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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Great War

A few thoughts on WWI, written in response to another's internal blog:

First, numbers:

Approximately 3,000 death sentences were passed but only about 10% were actually carried out (266 British and colonial soldiers were shot for desertion, 18 for cowardice, seven for quitting their posts and two for casting away their arms: 293 in all. The other executions were for offences of a different nature, such as murder). Some 80,000 were diagnosed with shell shock at the war's end. The actual number of sufferers must have been many times greater over the conflict.

The fact that very few soldiers at all were executed (far fewer than the French army as well) indicates that the story is more complex than brutal officers ruthlessly and cruelly executing the innocent merely as an example to the rest. There must have been countless occasions of shell-shocked soldiers losing touch with their units but being ushered back without punishment by Military Police and then not receiving punishment from their actual officers.

Secondly - the strategists tried hard throughout to devise new methods of attack and warfare generally, they weren't doing it just because they were concerned about the odd mutiny, but because they were trying hard to win the war.

Thirdly - have to disagree with this sentence: "When the chance of being killed in action ticks over from possible to probable, it seems, you might just as well take your chances with the firing squad." 74% of British soldiers on the Somme didn't get a scratch; that isn't a probability of being killed in action at all. Incidentally per unit casualties for the Normandy campaign in 1944 were higher, yet that action is always considered a success rather than reckless slaughter.
Final point: I have always wondered why the only names etched into the public conscience are those of the defeats, or stalemates, or seemingly pyrrhic victories for the allies: the likes of Loos, Verdun, Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendale and Ypres. Conversely, the defeat of Operation Michel (substantially on the moonscape of the Somme battlegrounds) and other German offensives of 1918, followed by the "100 days" in which the British surged to victory, constitute perhaps the most significant land victories in British history. Coming as they did only a couple of years after the creation of a giant new army from virtually nothing, pitched against a German army bolstered significantly by the end of the war in the East, they represent an astonishing victory by any measure.

Moreover, they represent the only occasion on which the British (or rather British and Empire) army could be said to have been the strongest field army in the world.

The equivalent might be Northern American states remembering the Civil War only in the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; with Antietam, Gettysburg and all others forgotten. Or perhaps Americans in general recalling only Pearl Harbour rather than Coral Sea and Midway; or Russians the German invasion up to (but not including) Stalingrad.


  1. Here a poem and a painting about Shell Shock by contemporary artist Jan Theuninck :