Machine guns vs. gallant men

John Crosbie
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Last in a three-part series

On July 1, 1916, our English friend, Arthur Wakefield, was working at the 29th casualty clearing station. He walked through the fields of wounded deciding who might live and who was destined to die.

As Wade Davis details in “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest,” not a boy or a man there spoke with the lilt Wakefield knew so well.

None wore blue puttees, unique to our Newfoundland regiment, and not a single soldier’s cap bore its insignia, the head of a caribou wreathed in gold. It was as if the Newfoundland regiment had simply vanished.

The full extent of this catastrophe took weeks to register in the U.K., with the London newspapers simply echoing official military bulletins, which had little connection to reality. The Times reported that Britain’s commander of general staff, Gen. Douglas Haig, telephoned “to report that the general situation was favourable. … Everything had gone well. … Effective progress, nay substantial progress. … We got our first thrust well home and there’s every reason to be sanguine as to the result.”

It was suggested that all counterattacks had been repulsed and large numbers of prisoners taken.

The Daily Mail, as well as many other papers in the U.K., accepted these false reports of the general’s back home at face value, and never did make it clear what had really happened and what a catastrophe it had all been.

It was not until July 21, as is evident from his diary, that Wakefield learned the full truth of what had happened to his beloved Newfoundland regiment on the first day of the Somme, which maddened him with a rage that haunted him for the rest of his life.

Wakefield, who had been a very religious man, never again prayed or bowed his head, or attended religious services, as a result of his experiences in the First World War .

The author’s analysis is that “Haig was not a man of impulse or instinct, but he did have the unfailing ability to select for attack the strongest conceivable point in his enemy’s defences.”

On the Somme and at Beaumont-Hamel, the Germans had established three successive lines of defence that followed the high ground, transforming the undulating farmland in front of their defences into thickets of wire, interlocking zones of fire with a depth of more than 4,000 yards, well beyond the range of British artillery. For the British to advance they had to penetrate not simply the first line and reserve trenches, but another 12 lines of defence in open country.

On an 18-mile front, the Germans had fortified as unassailable redoubts nine villages, including Beaumont-Hamel. The German line covered every point of high ground and more than a thousand machine guns were in place. The result was that regiments up and down the line of the Somme suffered casualty rates of 75 per cent.

Haig decided he could not call off the Somme attack without admitting failure on a scale so vast as to be murderous. As a result, he redefined the goals of the campaign and declared that attrition rather than military breakthrough had always been his intent.

The battle of the Somme continued for 140 days at a cost of 600,000 wounded and dead. The British line advanced six miles leaving the Allies four miles short of the target Haig had planned to take on the opening day of the campaign.

Only Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, and an MP, refused to gloss over the reality of the trenches, and wrote that he shuddered “at the thought of generals content to fight the machine gun bullets with the breaths of gallant men.”

On Nov. 11, during the Second World War, when Winston Churchill was prime minister, he made this assessment: “What a disappointment the 20th century has been. How terrible and melancholy, it is a long series of disastrous events which have darkened its first 20 years.”

Later in the war, the British suffered some 400,000 casualties in trying to take the village of Passchendaele, directed by Haig, and the object of their first morning had still yet to fall.

Those events are well described by Wade Davis, including the monstrous disgrace of Passchendaele and the astonishingly poor leadership of the British general staff and Gen. Haig in the First World War. They had completely lost touch with reality, as most of these battles show.

The Commonwealth countries as a whole participated in both World Wars, with the Australians and New Zealanders, Canadians and Indians being involved. India sent an Indian Corps to France and apparently, in 13 months on the Western front, the Indian Corps — two divisions of a total of 48,000 men — lost 1,525 officers and 32,727 men of other ranks.

In 1918, there were still 500,000 unmarked graves in the war zones, but as the author reminds us, “the inscriptions remember the dead, but the graves, for the most part, contain nothing but hopes and dreams of the living.”

The remainder of Davis’s book deals with attempts, starting in the 1920s, to finally have a person reach the top of Mount Everest, only finally achieved in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and his Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.

This quotation seems apt: “a government’s most basic moral and constitutional obligation is to defend effectively its country and its citizens.”

And, one might add, for its generals to understand and act to ensure that this principle of leadership is carried out.

We should wonder why we welcomed Gen. Haig here on July 1, 1924, to appear and be feted when our war memorial was officially opened in St. John’s.


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Organizations: The Times, Daily Mail, Indian Corps

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Everest, London Britain Beaumont-Hamel India France Mount Everest New Zealand

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