1916. Verdun, Somme, the offensive of Brusilov.

1916 is not just the average year of the First World War, is perhaps the year’s most prototypical. Many of the later events are the prelude of what was to come. We have two ways out of the stalemate of trench warfare, each one of which marked the subsequent wars. Is the invention of new tactics of attack for the infantry for the germans that was used in the offensives of 1918 is the start of a good part of the tactics used by this weapon throughout the TWENTIETH century. The allies, for their part, developed a war ironclad, and in their offensive of 1918, the tank was already fully integrated. The Russian revolution changed the situation radically in the TWENTIETH century (not to say the situation of the war in question) from 1917. The mass deployment of the submarine warfare is more to do with something that characterized the war from 1917, and with it already being announced that will be the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second world War. By 1918 it had already been mentioned By the other hand, the events leading up are several of the features of earlier wars: In 1914, there is still a war of movement on the Western Front, and although the carnage produced by those dates hardly was replicated throughout the conflict (Max Hastings noted in 1914, the year of the disaster that the daily rate of casualties suffered by the French troops during the first months of the war were the highest of the entire war). But the mass killing per se was already something well-known: the russo-japanese war, the franco-prussian war, the american civil war, the wars of Italian unification, the Crimean war, since all of them had shown. What they had not had them it was the equivalent to the strategic level of the war site and its features.

In this respect it may be useful to mention that, against an image that does not cease to be still common, the First World War showed great changes in its interior; and in this sense, a strong capacity of learning of the armies. The learning and experiments did not have the fruit to last a long time says, in part, of the objective difficulty of the problem, not the inability to recognize (for the case of the German army, see Robert Foley, Learning War’s Lessons, The Journal of Military History 2011, 75: 471-504). And tells us another thing, to which we return at the end: That his learning was in relation to how to win the war, but was maintained as a basic premise that a war is industrial and modern, there was a war with many casualties. The willingness to accept casualties was something that did not change, but that did not imply the absence of learning tactical (or strategic).

The three battles that we have mentioned in the title of this entry in some sense represent that state’s prototypical: How to fight an industrial war between the great powers when the main weapon of attack remains the infantry. In the battles that are in the title of the entry are a good part of the main armies in battle: In Verdun between French and German; on the Somme between English and German (even when there are also French participation in the battle) and in the offensive of Brusilov between the russians against the germans and austro-hungarians. In the input we will work to narras the battles in question (the respective pages of Wikipedia before noted are sufficiently informative), but rather a small description of the experience of such battles.

What was the experience to fight those battles? For various reasons (greater literacy of the participants, the less loss of documents, the start of the oral history was conducted when they were still alive many survivors) we have a lot of testimonials primary, and in the first place (then) we will transcribe some of them:

I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the “patter, patter” of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own, Then I was hit myself (Sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish, quoted in Keegan. The Face of Battle, p 249)

I found the German wire well cut, but only three of our company got past there. There was my lieu-tenant, sargeant and myself. The rest seemed to have been hit in no-man’s-land… the officer said, “God, God, where’s the rest of the boys” (Soldier of the 4th Tyneside Scottish, quoted in Keegan, The Face of Battle, p 263)

To signaller has just stepped out, when a shell burst on him, leaving not a vestige that could be seen anywhere near (Medical Officer of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusilieres, quoted in Keegan, The Face of Battle, p 269)

Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tends, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don’t have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground. (Soldier of the 65th Division Infantry French, July 1916 in Verdun)

I stayed ten days next to a man who was chopped in two; there was no way to move him; he had one leg on the parapet and the rest of this body in the trench. It stank and I had to chew tobacco the whole time in order to endure this torment. (Soldier near Thiaumont, June 1916, this quote and the previous one in http://www.worldwar1.com/tgws/rel012.htm quoting 1916: ‘annee de Verdun. Service Historique de l Armee de Terre)

There are slopes on Hill 304 where the level of the ground is raised several metres by mounds of German corpses. Sometimes it happens that the third German wave use the dead of the second wave as ramparts and shelters. It was behind ramparts of the dead left by the first five attacks, on May 24th, that we saw the Boches take shelter while they organized their next rush (French, located in Le Mort Homme, in http://firstworldwar.com/diaries/verdun_lemorthomme.htm citing Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923).

And one could continue. My writing ability is inadequate to describe what it meant to live a war of this type, so I will just make some general comments:

(a) a Very short time, sometimes over an hour, was enough to destroy a whole battalion (between 700 and 1,000 men). An attack in the no-man’s land, exposed to the fire concentrated machine-gun, could involve losses of between 500 and 700, the fate of several battalions, the first day on the Somme. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment made their attack (unsuccessful) between 8:45 and 9:45, 1 July 1916, the next day had 324 dead or missing, 368 wounded and only 68 men unharmed (link here) At a time, you have an entire small community, and after a period that is similar to a class almost nothing is left of it.

(b) despite this, during 1916 the soldiers who were exposed to such carnage did not give up its attempts. We have to wait until 1917 for the first resistors are massive: For instance, the mutinies of the French army who stated that, although they were willing to defend their trenches were not willing to attack and die for nothing; not to speak of what happened in the Russian army. Better is not required to sample the levels of social cohesion that could have societies that, on the other hand, were notoriously uneven.

(c) These are sacrifices shared. In the battles of which we speak (and this is particularly true in the case of Verdun or the Somme) the casualty rate in the official (high-class) is not less than that of the soldiers. In fact, if wrong I am not mistaken to be the official grading less (lieutenant or captain) was among the positions most dangerous in the whole front. This fact is not irrelevant for the future development of Welfare States in the rest of the TWENTIETH century.

In any case, perhaps the most crucial is the following: During the First World War, the european States were in a position to demand immense sacrifices of their own populations, and to treat their own citizens as beings of no value. The less than 30 years later, to treat others as beings without value is not surprising given that background.

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