I’m reading Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s magisterial Somme: Into the Breach (Viking, 2016) where he attempts to explain why Great Britain suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities, on the first day of the battle, July 1, 1916.
It’s a story of monumental pride, chaotic disorganization, delusional self-confidence, disingenuous calls to duty, and broken promises to the soldiers who were ordered to run hundreds of yards over open ground in the face of German machine guns sweeping the field back and forth.
They had been promised a massive bombardment of German trenches which was never carried out. This promise was reiterated by their officers, yelling “OK, lads,” as the men started the attack. Without hesitation, they lifted their heads above the trenches into space where machine gun fire was mowing men down like wheat.
What stuns me most, however, are the officers who continued to send their men out of the trenches directly into the fire having already witnessed the inevitable result — human carnage.
To his credit, Sebag-Montefiore successfully sorts out all the dynamics set in motion, well before the battle, that colluded in literally wasting thousands and thousands of lives and permanently disfiguring many thousands of others. The bulk of the narrative is told from the letters, diaries, and journals of the combatants and their families.
What the author does not attempt to explain, because it is unexplainable, is the toleration of the slaughter lasting not only to the end of the Somme battle in November but also to the end of WWI itself, November 11, 1918. But Sebag-Montefiore allows his narrative to break off into a kind of silence where both he and the reader are both shaking their heads in disbelief.