A hundred years ago, British units (alongside a smaller French force) attacked the Germans on an eleven-mile wide front in Picardy, straddling the Somme River. The attack was the attempt to break through on the Western Front, and in accordance with emerging artillery doctrine and practice, the German lines were saturated with shells for a week in advance. But when the artillery stopped to allow the British to attack, the Germans raced out of their deep dugouts, manned their machine guns, and mowed down the British attackers. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers died on this day, July 1, a hundred years ago.
Many historians of World War I today argue that this battle was a kind of victory, since it kept the Germans from breaking through at other places. Or that it showed that the Allies could mount a huge assault. Or that it was part of "learning curve" in the process that finally won the war for the Allies.
It certainly was in many ways a triumph for the state in the abstract. It represented the ability of the modern state at best to gamble the lives of hundreds of hundreds of thousands, at worst to waste them, in an attack that was only marginal in terms of its potential success. True, the Somme Campaign eventually made some headway: the German were pushed back as much a few hundred yards by November, in a few places more. All of these gains, however, would be wiped out at the latest in the 1918 German Spring Offensive, another success of the modern state in inducing "sacrifice" among the masses.
The First Day of the Somme Battle was a human disaster. But the state, after a few years of trying to sweep this affair under the carpet, now uses the episode as an example of "sacrifice," not state incompetence or callousness.
Here's to the memory of the 20,000 British subjects along with the few thousand French and Germans who died in this frenzy of state power. From whichever side of No Man's Land, they were tough, determined, and uncomplaining. The state didn't deserve them.