By Ryan McNally
The first of July marked the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest in history, with more than a million men in total injured, missing or killed. The fighting lasted for four months before being called off.
The offensive was planned by French and British Generals, with the aim of draining German forces of reserves and regaining territory from the Germans. After the first day of fighting, a day which saw the loss of 58,000 British soldiers alone, Field Marshall Haig claimed the battle was “going like clockwork” and that his troops were in “wonderful spirits”. Perhaps Haig and his ilk were in wonderful spirits but it’s hard to believe that the comrades of the men who had fallen felt such glee.
A day earlier, before the battle had begun, Haig wrote something very telling. He said that “the nation must be taught to bear losses, no amount of skill… however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists.” This summarizes well the attitudes of the ruling class at the time towards the value of human life, not just during the Somme but throughout the entirety of the First World War.
The reasons behind the beginning of the First World War are complex, but often we’re fed a romanticized idea that the war was fought by the righteous Allied powers to defend smaller countries against German imperialism. While it’s true that German imperialism was rampant in 1914, Britain, France and Russia also had huge empires. The ruling class in the Allied nations were hardly acting to selflessly help others, but were more interested in defending their own interests and profits.
The average soldier of course had little in common with the ruling classes. Many men had signed up to the army to escape poverty and poor conditions at home. The men who died at the Somme had no interests in foreign colonies and no profits to defend, but many of them payed with their lives and many more were injured physically and mentally.
It’s important to remember the men who fought and died in the Somme. It was one of the most tragic events in history and it shouldn’t be forgotten. However, we should look at the true nature of the war, and not through rose tinted glasses.