The day that was too beautiful for war

Yesterday was the 94th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, the most terrible and costly battle in British military history: 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day – July 1, 1916 – and another 40,000 injured. By the time the battle ended, on November 18, British forces had lost almost 96,000 dead and 324,000 wounded. It was a high price to pay for nothing. There was no breakthrough of the German line.

“Idealism perished on the Somme,” wrote A J P Taylor. “The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer. They had lost faith in their cause, in their leaders, in everything except loyalty to their fighting comrades. The war ceased to have purpose. It went on for its own sake, a contest in endurance.”

Never again will a generation of young Britons obey orders to advance towards almost certain death. You men today would simply not go over the top when the whistles blew. That is perhaps just as well, but I am not sure that it reflects well on us. What certainly reflects badly on us, however, or on our warmakers, is that it is now the civilians who must endure the losses. Most of the 55 million people who lost their lives in the Second World War were non-combatants. This has been the pattern ever since. In Korea and Vietnam more civilians than soldiers died; in Iraq also; and now in Afghanistan civilians make up the bulk of the deaths.

Military casualties have been light in Afghanistan, but just about every evening on the news we hear that more British soldiers have been killed in Helmand province, and some of us cross ourselves and wince with sadness and irritation. Nothing has been gained from their brave sacrifice, and much lost. Osama bin Laden is still free; al-Qaeda (if such a thing exists) is still in the terrorism business. On and on it goes. We are told that we are fighting for our own security in Afghanistan, but only venal politicians and hapless soldiers are prepared to believe that.

There is brave talk (by men who are not required to risk their lives) of staying the course. Barack Obama shows he is serious by sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and then that he is not serious by announcing that the United States will start a phased withdrawal next summer. No wonder the Taliban say they will not negotiate with Nato. All they have to do is sit and wait.

War was always hell, but it may once have had purpose. But in the past century? “[W]ar is the worst solution for all sides,” said the Pope in an interview with Bavarian television in 2006. “It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars.”

You’d never find our Tony Blair indulging in that sort of defeatist talk. He’s done nicely out of war, and is now making a killing in the peace business. Dosh, gratitude and honours roll in, and the tan gets deeper. In September, we learn, he is to receive the US Liberty Medal (and $100,000) for his work in conflict resolution. No wonder he is grinning…

The weather on the Western Front was often unspeakable, but on July 1, 1916, it was extraordinarily beautiful. Bombardier R H Locke, Royal Horse Artillery, recalled 60 years later:

“It was really a pity to have a war in July 1st, for in all my time it was the most beautiful day we had. The sky was cloudless and the sun shone. The skylarks were singing as they flew heavenwards and unknown to them thousands of our soldiers were on their way there too.”