Remembering and forgetting the Somme

July 2016

The centenary of the Battle of the Somme has seen widespread public commemoration of the First World War. But the UK’s collective memory of the horrors of the Western Front is not always matched by an understanding of the causes of the war, the truly world-wide nature of the conflict, the experience of other countries, or the ways in which the events of a hundred years ago continue to resonate and affect the world today. 

A generation lost, but not forgotten

It was a day of ‘intense blue summer beauty’. It was perhaps also the worst day in modern British history. On July 1st, 1916, the British army launched the battle of the Somme. What happened next remains rightly familiar in the nation’s conscience. The footballs kicked towards the German positions. The deployment of massed infantry and even at one point cavalry against machine guns. The cemeteries with rows of crosses marking mass graves, where the regiments of ‘pals’ died on the wire. 

On the first day of the battle alone, some 20,000 British soldiers were killed. This was not in fact, as often claimed, the bloodiest day in the country’s history (more men were recorded dead at Towton, in the Wars of the Roses). But July the 1st 1916 was just the beginning of a battle that lasted another 140 days. The fighting ground on until over a million men had become casualties, for little gain. To this day unexploded ordinance continues to claim victims. And this was just one grim episode in a war that would eventually cost some ten million lives (see, for example, Liddell Hart, History of the First World War). One German officer wrote: ‘the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word than ‘Somme’’. 

The battle more than anything else contributed to the popular and perhaps simplistic view in the UK’s consciousness, entrenched by Blackadder and Oh What A Lovely War, of jingoistic war enthusiasm descending into a futile tragedy of ‘lions led by donkeys’. There has been lively debate amongst historians throughout the past century regarding the decision to go to war. Most now agree that - even though the war probably had to be fought - it did not have to be fought in the manner in which it was fought (see Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War; Max Hastings, Catastrophe). As Winston Churchill, who in 1916 had resigned from government and gone to fight on the Western Front, wrote at the time, the flawed strategy of attrition was ‘more frightful than anything that has been witnessed before in the world’ (recorded in his The World Crisis). 

But as well as a tragedy, the Somme also marked a profound cultural moment. One reason is that the ‘Lost Generation’ of World War One was an extremely literary one. Unlike in most previous wars, many ordinary soldiers were literate, well read, and well-supplied with books by an efficient postal service serving a static front line (Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory). Connected to this is the unprecedented number of poets and memoirists who fought at the Somme, including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, David Jones, Ernst Jünger, and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose mythological epic The Lord of the Rings was partly informed by his time in the trenches. From the other major combatants, Henri Barbusse, Erich Remarque, Jaroslav Hašek, and Ernest Hemmingway all wrote classic literature inspired by their experiences of the war in Europe. 

Partly thanks to all the writers who fought in it, in the UK the First World War and the Somme in particular has arguably achieved a unique cultural prominence

It has been said that idealism perished on the Somme (A J P Taylor, History of the First World War) and that the battle ‘marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered’ (John Keegan, The Face of Battle). Partly thanks to all the writers who fought in it, in the UK the First World War and the Somme in particular has arguably achieved a unique cultural prominence. It is often seen as an event that somehow discredited Victorian values such as patriotism, stoicism, deference, even innocence. At the same time the sacrifices of the men at the front and the vital efforts of women on the Home Front gave rise to universal suffrage in the 1920’s and changed Britain forever. 

Yet in other countries the momentous events of a hundred years’ ago have had very different cultural associations and after-lives. In many of the Commonwealth countries which were heavily involved in the fighting it contributed to an increasing sense of independent nationhood. In Russia the war discredited both Monarchism and then Democracy, leading to the Communist Revolution. In France it was often seen as a great epic of patriotic defence, justifying a vengeful peace imposed on Germany. In Germany the war and that peace were quickly seized on as a hard-fought conflict at the end of which Germany was betrayed, leading to revanchism and the rise of Nazism. In Central and Eastern Europe it caused the destruction of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was replaced by smaller nations divided on ethnic lines. In Turkey and the Middle East it saw the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Caliphate that had been associated with it, leading to ethnic conflict and a secular Turkish state. 

FOREIGN FIELDS

These issues were explored by the British Council’s recent Remember the World as Well as the War study that examined the global impact of the war that continues to this day. If it caused the fall of elites and empires and the rise of new democracies and nations, the war and Britain’s actions in it also sowed the seeds of many future conflicts. It should be remembered that 1916 saw both the heavy involvement of Irish units from both communities in fighting on the Somme and the Catholic ‘Easter Rising’ in Ireland – events that helped entrench divisions that can still be felt today. 1916 also saw the Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Great Britain that divided up the post-war Middle East into spheres under their respective influence, often despite contradictory promises given to the people who lived there (Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans). This was followed in 1917 by the Balfour declaration that was an important step towards the establishment of the modern state of Israel. 

Despite their huge continued importance today, only 9% of respondents in the UK had heard of Sykes-Picot and only 25% of the Balfour Declaration

These hugely important aspects of the war can still be controversial to this day but are often neglected in the UK where the focus of memory is largely the Western Front. Despite their huge continued importance today, only 9% of those surveyed for the British Council in the UK had heard of Sykes-Picot and only 25% of the Balfour Declaration, compared, for example, to the majority of people surveyed in Egypt. 

Since this survey was carried out, Daesh has explicitly rejected the Sykes-Picot agreement and at one point even bulldozed the border between Iraq and Syria that was part of its legacy. People in the UK should be more aware that the events of a hundred years ago continue to have important resonances and ramifications today and in turn continue to influence perceptions of the UK. The majority of people from other countries in the survey saw the UK’s role in the war as positive or neutral. But in Turkey, for example, 34% of those asked in the survey felt that the UK’s role in the war and subsequent peace negotiations had a negative or very negative effect on their views of the UK today (compared to just 15% who felt positive). The horrific events that the writers who fought on the Somme helped popularise and their place in the UK’s memory is in danger of somewhat obscuring the way the war was and continues to be viewed in other parts of world. 

Rightly, the memory of the War in the UK remains strong. But its meanings are in danger of being over-simplified. Many are less aware than they could be of the origins of the war, with its truly global nature involving millions of people in all corners of the world (most of whom had little direct connection with those origins), or with its continued legacy and the continued impact of that legacy on perceptions of the UK overseas. Centenaries like those this year are therefore an opportunity to ensure not only that we never forget the sacrifices of the Western Front, but also to share more sophisticated understandings of the conflict in educational programmes and public commemorations. 

The last of the brilliant ‘lost generation’ may be gone, but around the world the legacy of the terrible events of a century ago are still felt to this day. 

 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, British Council