|36th Ulster Division Advancing at the Somme, 1 July 1916|
By Editor/Publisher Mike Hanlon
Note: The is a slightly edited version of a commentary I wrote for the Trip-Wire when we were commemorating the Centennial of the events of 1916.
Something I am sure I share with our regular readers is the experience of periodically encountering someone who finds our interest in the First World War baffling. Sometimes this means members of the family. At our (happily infrequent) gatherings I have one female relative who never passes on the opportunity to ask in front of the assembled group, "How can you spend so much time on something so STUPID?" Another, an in-law, now dearly departed, used to regularly kick in, "You know, you picked the only war, you can't make any money at!" [Sadly, he had "gone west" by the time I actually got a check from the U.S. Postal Service for consulting work on a commemorative stamp issue, but he probably would have laughed at its amount anyway.]
Moving on, I've tried many responses to such skeptics over the years, from invoking George Kennan's "Seminal event of the 20th century" to my own view, "It's just bloody fascinating," followed by lots of specific examples. Alas, nothing seems to make a dent on their attitudes. Recently I've tried to turn the tables and have probed for the source of their disdain for the events of 1914–1918. First, of course, one usually has to deal with the modern [or post-modern] abysmal lack of appreciation for the past, the flushing of all of human experience down some enormous 1984-ish memory hole. However, I've learned to force myself to tiptoe around that sore point, fighting off my own tendency to rant about the cult of political correctness, the enduring sins of the 1960s' New Left, and the dumbing-down of American education. My recent attempts go something like this composite conversation:
MH: What do you find particularly off-putting about WWI?
XX: Trench warfare. It was bad, bad, bad. . . And the generals were idiots and didn't care how many men they lost.
MH: Do you know of an episode that demonstrates that?
XX: Yes, there was the time when a whole British army went over the top and got machine gunned down in no-man's-land. It was the worst day in England's history.
MH: Well, what you are describing there is the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and it was, indeed, a terrible day. Are there any similar cases you might have heard about? The war lasted over four years, after all.
XX: The French had some battle [Verdun] that was so bad, the next time the generals ordered them to attack [Nivelle offensive] they baaed like sheep and refused to go. And then there was Flanders [Passchendaele].
MH: What about Flanders?
XX: They had to fight in the MUD! Mud is bad, bad, bad. . . You can drown in mud. Did you know that?
MH: Well, yes. I think I do.
XX: And what about the GAS?
MH: (At this point, since gas is bad, bad, bad, I usually throw in the towel.)
Note that, despite my best efforts, I still inevitably find myself on the defensive in such exchanges. I've really got to work on my technique. Maybe I should watch more of the presidential debates. There is one odd aspect of these probes, though, that I've tried to reflect here. The events of 1916, most specifically the Somme, but also including Verdun—reinforced in vague fashion by the Nivelle and Passchendaele offensives of 1917—define the Great War for many folks.
None of the events of the other years or fronts of the war seem to have made any impression. This appears to me to be especially true for people who are averse to studying history or consider the past irrelevant to their lives. Nonetheless, certain facts about the war are selected and they are magnified and distorted beyond recognition. Curiouser and curiouser. MH