool Pals and the Ulster division ignored Rawlinson’s “walk don’t run” instructions. Copying French tactics, they crept right up to the German lines before the British bombardment ended. They pounced before the German machine-gunners manned their shattered parapets. They suffered heavy casualties but captured large sections of German line.
The first day of the Somme was largely fought by soldiers from Scotland, northern England, Northern Ireland, London and the north Midlands. (Others gave blood later.)
There were 9,000 casualties from Yorkshire; 6,000 from Lancashire. When the telegrams began to arrive entire streets and districts of northern towns were plunged into mourning.
Before 1916, soldiering in Britain had been an occupation for toffs and toughs: for the sons of the aristocracy and the unemployed, especially from Scotland and Ireland (the Navy was different).
On the Somme, the British middle and artisan classes – the clerks, the solicitors, the skilled workers – fought on foreign soil for the first time.
This helps to explain why the Somme – like Verdun for the French – has become the abiding symbol for Britain of the 1914-18 war. The British and French rotated all their front-line units through the 1916 mincing machine. Each passing generation doubles the number of people who had a forebear at the Somme and Verdun.
The two conflicts were, arguably, a single battle, 150 miles apart but overlapping in time. The Somme had been chosen for an allied offensive the previous year because it was where the British and French-held trench lines joined. There, and only there, the allies could attack side-by-side. The unexpected German attack on Verdun hurried the preparations and reduced the French contribution.
After the calamitous first day, the Battle of the Somme ground on for four and a half more months, with some local British successes, but no breakthrough.
Rawlinson got his wish. The Germans did counter attack – over and over. Their losses were enormous; so were the British, French, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African losses.
By mid-November, when the battle petered out, there had been more than 1,100,000 casualties at the Somme – roughly 400,000 British and Commonwealth, 500,000 German and 200,000 French.Of these, just over one-in-four – including 125,000 British and Empire troops – died. The precise casualty figures are still in dispute, but the Somme was the most-destructive single battle of the war.
As summer moved into autumn, the battlefield, still green and forested on 1 July, became a desolate landscape of smashed villages, broken tree stumps, shell holes, rotting bodies and mud. By mid-November, the British and French had advanced the equivalent of 77.5 metres (the length of three-quarters of a football field) for each day’s fighting. Each metre of territory gained towards the east cost, on average, the lives of 11 British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African soldiers.
At the Somme and at Verdun, the power and ingenuity of modern industry and modern government were applied in inexhaustible force to human flesh for the first time. To permit 3,000,000 men to fight in a space of 200 square miles for over three months takes political organisation and determination, administrative skills and economic power, not just military strength or callousness.
Tanks were used in combat for the first time on the Somme (by the British on 15 September). Flame throwers, effective combat aircraft and more-destructive forms of gas first appeared at Verdun and the Somme.
The Somme also saw one of the last British cavalry charges in Europe (at High Wood in mid July 1916, with predictable results). The battle was a pivotal moment in a pivotal war, a transition between old and new worlds. Some British historians have argued that the Somme was a victory. They say that the strength of the German army was “broken” at the Somme. (What about Verdun?) They also argue that the British Army – even its generals – went through a learning process on the Somme and emerged stronger at the end of the battle.
The greatest British historian of the battle is Mr Middlebrook, who was a Lincolnshire chicken farmer when he published The First Day on the Somme in 1971. He traced more than 500 survivors of the battle – British and German – and told the story through their eyes for the first time.
The Independent asked him eight years ago whether he thought that the Somme was a victory. Recently, we checked again. Mr Middlebrook, 82, stands by the following reply: “The German army, supposedly ‘broken’ on the Somme, held back the British advance at Arras in early 1917, drove the French army to mutiny at the Chemin des Dames that spring and held the British for months in the third battle of Ypres later that year. That same German army, admittedly reinforced after the collapse of Russia on the eastern front, almost broke through and won the war in 1918 before it was finally worn down by the Allied advance that summer.
“So much for a victory on the Somme.”
And the Somme as a British “learning curve”?
“In truth, little was learnt,” Mr Middlebrook said. “Although the calamity of the first day was not repeated, the generals continued to switch aimlessly between attacks on a broad front or a narrow front…It was not before 1918 that different approaches were finally adopted.”
Rawlinson is given credit for developing those new approaches. He was never sanctioned for the mass slaughter of 1 July 1916. He led (from the rear) the successful advance of 1918. After the war, he was an official hero. He was made a baron, awarded £30,000 and appointed commander-in-chief in India.
Immortal soldiers join battle on the Somme
David Jones’s memoir of the First World War has an unusual combination of deep feeling and detachment
All quiet on the Western front: British soldiers in the trenches in the First World War Photo: ALAMY
Now – barring accidents – you will get to know all about it! I know you’ll have a big surprise when you get this letter. I hope it lands without mishap. If anybody in authority was to see it!
… Perhaps you would like to know something of the spirit of the men out here now. Well! the truth is (and, as I said before, I’d be shot if anyone of importance collared this missive!) every man Jack is fed up almost past bearing, and not a single one has an ounce of what we call patriotism left in him. No-one cares a rap whether Germany has Alsace, Belgium or France, too, for that matter! All that every man desires now is to get done with it and go home. Now that’s the honest truth and any man who has been out within the last few months will tell you the same. In fact – and this is no exaggeration – the greatest hope of a great majority of the men is that rioting and revolt at home will force the Government to “pack in” on any terms. Now you’ve got the real state of affairs – “right from the horse’s mouth”, as it were.
I may add that I, too, have lost pretty nearly all the patriotism that I had left. It’s just the thought of you all over there – you who love me and trust me to do my share in the job that is necessary for your safety and freedom – it’s just that that keeps me going and enables me to “stick it”. As for religion – God forgive us all! – it hasn’t a place in one out of a million of the thoughts that hourly occupy men’s minds. The Padres – and it’s anything but pleasant to say so – but they absolutely fail to keep up a shred of their church’s reputation. Nay! Behind the line every man – and it’s almost without exception – relies solely on DRINK for his relaxation, amusement, pleasure – everything! Ay!
Girlie mine, it’s ghastly! But! – thank God for those dear ones at home who love true and trust absolutely in the strength, the courage and the fidelity of those who are far away ’midst danger and death! These are my mainstays, and thoughts of them always come to stay me and buck me up when I most feel like chucking it up and letting things slide. God bless you darling, and all those I love and who love me, for without their love and trust I would faint and fall. But don’t worry Dear Heart o’ Mine, for I shall “carry on” to the end – be it bitter or sweet – with my loved ones ever my first thought and care, my guide, inspiration and spur. Au revoir, my own sweetheart, and God will keep you safe till the storm is over.
With all my heart’s deepest love,
Your own loving
By 1918, British and Commonwealth soldiers on the Western Front were weary. Arras, Ypres and Cambrai left them desperately tired and wondering if the war would ever end. The BEF needed time to recuperate. Instead, it was forced to extend its line south across the Somme to relieve the hard-pressed French. The men of Haig’s army remained committed to the war. The grand political ideals that inspired so many to join up may have disappeared, but there were no rumblings of mutiny. The war had simply become a matter of personal integrity – of seeing it through for yourself, your comrades and your people back home. These sentiments were expressed in a letter written by Cpl Laurie Rowlands to his future wife on February 5, 1918. Although jaded and politically disillusioned, Rowlands, who was serving near Peronne in France with the 15th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, remained a strong fighting soldier. Only three months later, he was severely wounded during the great German attacks but awarded the Military Medal for his bravery.