When farmers in this part of Northern France plow their fields, they unearth relics of the war that ended here just over a century ago: shell casings, gas masks, skulls. The tranquil landscape, as flat as the plains of Kansas, belies the memory of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, when 21,000 British soldiers died charging across a few hundred yards of shell craters, weeds and barbed wire into German machine guns. That futile offensive raged until the following November, when death had claimed 1.5 million lives on both sides of the trenches. The war’s architects had not envisioned such slaughter when they mobilized young recruits in August 1914 on promises of an easy victory.
The historian Christopher Clark depicted the statesmen who led Europe into the Great War as men walking blind in their sleep through an open window. In his magnificent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Clark wrote, “The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded.” That had not been the intention, any more than the treaty ending the war was supposed to produce another cataclysm 20 years later that would claim a further 60 million lives.
Trudging along mud pathways near the River Somme recently, I passed remnants of shell holes and trenches barely camouflaged by fresh spring grass. Thousands of youngsters lie buried where they fell in a landscape resplendent in monuments and cemeteries. A plaque in one graveyard reminds visitors, “The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.” The lads of the Devonshire Regiment, like their comrades from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, Canada and the rest of England, left behind young widows, children and inconsolable parents. Was it worth it?…
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