Tuesday, November 16, 2010

By Lisa Jardine, BBC News Magazone.

Ninety years ago, Allied commanders launched the World War I offensive lastingly remembered as the Battle of the Somme. At 7.30am on 1 July, 1916, officers blew their whistles to signal the start of the attack. As 11 British divisions clambered out of their trenches and walked slowly towards the enemy lines, German machine guns opened fire, causing wholesale carnage. The first day of that battle was the bloodiest in the whole history of the British Army. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties; almost 20,000 were dead, including 60% of all the officers involved.

One of those who survived that horrific first assault, and who endured the prolonged ghastliness of the months of fighting that followed, was the young JRR Tolkien.

The Allied plan had been to launch a coordinated Anglo-French assault. The British would attack along a 15-mile front north of the meandering river Somme. Five French divisions would attack along an eight-mile front through rolling farmland south of the Somme. To ensure a rapid advance with minimal resistance, Allied artillery had been pounding German lines for a week beforehand, firing over a million and a half shells at the enemy.

British soldiers recalled later how throughout the night before the battle, the entire length of the English trenches shuddered and vibrated from the reverberating shock waves of uninterrupted big gun bombardment of the enemy lines.

The saturation bombardment was supposed to annihilate the opposing forces, leaving their positions undefended. Cavalry units would then pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans. But open preparations for the assault gave clear advance warning of an impending attack, and German troops simply moved into underground concrete bunkers and waited.

Almost five months later, the Allies had advanced only five miles, at a cost of over half a million lives. Early in 1917, the Germans fell back from their positions for strategic reasons. Their withdrawal made a mockery of the months of bitter battle and appalling loss of life. It had all been for 'a few acres of mud'.
Intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter.
At the Somme, the new, devastatingly efficient weapons of mass destruction -the tank, mustard-gas and the machine gun - marked the beginning of mechanised warfare on a huge scale. War would never be the same again.
The poet Wilfred Owen was killed in the final week of World War I at the age of 25. His poems offered searing testimony to the way this new kind of war ended any possibility of romanticising personal sacrifice, or elevating the individual in combat to the status of hero.

For me, his Anthem for Doomed Youth captures better than any military history an absolute disenchantment, no matter how "good and true" the cause:

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns?
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle?
Can patter out their hasty orisons."

A more mundane kind of eye-witness account - but as compelling - comes from an extraordinary collection of audio-recordings of the recollections of ordinary serving soldiers, to be found on the Imperial War Museum website as part of a virtual Somme commemoration.
Pte Don Murray, for instance, recalls how, as he and his comrades walked towards the enemy lines, the Germans appeared from their bunkers: "They just wound up their guns on automatic and fired... and of course they just mowed us down."
And he goes on to evoke the sense of numbing isolation, still vivid to him all those years later, he says: "And it seemed to me eventually there was just one man left, I couldn't see anybody at all, all I could see was men lying dead, men screaming... and I thought what can I do, I was just alone in a hell of fire and smoke and stink."

Tolkien had just graduated from Oxford with a first-class degree in literature when he saw his first active service at the Somme. From July 1916 until he was invalided out with trench fever at the end of October, he experienced the full relentless ghastliness of day after day of trench life under fire - the discomfort, the cold, the mud, the lice, the fear, the unspeakable horrors witnessed.

He had taken comfort from the fact that he was fighting alongside his three oldest and dearest friends from his school-days - a quartet of gifted would-be-poets who hoped to become outstanding literary men. But by November, two of those friends were dead.

Tolkien and the one other surviving member of their "club" were never able to rebuild a closeness shattered by the enormity of what had occurred - by the sense of total loss, the obliteration of the band of friends almost before their creative lives had begun.

Imagination is a uniquely human attribute. Freely exercised, it allows each of us to transform our everyday experience, elevating it into something more consolingly meaningful. How, then, does the human imagination cope with trauma of the kind Tolkien and his fellow-soldiers experienced in 1916?

We might expect those months of unremitting horror in the trenches of the Somme to have fed into, and coloured, the ferocious battles and scenes of slaughter in Tolkien's three-part "Lord of the Rings" (begun in the 1930s), or in "The Fall of Gondolin" which he began writing while convalescing in the spring of 1917.

War: first, one hopes to win;
then one expects the enemy to lose;
then one is satisfied that he too is suffering;
in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.
--Karl Kraus