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from the Observer Sunday 1 July 2001

Not a lovely warNo, it was not a lovely war
The BBC's plans to recreate the horrors of trench warfare 85 years after the slaughter on the Somme are a kitsch travesty

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

LAST WEEK, DAVID Ireland died at the age of 103, after spending the last 77 years of his life in a mental hospital. He had never recovered from the Great War, which grievously affected him. But then it could be said to have done that for all of us.

He died just before today’s eighty-fifth anniversary of what could well stand as the most important date in British twentieth-century history, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. For the first time ever in our history, a huge army on the continental pattern had been raised. The New Army was an army of volunteers, the greatest such there has ever been. Boys from the same mill towns and mean streets joined up together, and the names they gave to their units are deeply poignant still: the Leeds Pals, the Tyneside Irish, the Grimsby Chums. They enlisted together, they trained together, they went into battle together, and they died together. On 1 July 1916, 13 British divisions attacked on a front less than 12 miles long. Waves of infantry. men, each carrying 66lbs of kit, marched steadily towards German machine guns and mortars which were supposed, wrongly, to have been destroyed by an artillery barrage.

By the end of that day, almost 20,000 British soldiers had been killed. There were two casualties for every yard of the front. Nine VCs were awarded, six of them posthumously. An infantry battalion comprised around 800 officers and men: 34 battalions each suffered more than 500 casualties that day. The Accrington Pals lost 585, the 10th West Yorkshires, 710.

This was much the heaviest loss in a day sustained by the British Army, or any army, in that war, or any war. Hut words and figures cannot convey the enormity of what happened. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan shows what is meant to be a realistically bloodstained version of D-Day, but the fact is that there were no more than 2,000 casualties all told, killed and wounded, on Omaha Beach.

AN AUTHENTIC re-enactment of the Somme would be intolerable. Anything remotely approaching a realistic depiction of the carnage simply could not be shown. It could scarcely be described even at the time. We speak tritely of ‘denial’, but the men who survived the Somme weren’t in denial, they necessarily forgot what they had seen and heard — an ear-splitting cacophony of machine-gun fire, bursting shells, and the screams of the dying in order to stay sane. It was those like poor Ireland, who couldn’t forget the Western Front, who did not survive mentally.

To all that was added the knowledge that the attack had been a complete failure. Scarcely any ground was gained on the first day, or even by November when General Haig finally broke off the offensive after hundreds of thousands of casualties. One of the supposed objectives for that first morning had been the little town of Bapaume. It was still in German hands four months later.

But the further significance of that day is how it, and the war, was remembered. First came a period of profound loss and mourning, but also, paradoxically, of oblivion. Cenotaph, Unknown Soldier, Armistice Day when the whole country stopped for two minutes at ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’, were all part of a cult of sacrifice: the glorious dead ‘shall not grow old’ and had not died in vain.

Ten years after the war, the mood suddenly changed. By an uncanny coincidence, all the books by which the Great War is now remembered, by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Richard Aldington, came out in 1928-30. They told a quite different story, of horrible, mindless suffering. In the following decade more and more Englishmen came to believe that war was not only hellish but futile. A generation had been brutally and needlessly sacrificed; never again.

IN 1933, THE Oxford Union voted not to fight for King and Country and the Government lost the East Fulham by-election apparently in a vote against war. A determination never to see the Somme repeated might have been all to the good, if its beneficiary hadn’t been Hitler.In the end the British went reluctantly to war in 1939. But although they were fighting a vastly more evil foe than the ‘Prussian militarism’ of 1914, they did so with none of the New Army’s zest, and certainly none of its readiness for blind sacrifice. British generals of the Second World War were acutely aware that their soldiers would simply not go through the same butchery. And that war left a serious question prosperous democracies would fight wars at all any more.

In the 1960s Oh! What a Lovely War, books and films told the love-and-peace generation of the horrors of the Great War. And in Vietnam, the greatest power on Earth found that its men would not fight, even with trifling casualties by 1916 standards. A final legacy of the Somme might have been the Balkans ‘campaign’ of two years ago, which looked, as one sour old soldier said, like being the first war in history in which only civilians were killed. We congratulate ourselves today on Milosevic’s downfall, but how many casualties would Nato have endured to defeat him?

Finally, the memory of the Somme has been reduced to kitsch. The BBC wants 25 young men to take part in a recreation of the Western Front. They will spend two weeks in a trench and will be exposed to tear gas. According to the BBC, ‘each will play a real-life soldier and will have no idea when he is going to die’: a ‘reality TV’ or virtual war which would have seemed grotesque to those who knew the real thing.

Nor did any of David Ireland’s comrades know when, they would die, only that very many of them would. Their fate was certainly sacrificial, and it changed history. But not in the way that their commanders and rulers supposed.

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