Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Anglo-Saxon Model Great Man by Paul Fussell

The need for a stiffening of the home front morale at the beginning of 1916 can be gauged by the Poet Laureate’s issuing in January an anthology of uplifting spiritual passages of a neo-Platonic tendency titled The Spirit of Man. Such was the military situation, Robert Bridges implied in his Introduction, that “we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls.” We will thus “look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and loving kindness.” The news from Belgium and France, not to mention Turkey, was making it more and more necessary to insist, as Bridges does, that “man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature. . . “ Such and outlook is now indispensable, for we are confronted with “a grief that is intolerable constantly to face, nay impossible to face without that trust in God which makes all things possible.”

The comforts purveyed by The Spirit of Man were badly needed, for 1915 had been one of the most depressing years in British history. It had been a year not only of ironic mistakes but of a grossly unimaginative underestimation of the enemy and of the profound difficulties of siege warfare. Poor Sir John French had to be sent home, to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as commander of the British forces.

One doesn’t want to be too hard on Haig, who doubtless did all he could and who has been well calumniated already. But it must be said that it now appears that the one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant – especially of the French – and quite humorless. And he was provincial: at his French headquarters he insisted on attending a Church of Scotland service every Sunday. Bullheaded as he was, he was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting. Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig’s performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm. His want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for Great Men ever since.

By the end of June, 1916, Haig’s planning was finished and the attack on the Somme was ready. . . .Out of the 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded on this one day. Over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in No Man’s Land stopped crying out. If the pattern of things in 1915 had been a number of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes, the pattern in 1916 was that of one vast optimistic hope leading to one vast ironic catastrophe. The Somme affair, destined to be known among the troops as the Great Fuck-Up, was the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization.

The disaster had many causes. One is traceable to the class system and the assumptions it sanctioned. The regulars of the British staff entertained implicit contempt for the rapidly trained new men of “Kitchener’s Army,”: large recruited among workingmen from the Midlands. The planners assumed that these troops – burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment – were too simple and animal to cross the space between opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows or “waves.” It was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.

Another cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise. There was a hopeless lack of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author. The attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn – the expected hour for an attack – and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced German machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. But one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting.

On January 1, 1917, Haig was elevated to the rank of Field Marshall and on March 17, Bapaume – one of the main first-day objectives of the Somme jump-off nine months before – was finally captured.

On April 9, the British again tried the old tactic of head-on assault, this time near Arras in an area embracing the infamous Vimy Ridge, which for years had dominated the southern part of the Ypres Salient. The attack, pressed for five days, gained 7,000 yards at the cost of 160,000 killed and wounded. Sometimes dignified as the Third Battle of Ypres, the old folly of reiterated abortive assaulting was begun again on July 31, in an attack towards Passchendaele. The bombardment churned up the ground; rain fell and turned the dirt into mud. The British assaulted until the attack finally attenuated three and a half months later. Price: 370,000- British dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. Thousands literally drowned in the mud.

The Germans counter-attacked in the Somme area, beginning on the morning of March 21, 1918. It was a stunning victory. The British lost 150,000 men almost immediately, 90,000 as prisoners; and total British casualties rose to 300,000 within the next six days. The Germans plunged forty miles into the British rear. . . Haig felt sufficiently threatened to issue his famous “Backs to the Wall” Order of the Day: “Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each must fight on to the end.” In its dogged prohibition of maneuver or indeed of any tactics, this stands as the model for Hitler’s later orders for the ultimate defense of positions like El Alamein and Stalingrad.

Eventually, the German army was destroyed by its own success. Which reiterates the point that in the end war itself is the one that always wins.

Sir Henry Newbolt, a lifetime friend of Douglas Haig, later wrote ; “When I looked into Douglas Haig I saw what is really great – perfect acceptance, which means perfect faith.” This version of Haig brings him close to the absolute ideal of what Patrick Howarth has termed homo newboltiensis: honorable, stoic, brave, loyal, courteous – and unaesthetic, unironic, unintellectual and devoid of wit. To Newbolt, the wartime sufferings of such as Wilfred Owen were tiny - and whiny – compared to Haig’s: “Owen and the rest of the broken men rail at the Old Men who sent the young to die: they have suffered cruelly, but in the nerves and not the heart – they haven’t the experience or imagination to know the extreme human agony of the Newbolt Man.”

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell; Oxford University Press, 1975

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