Pro patria mori
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.