More from MPR
April 5, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — At 7:30 on the morning of July 1, 1916, an unnatural silence fell over the ruined landscape of the Somme River near Amiens in France. For a solid week, General Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces, had ordered a constant bombardment of the German trenches. Hoping to obliterate their front line forces, the British fired a million and a half shells from 1,537 guns. At 7:30, the moment the bombardment stopped, 11 British divisions climbed out of their trenches along a 13-mile front and began walking forward toward the lines.
By 7:31, six German divisions had carried their machine guns upstairs from their deep dugouts. The men had survived the bombardment safely, even comfortably, and now began the grisly process of mowing down the British soldiers who were beginning to cut through the barbed wire defenses.
The initial attack involved 110,000 men, 60,000 of whom were killed or wounded on that single day, July 1, 1916. By the end of the day 20,000 lay dead between the lines. Only days later did the wounded men lying helpless in No Man's Land stop crying out.
The initial Battle of the Somme (like many other "battles" of the war, it was a protracted affair that lasted until November) came to symbolize everything that was unimaginative, idiotic, horrific, and ultimately, ironic about the conduct and the phenomenon of World War I. According to author Paul Fussell, 1915 had been a year of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes. 1916 was characterized by one vast optimistic hope leading to one ironic catastrophe. The Somme. The troops just called it the "Great F***-Up."
Five weeks later, along the same front, an Englishman named George Butterworth was killed at Pozieres. No one in his company knew that back home he was a well-known composer of music. And no one at home, not even his family, knew that he'd been decorated for valor earlier in the Somme conflict. He was 31 years old.
In his classic study "The Great War and Modern Memory," Fussell insists that the ironies of the war--the deep discrepancies between the heroic ideals of fighting the war and its ultimate realities--marked the beginning of habits and expressions that still resonate with us today. The Great War, he says, introduced irony as a pervasive mode of thinking. For many, it reversed the idea of progress. Words like heroism, courage, honor and authority became tarnished, and would have to be shined up again for later conflicts and later generations. Close to ten million individuals were killed on both sides. Although it began with conventionally dynamic movements of troops, very soon it bogged down into the familiar static image of trench warfare. Numbers help reinforce the idea of just how entrenched it was.
Trenches dug along the front ran in an unbroken line 400 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Both sides dug secondary, tertiary, emergency trenches. The British and the French both were responsible for 6,000 miles of trenches. The Germans added another 12,000 on their own (always better designed, cleaner and more comfortable). Altogether, the trenches of the Great War would have circled the globe.
One participant, Cecil Lewis, wrote, "The trench system had all the elements of grotesque comedy--a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve nothing at all."
Butterworth himself left us with an ironic artifact in the form of a song. He wrote "The Lads in Their Hundreds," setting a text by A.E. Housman, in 1911. It wasn't obviously about wartime deaths, but noted the enduring fact that of any group of young men there would always be a "few that will carry their looks or their truths to the grave." The war, course, inflated the hundreds to millions, and Butterworth would become one of the "lads that will die in their glory and never be old."
When the war started in August of 1914, the youth of England rushed to join up. It was to be a heroic adventure; they would be "home by Christmas." England hadn't been involved in a major European conflict since Waterloo. (Apparently the Boer War and a dozen other 19th century colonial conflicts were too distant to give glory a bitter taste.) There's a photo of the Central London Recruiting Station at the beginning of the war that haunted poet Philip Larkin, who wrote his "MCMXIV" in 1962:
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank holiday lark. . . .
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Fussell quotes a London Times article of August 9, 1914 reporting on an inquest into the death of a 49 year-old man named Arthur Annesley. It was determined that he had committed suicide by throwing himself under a moving truck. The coroner stated that "worry caused by the feeling that he was not going to be accepted for service led him to take his life."
Four years later that act of desperation, and countless other brash declarations of pride and duty and service (in the Times classified section just before the war started--"PAULINE--Alas, it cannot be. I will dash into the great adventure with all that pride and spirit an ancient race has given me.") would seem inconceivable, as if springing from the pages of the "Iliad."
Against this backdrop, simultaneously apocalyptic and/or absurd in contemporary accounts, composers still wrote music. Each responded differently according to his experiences and temperaments. Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his early forties, served in Northern France as an ambulance driver. He translated the carnage, ironically, into his Symphony No. 3 "Pastoral" with the evocation of an out-of-tune bugler in the slow movement.
Claude Debussy, already sick in body with cancer, was sickened in spirit at the outbreak of the war and vowed to write nothing more. But he relented, first with his Berceuse Heroique to benefit victims of the brutal German march across Belgium and then his Cello Sonata. Before his death in the spring of 1918 he'd complete his Violin Sonata, and anguished and angry "Carol of the Homeless Children," for which he wrote the words as well as the music.
After the war Gustav Holst composed his beautiful "Ode to Death" (which might be heard more often if titled differently) on a text by Walt Whitman.
Erik Satie presented his provocative ballet "Parade" in Paris in 1917. Edward Elgar composed his Cello Concerto in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice. In the ballet "The Blue Train," Darius Milhaud chronicled the post-war mania for travel after four years of shortages and isolation on both sides of the English Channel.
The Battle of the Somme, like the general war it symbolized, has been analyzed and referred to in countless studies and poems and fictions. July 1, 1916 is still marked in England as a watershed, an end of innocence. Contributing to the disaster was an astounding lack of imagination as well as class arrogance. No one among the British command thought the Germans could have created dugouts deep enough to hide in during the bombardment. There was a complete lack of surprise. No one thought to end the bombardment, wait even a few minutes, and begin it again. And the general staff believed that the troops, mostly lower class boys, would not be capable of an attack involving feinting or providing cover; any tactic more complex than walking in orderly rows.
The poet Edmund Blunden wrote of July 1, 1916: "By the end of the day both sides had seen, in the sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning."
Tune-in to Open Air to hear these and other pieces at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 5 on the Classical Music Stations of Minnesota Public Radio.
Ford Maddox Ford, "Parade's End." 1928.
Paul Fussell, "The Great War and Modern Memory." 1975.
Paul Fussell, "Abroad: Literary Traveling Between the Wars." 1980.
Robert Graves, "Good-bye to All That." 1930.
Barbara Tuchman, "The Guns of August." 1962.