Pro patria mori

25. 12. 2013 | 10:14
Přečteno 4932 krát
A company of the Green Howards leapt out of their trenches and ran towards the German lines at Fricourt. A well-sited machine-gun, of which the Germans had many, killed them all. The Green Howards were acting against orders. What possessed them?

The question can be asked of hundreds of separate actions and thousands of men on that fateful day in July 1916 and during the months that followed, until Haig finally lost hope in his fantasy of a breakthrough and the fighting ground to a muddy, miserable halt for the winter.

Other questions can be asked, and have been, again and again over the last 90 years. Were the commanders really doing their best in conditions which confounded their training and previous experience? Or were they criminally complacent? Was it rational to devote ships, railways and vast quantities of human labour to feed thousands of horses who were never used, nor likely to be? Or was it moronic? Was it a forgivable error to spread the artillery barrage over three lines of defence, thus allowing troops and weapons in the German front line to escape unharmed? Or was it an idiotic mistake which should have been rewarded with oblivion rather than an earldom?

These questions can be answered, and have been. There is no consensus. We can judge the competence of these Edwardian generals in the light of their French and German counterparts, and we can compare the futility of their performance in 1916 with their somewhat better grasp of battle management in 1918. But we cannot possibly form an opinion of their moral calibre; everything which made them what they were is too distant and too alien to us in the 21st century.

It is equally perplexing, and more emotionally taxing, to try to understand the mentality of the soldiers who knowingly ran or walked to almost certain death when the whistle blew. Can we imagine ourselves or our friends behaving like this? The answer is almost certainly no. We are different these days; perhaps less credulous, perhaps more concerned with our own safety and welfare. We are less inspired by religious beliefs and less patriotic; the idea that our country is a ‘higher cause’ raises eyebrows, and the notion that our leaders deserve respect, still less obedience, is risible.

For a farmhand or clerk in 1914 things must have been simpler. The decision to join up might not have been a decision at all; I suspect it was, for most, the obvious thing to do. The idea of a natural order in human affairs – ‘the great chain of being’ – was still prevalent. Most people ‘knew their place’ and were more or less content with it; they were proud of being British (or French, or German) and instinctively understood the covenant, stretching back hundreds of years, that in return for the benefits of citizenship they should answer the call to arms when it came.

I am Daniel, a 20-year-old pen-pusher at Leeds Town Hall. The country needs me to do my bit to protect England from the voracious Hun. Kitchener says so, and all right-thinking people agree. For King and Country! Everything I see and hear – at work, in church, at the club, at home – encourages me to believe that I can play a part in the glorious battle for freedom, and that I should. I am fit, smart and able-bodied. Jim and Bill are already in uniform. Our army is the best in the world, with wise and experienced generals who have won a host of campaigns – we never lose. I won’t come to any harm, and in any case the war will be over soon. I don’t want to miss it…

In the back of my mind are Gerald and Charlie. They were killed at Loos and their parents still have black curtains at the windows. But no – these were exceptional circumstances. It won’t happen to me. I’ll be trained to do whatever I need to do and I will do it to the best of my ability. I can rely on my pals and I trust our leaders to make the right decisions. They are experts. Anyway, you can’t think of yourself when the country’s in danger. I want Elspeth to think highly of me, and I want to be able to tell our children that I answered the call, formed up, did my duty…

Whether volunteers or conscripts, most civilians who put on uniform probably felt something like Daniel’s sentiments. They trusted implicitly in the rightness of their country’s cause, the threat posed by the enemy and the competence of their leaders. Few doubted; the majority didn’t have the cultural or mental apparatus to question established authority. The world in which Daniel lived was settled, stable and orderly. The disruption caused by German aggression had to be crushed as quickly as possible; then things could get back to normal.

Neither Daniel nor anyone else could know that nothing would ever be the same again. The First World War was a cataclysm, ending only when the German population grew more war-weary than the British or French, and the German generals realised that their gamble had failed: they hadn’t lost, but they could never win. Meanwhile 12 million lives had been squandered; famine and misery would ensue over swathes of the European continent, and a botched settlement would be signed in Paris and Lausanne, hastily and – as it turned out – pointlessly.

What made Daniel and millions like him throw his fragile body into a hail of shell fragments and machine-gun bullets when the moment came? They cannot have retained their illusions; they knew for sure that they could die in agony. They had seen sudden and horrific deaths carry off their friends, and they would have buried them – if anything was left to bury – as best they could. By the end of July 1916 the soldiers’ faith in the infallibility of their generals must have been close to zero. Yet still they obeyed their orders, climbed out of their trenches and ran into a blizzard of metal projectiles designed to tear them to shreds.

Management is supposed to be the art of getting people to do things they would rather not do. Were the WW1 generals superlative managers of men? The evidence suggests that they were neither good managers nor particularly good at anything else. Was it team spirit? The desire to keep faith with comrades is well-attested, especially in studies of US soldiers in WW2. Was it sheer personal courage? Lord Moran analysed this attribute and showed that it is a limited reservoir which runs out in time. Was it the absence of a real alternative? Whether British, French or German, soldiers on the Western Front seem to have possessed a remarkable ability to ignore the unthinkable consequences of their actions. To call them brave is an understatement.

If you stand in one of the 1,000 British cemeteries on the Western Front today you see row after row after row of crosses, each marking the sad grave of a Daniel. Sadder still are the names carved on the memorials to soldiers whose bodies had simply disappeared. For the British Empire alone there are 750,000 of these graves and names – a number it is hard to visualise. They all risked their lives and lost. Why? What made them do it? Few of us would dream of acting in the same way today. We admire them and we do our best to remember them, but I doubt we can ever understand.


Aktuálně.cz má zájem poskytovat prostor jen pro korektní a slušně vedenou debatu. Tím, že zde publikujete svůj příspěvek, se zároveň zavazujete dodržovat Kodex diskutujících. Pokud Váš text obsahuje hrubé urážky, vulgarismy, spamy, hanlivá komolení jmen, vzbuzuje podezření z porušení zákona, je celý napsán velkými písmeny či jinak odporuje zdejším pravidlům, vystavujete se riziku, že jej editor smaže.
Přejeme Vám zajímavou a inspirativní výměnu názorů.
Libor Stejskal, editor blogů (

Ládik!!! napsal(a):

Chápu boj muže proti muži, kde hraje roli statečnost, odvaha a morálka. Ale jatka WW1 pochopit nedokážu.
25. 12. 2013 | 10:27

jenda benda napsal(a):

Ládik!!! napsal(a):
Chápu boj muže proti muži, kde hraje roli statečnost, odvaha a morálka. Ale jatka WW1 pochopit nedokážu.
Of course, is much easier to fight tooth and nail behind computer desk.
Yes, morale and braveness thats you can be proud of. You , Resl, Bestia and others keyboard warriors.
Keep up Ladik!!! You and Neo never disapoint me
25. 12. 2013 | 13:36

Ládik!!! napsal(a):

Honzíku, nemáš tam jedno p.
25. 12. 2013 | 14:52

jorick napsal(a):

kluci, je lhostejno v jakém jazyce sem pouští maestro Stejskal blogmeny, vy odpovídejte raději česky, nýbrž povětšinou je ta vaše anglina sotva srozumitelná. Nuž tak.
"Nepochopení principu válek" nechápu, je podle mne velmi snadno pochopitelné. Je navíc aktuálně přítomné. Sysel ví, že skončí ve spárech orla, ví to neomylně jeho geny, jen sakra neví, kdy to přinde a proč by to měl bejt zrovna tenhle sysel.
Náhrobků je na této zeměkouli moc, 1WW a 2WW jsou svými oběťmi zanedbatelné, za těch 50000 let zaznamenávané, leč nedohledatelné historie, tu lidstvo samo sebe vyhubilo násobně. Očista na entou. Válka začíná teprve, až nadšenci všech věr zakalej v zákopech první 1. linie, na frontě na který nikdy nechtěli bejt, protože věřili v mír a pokoru.
Což ovšem nemůže zmařit víru živoucích, v klidnou budoucnost. Hopla. Tak dlouhej mír ve střední Evropě nikdy souvisle nebyl. O to větší průser to bude. Jen na to raděj připravte své potomky. Každej Švýcar (skoro) má pod barákem kryt na zichr-přežití až na jeden rok. To jsme to dopracovali. Prachy v prachu.
Ládíku, pěkné svátky, vaše věta v příspěvku je (jako obvykle) dokonalou aporií, ale vy jako univerzální osobnost si nepochybně poradíte. Snad mě nezklamete a potvrdíte mou naději, že vánoční stromeček máte doma umělej!!! Jo a trávník se nezalejvá v poledne, jo a těším se na vaše džouky i příští rok. Jen (jako podobně zajímaví debatéři - třeba se šaškem z Jihlavy), se vyhněte politickým tématům a bimbání. Tam jste za kašpárky.
Ježíšek nenosí kožíšek, jestli chápete? Malthus už jede, jen my "zatím" netrpíme.
25. 12. 2013 | 15:04

MiloM napsal(a):

What's the purpose of this article? To tell us that people behaved differently before century of Self? Sadly I don't see any mention of poor Russian soldiers who were dying in hundreds of thousands too - and their generals were as stubborn idiots as those in West.

I'm glad that we are different, would not like to see army of sheep blindly led to bloodbath. It is already quite bad as it is now.
25. 12. 2013 | 15:11

Dr. No napsal(a):

To Ládík:

A 2005 study found that the effects of neuroplasticity occur even more rapidly than previously expected. Medical students' brains were imaged during the period when they were studying for their exams. In a matter of months, the students' gray matter increased significantly in the posterior and lateral parietal cortex.

Wikipedia and articles cited therein

Jednoduše je to tak, že během 14 dnů byste tam běhal s nimi a jen se v skrytu duše divil, co se to s vámi děje. A za měsíc byste zapomněl, co je to se divit. Pod vlivem drogy to jde někdy i v řádu minut.

Mimochodem, proto se vyhýbám místům, kde probíhá indoktrinace, například kostelům. Protože vím, že schopnost nenechat se zblbnout není vůbec pod mou kontrolou.
25. 12. 2013 | 15:15

us dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund napsal(a):

You know well the poem written by Wilfred Owen, which ends with this little latin catchword from Horace you used in the heading.
And I do not doubt you know well, that it was Edward VII, who, maybe making good for the years in the shadow of his mother, became the brain behind the creation of all the predispositions for this War (which was the one to change Europe for ever), strategically and diplomatically.
It fell on Sir Edward Grey to make it really happen.

To tell the truth, I'm fairly open to speculation, when it comes to explaining things, for which no written documentation exists and yet, they must have happened.
They say colonel Dimitrijević made the decision to murder archduke Franz Ferdinand on his own.
Then there are those, who see some influence of the French in this decision (which was hidden even before his nearest conspirators in the Black Hand - and was to be "recalled", when they found out) and even give some hints at contacts he had.

No one asks why the hell should he do this or why the French would have.
There were no motives and no benefits for the one or the or the other side.
When Dimitrijevićs alleged plan for the assassination of Franz Josef in 1911 is mentioned, you should take into account, that killing the emperor and killing Franz Ferdinand were two quite opposite aims.

I won't lead my speculation further, because I think you know the point well.
Paśić hastily made colonel Apis mute in 1917 (he was executed under accusations, which were found false by a retrial in 1953) before there was any chance, that after the catastrophe to which the war evolved he might try to explain his reasons.
You only have to remember the point 6 of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, which was the only in which Serbia would not comply and which was the only cause left for Franz Josef to declare war. Point 6 was about austrian criminal investigation of colonel Dimitrijević, to take it short.

From my countrymen 180.000 fell in this war, that is, on the side of the House of Hapsburg only. Percentually taken, it is more, than for instance on the British side. You can find a stone with names in every village in this country, many of them entirely forgotten and covered by bushes.
In the coming summer one hundred years will pass since the outbreak of the War, a good occasion to consider what was gained and what was lost.
It was J. P. Morgan, I think, who cheered at the result by saying, that the US now have a mortgage on the life of every european and the lives of his children. The year was 1919 or so, not 1946.
Yet the british ruling class avoided no effort or pain to build up Adolf Hitler and begin the play from anew.
Failing to remember means asking for an encore.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est ...
25. 12. 2013 | 15:21

wenn sich die späten Nebel drehn napsal(a):

for some hidden reason reCaptcha doesn't like the song, I surely wrote the first letter of the verse
25. 12. 2013 | 15:27

Ládik!!! napsal(a):

jorick -
s tím stromkem jste vedle. Kupuju živý, ale až nakonec. Letos už na výběr zbyly jen 2 (borovice). Bral jsem tu křivější, výška 2,2m, průměr kmene dole 13cm, tvar napnutého luku. Kříž jsem dělal na míru ze 2 fošen, jedna z nich prochází kmenem, svrtaná a sešroubovaná závitovou tyčí M12. Naprosto stabilní. Rodinou zhodnocený jako nejhezčí stromek, co zatím byl.
26. 12. 2013 | 10:07

JAHA napsal(a):

Ad: Ládik!!!

Tak s tym stromcekom Vam zavidim tu namahu. Ja som uz coraz lenivejsi. Potreboval by som vypadnut na dlhsie z mestskeho mraveniska.

P. S. Ten jorick je niekdajsi yorik?:-). Pise podobne (...tam jste za kasparka.. a ine).
26. 12. 2013 | 10:25

Realista napsal(a):

Hello Adrian. I gather that the gist of your post is the "ground" level of war aka the experiences of foot soldiers in the Great War as opposed to the perspective at a the higher echelons of the decision-making.
However, since I am your fellow military history buff but my focus is more on the Grand scale, strategic level of war I give my two cents from that viewpoint. I don't think it would be right to pinpoint just one cause of the War not even a handful of them - rather it was a conglomerate that came together before the War.
General Robert Boden-Powell - the founder of the Boy scouts was inspired by the fate and decline of the Roman Empire. In essence, he wanted to prevented physical deterioration of the body strength of young Brits and harden them for a future war.
The Prussian Minister of War general Falkenhayn said as the hostilities were commencing : "Even if we will perish, it was nice".
26. 12. 2013 | 18:11

Realista napsal(a):

In the period before 1914 artists, intellectuals and scientists increasingly challenged deeply-held views and perceptions on the World - the dominance of reason as guardians of human actions as well traditional values. They should not uphold but to provoke, subvert and liberate. Old attitudes and values came under pressure in the new fast changing, dynamic World. Young people used to listen to the tales of their forefathers about their feats in the past Wars and many desired their own share of "adventure" or a piece of action after a prolonged period of a lull.
The Austrian author Stephan Zweig in the last text he wrote before he committed suicide (with his wife) depicted the the period before the Great War as "The Golden Age of Security". For his middle-class parents everything seemed permanent, stable, it looked like the era of prosperity would last forever.
Many soldiers leaving for the front in August 1914 were telling their families that they would be back home before Christmas. It was the opinion of many politicians and high-ranking military men. True experts such as von Moltke or Kitchener on the British said who warned that war will drag out, will bleed the combatants dry and will devolve into a stalemate were disregarded.
26. 12. 2013 | 18:14

Realista napsal(a):

Before the War there was a bestseller called "Great Illusion" whose author argued that it would be nonsensical for nations to go to war as their trade,commercial links were so tightly intertwined (and their interests thus aligned) that all the warring parties would be economically harmed.
The war was frequently viewed as a tool of uniting society, as an enabler of making the fractious country with its diverging political and social groups come together, rallying behind a common cause - socialist members of the French parliament with conservatives and shouted like one man "Vive la France !" as the war on Germany was declared.
26. 12. 2013 | 18:22

Realista napsal(a):

National pride and honour was something taken very seriously in that era. In France and in the Austro-Hungarian empires duels were outlawed but authorities opted to look elsewhere and prosecutions were rare. The ancient idea of manliness was alive and well.There was a prevalence of Social Darwinist outlook on life among many the leading personalities.
26. 12. 2013 | 18:26

Realista napsal(a):

These are hardly complete but it is all I have to give at right now.-:}
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and Yours.
And sorry for the fragmented nature of my posts - one needs the British patience with their spam filter or whatever they have.
26. 12. 2013 | 18:43

Jakelin de Mailly napsal(a):

Dulce et decorum est
26. 12. 2013 | 23:25

JAHA napsal(a):

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, sed dulcius pro patria vivere, et dulcissimum pro patria bibere. Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae."
27. 12. 2013 | 10:21

Adrian Wheeler napsal(a):

Dear Realista,

Thank you, again, for these observations. At the level of grand strategy, hundreds of fine and highly-educated minds have tried to analyse the multitude of causes which combined to detonate the conflagration. There seems to be little in the way of agreement, though all concur that, shortly after the beginning, events moved beyond control. Seeing this, I have not dared to express an opinion. What intrigues me is the mentality of the soldiers who carried on climbing out of their trenches, long after the 'back by Christmas' notion was extinguished.

With best wishes,

27. 12. 2013 | 18:57

Danielrila napsal(a):

Hello. And Bye.

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27. 02. 2014 | 15:19

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