Passchendaele, World War I bloodbath of poets and other soldiers


Australian stretcher bearers trapped in mud, Battle of Ypres, 1917. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Passchendaele: ‘I could taste their blood in the air’

Tuesday 1st August 2017

BRITISH soldiers killed at Passchendaele were remembered yesterday on the centenary of the start of the WWI battle in Belgium.

More than half a million men from both sides were killed or injured in more than 100 days of fighting in the rain-sodden summer and autumn of 1917.

The Tyne Cot cemetery near the Belgian village is the largest Commonwealth burial ground in the world, with 11,971 servicemen buried and remembered there, 8,373 of whom are unidentified.

An account by Private Bert Ferns of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who fought in the battle, was read out by Fusilier Shaun Mclorie.

He said: “I staggered up the hill and then dropped over the slope into a sort of gully. It was here that I froze and became very frightened because a big shell had just burst and blown a group of lads to bits; there were bits of men all over the place, a terrible sight, men just blown to nothing.

“I just stood there. It was still and misty, and I could taste their blood in the air.”

This is a music video of a song from the British musical Oh! what a lovely war. About World War I. The lyrics are:

Forward Joe Soap‘s Army

Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.
He boasts and skites from morn till night,
And thinks he’s very brave,
But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.
Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.
Amen.

From the World Socialist Web Site, 31 July 2017:

At 3:50 on the morning of July 31, 1917, the allied troops of Great Britain and France begin the so-called Third Great Flanders Offensive, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. …

It becomes a grueling battle of attrition and a terrible slaughter that continues through November. For months, the ruins of a single location are fought over. For the first time, aerial battles take place involving more than 100 fighter planes. Only with difficulty does the German military command manage to replace the divisions which are quickly disabled.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans overcome their disadvantage by using mustard gas for the first time, the barbaric chemical agent that burns the airways and skin within seconds. Professor Adolf Julius Meyer, the creator of mustard gas, later boasts: “The effect of mustard gas in the Flanders battle of 1917 grew more and more and it was often the case that the enemy was happy if he was able to keep a quarter of his men unharmed.”

The fighting lasts through mid-November. The military objectives of the offensive are not achieved. The only result—a relocation of the front line by 8 kilometers—is paid for on the British side with approximately 50,000 killed; 38,000 missing in action; and 236,000 wounded. On the German side, approximately 46,000 are killed and missing while 281,000 are wounded and seriously ill.

The grave of Hedd Wyn at Artillery Wood Cemetery in Belgium

Also from the World Socialist Web Site, 31 July 2017:

Western Front, July 31: Two poets, Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge, killed in action

Irish poet Francis Ledwidge and Welsh poet Hedd Wyn are both killed during the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Ledwidge, born in 1887, was associated with the Gaelic revival movement prior to the war, and he was also active in trade union circles. He tried and failed to establish a local club of the Gaelic League, a literary and cultural organization that promoted the use of the Irish language and was associated with the development of nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century. He was more successful in creating a local branch of the Irish Volunteers in Slane, the organization formed in response to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers to ensure the implementation of home rule for Ireland. Though Ledwidge initially sided with the minority of the Irish Volunteers, which, on the outbreak of war, opposed participation in the British army, he soon shifted his position and joined the military in October 1914.

Ledwidge’s poetry was influenced by rural life. He also responded to the radicalism of the 1916 Easter Rising, writing in “O’Connell Street”:

“A Noble failure is not vain
But hath a victory of its own
A bright delectance from the slain
Is down the generations thrown.”

Wyn, born Ellis Humphry Evans in 1887, is also killed near Ypres. He adopted the name Hedd Wyn, meaning blessed peace in Welsh, in 1910. His poetry drew heavily on the influences of the Romantic era, including themes of nature and spirituality, although he has also written several war poems since the conflict broke out. Wyn initially opposed the war on Christian pacifist grounds. He was conscripted in 1916 and then arrested by the military police in early 1917 after overstaying a period of leave at home. Wyn posthumously won an award at the National Eisteddfod, a festival of poetry and music, for his poem Yr Arwr.

Some of Wyn’s works have been translated, including the poem Rhyfel (War), which begins,

“Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?”

Death and injuries at the battle of Passchendaele

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Passchendaele: They lied then, they lie now

Tuesday 1st August 2017

ONE hundred years ago today, Daily Chronicle war correspondent Philip Gibbs recorded events on the first day of the third battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele.

An Irish soldier had gone over the top to attack the German lines in atrocious weather, glad to escape the “awful noise” of the field guns on the British side. He and his comrades had crossed blasted ground, where “trenches had disappeared, concrete emplacements had been overturned, breastworks had been flung like straws to the wind.”

Many of the so-called enemy had been buried alive along with their machine guns, trench mortars and bomb stores.

As Gibbs noted: “But there were other dead not touched by shell-fire, nor by any bullet. They had been killed by our gas attack which had gone before the battle. Rows of them lay clasping their gas-masks, and had not been quick enough before the vapour of death reached them.”

Over the following four months, half a million men and boys were killed or wounded in a series of brutal battles for five miles of Belgian mud.

In December 1917, Prime Minister David Lloyd George attended a private banquet where Gibbs recounted his experiences at the front in graphic, gory detail. The next day, Lloyd George confided to Guardian editor CP Scott the impact that this account would have on the home front: “If people really knew, the war would end tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know and can’t know.”

The press barons and state censors ensured that most civilians never did read the truth about the Great War between the ruling classes of the British, French, Russian and Italian empires on the one side and those of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other.

As Lloyd George had gone on to say: “The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.

“The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business.”

But he and his successors did go on with this “bloody business,” not only in Europe but in Iraq, India, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, the Falklands and Afghanistan.

And still we are not told the truth. At yesterday’s commemorations, a procession of military figures, princes, politicians and priests concealed the real causes and motives of the 1914-18 slaughter in a cloud of guff.

They yapped about freedom, duty, courage, service and sacrifice — but uttered not a word about the war criminals who incited, organised and applauded one of the biggest and most pointless mass slaughters in history.

Fittingly, this was on the same day that the High Court threw out an attempt to hold Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Lord Goldsmith to account for waging the murderous war of aggression against Iraq in 2003.

Meanwhile in Ypres, ever ready to let slip the dogs of war, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon linked Passchendaele and the first world war to Britain’s present-day military commitments and alliances.

They are indeed connected, although not, as Fallon would have it, in some common, timeless struggle for freedom and democracy.

Rather, Britain’s foreign and military policy remains to make the world safe for big business profits, bringing troublesome peoples and governments to heel while monopoly capitalism exploits their human and natural resources.

We would best honour the victims of Passchendaele by redoubling our efforts to challenge British imperialism, its bloody interventions, its nuclear weapons of mass extermination and its servile Nato alliance with US imperialism.

From daily News Line in Britain:

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Passchendaele – where imperialism murdered hundreds of thousands of British & German workers

THE BATTLE of Passchendaele saw 275,000 British soldiers, workers in uniform, killed or wounded alongside 220,000 German workers in uniform.

This was a great imperialist slaughter directed by Anglo-French and German imperialism to re-divide the world between themselves. The general staffs and the governments involved fought resolutely and determinedly down to the last worker in uniform in the struggle in which shell-shocked workers were executed for desertion or cowardice.

It was … the ruling classes of the planet determined to safeguard and expand their empires no matter how many workers’ lives this cost. The Second ‘socialist’ International collapsed at the start of the war and supported their own governments, displaying ultra-patriotism and an extreme willingness to sacrifice workers lives for the benefit of their particular empire.

There were exceptions however. In Britain, John Maclean, James Maxton and the Clydeside Workers Committee opposed the war. James Connolly did the same in Ireland. In Germany, the anti-imperialist war struggle was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxenburg, with Liebknecht voting against war credits in the German parliament on December 2nd 1914.

He told the parliament: ‘I am voting against the War Credits Bill today for the following reasons. None of the peoples involved in this war wanted it, and it did not break out to promote their welfare – not in Germany or anywhere else. It is an imperialist war, a war to dominate the capitalist world market and secure for industrial and financial capital the possession of important territories for settlement.’

In the Russian socialist movement … Lenin saw the Great War as the prelude to the socialist revolution of the working class. He would not support the war of the Czarist autocracy and saw the war as a great opportunity for overthrowing Czarism, breaking up the Czarist Russian empire which he termed ‘the prison house of the nations’. …

In November 1918, the mutiny of the German navy at Kiel saw the red flag raised over the fleet and in fact ended the First World War. On November 3rd, the sailors in Kiel, joined by workers from the nearby city, detained their officers and took control of their ships. They also formed Elective Councils, their own ‘workers soviets’ that drafted the Kiel Mutineers list of demands, the first six points being;

1. The release of all inmates and political prisoners.
2. Complete freedom of speech and the press.
3. The abolition of mail censorship.
4. Appropriate treatment of crews by superiors.
5. No punishment for comrades returning to ships and barracks.
6. No launching of the fleet under any circumstances.

This is a music video of a song from the British musical Oh! what a lovely war. About World War I. It is a parody of What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

World War I propaganda in video games: here.

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French Barbusse’s anti-World War I novel


Barbusse's Le Feu (Under Fire)

By Sandy English:

A century since the publication of Henri Barbusse’s antiwar novel, Under Fire

4 January 2017

In January 1917, French novelist Henri Barbusse published his novel Under Fire: The Story of a Squad (Le Feu: Journal d’une escouade), which related the experiences of a French army unit in the First World War. The book was based on the writer’s own experiences in the trenches facing the German lines in northern France, where he served for 17 months. The novel had been published in serial form toward the end of 1916, and appeared as a book in the first month of the new year.

After the passage of 100 years, Under Fire remains one of the most compelling works of art from the early part of the 20th century, and the first—and, in some ways, the most psychologically revealing—of the antiwar novels that the war of 1914-1918 produced in Europe and America over the next two decades.

Perhaps more importantly, the novel itself became a factor in the struggle against the war. It expressed, in the very middle of almost unimaginable destruction, the thoughts and feelings of millions of workers, small tradesmen and farmers from Europe, Canada, Australia and the colonies, and soon from the United States, as those around them were dying in fetid trenches, by poison gas, artillery bombardment and sniper or machine gun fire. Under Fire provoked an immediate reaction from hundreds of thousands of readers, and mirrored the revival of an antiwar movement in the French working class.

After the war, Lenin was to remark that Barbusse’s novels [Le Feu and Clarté (Clarity)], “may be cited as particularly graphic corroborations of the mass phenomenon, observed everywhere, of the growth of revolutionary consciousness among the masses.”

A year and a half of war produced a monumental shift in the opinions and sentiments of millions of people in Europe, both soldiers and civilians. It was inevitable and necessary that artists began to treat these earthshaking experiences in their fullest human dimension.

1916 was the bloodiest year in European history up to that point. The Russian Brusilov Offensive during the summer, in what is now Ukraine, cost 1,600,000 dead and wounded, mostly Russian and Austro-Hungarian.

The Battle of the Somme (from the River Somme, in northwestern France), fought from to July 1 to November 18, 1916, killed or wounded 1 million Germans, French, British, Australians, Canadians, Indians and New Zealanders. On the first day of the battle alone the British suffered 57,470 casualties. The Somme was notable for one of the first military uses of the new horror of air power.

The Battle of Verdun (February 21 to December 18, 1916)—fought in northeastern France primarily between German and French forces—was the lengthiest battle of the war and drew in nearly three-quarters of the French army. Estimates of the casualties range from 700,000 to 900,000 men, about half German and half French.

Battle of the Somme

One historian of the latter battle, Alistair Horne (The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916), notes: “Though other battles of the First War exacted a higher toll, Verdun came to gain the unenviable reputation of being the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known.” By the end of the year, over a million French soldiers (out of a male population of 20 million) had died in the slaughter of the first imperialist war.

French government censorship did not allow accurate reports of the scale of destruction to reach civilians behind the front lines, but reports trickled in from soldiers on leave. And by 1916, living standards behind the lines in France were deteriorating, with food shortages and steep price increases for staples such as flour and eggs.

Rank-and-file members of the Socialist Party were increasingly discontented with the abject pro-war attitude of their party’s leadership. Party officials sought to suppress knowledge and discussion of the socialist antiwar conference held in Zimmerwald, Switzerland in September 1915. Dissatisfaction among French workers would erupt in a strike wave the next year. The French government sought to ban Leon Trotsky’s antiwar Russian language newspaper Nashe Slovo, and succeeded in expelling Trotsky from France in March 1916.

Barbusse enlisted in the French army in 1914, at the age of 41, in the midst of the patriotic fervor. In a letter that month to the pro-war Socialist Party newspaper L’Humanité

L’Humanité only became pro-war after an extreme rightist had murdered its anti-war editor Jean Jaurès just before the official outbreak of World War I.

he wrote that he supported the war as a fight against “the sabre, the jackboot, and the crown” of German militarism.

Barbusse was raised in a household devoted to the ideals of the Enlightenment. He lived in the artistic Bohemia of the pre-war years, had a career as an editor and published poems in the symbolist style. His one early novel, Hell (L’enfer, 1908), is about man in a boarding house who can spy upon his fellow-boarders though a hole in the wall. What he sees is generally unflattering to humanity, although there are passages critical of nationalism and militarism, growing tendencies in France at the time.

During the war Barbusse served as an enlisted man, not an officer, and was awarded the Croix du Guerre for bravery and reassigned from the front for health reasons in 1916 (pulmonary damage, dysentery and exhaustion). By all accounts by 1915 he had become thoroughly disillusioned with the war and began to take a pacifist attitude. While working in a clerk’s position behind the lines, Barbusse began to turn his painful experiences into a novel.

The characters in Under Fire make up a single army squad (14 to 16 men), each from a different region of France and each a worker, farmer or small tradesman. A soldier who is apparently an intellectual narrates, but he stays in the background for the most part, letting the experiences and thoughts of his comrades take center stage.

The novel begins with the mundane details of life in the trenches for the poilu (ordinary French soldier): the dirt, the cold and the disease. Soldiers write letter to their wives, search for food, grumble about rations.

Generally, the soldiers show a mixture of sympathy for and anger at their German counterparts. Many blame the war entirely on German militarism. Some of them are not above killing a stray German for his matches, but German soldiers smuggle one French soldier, a fellow Alsatian, who has helped them bury their dead, behind the lines to see his family.

The novel progresses through more and more devastating scenes, both emotional and physical. The chapter called “First-Aid Post” shows a field hospital full of the wounded and dying. It is bombarded and light comes though the demolished roof: “In it you can see the faces flaming or morally pale. Eyes closing in agony or blazing with fever, bodies wrapped in white, patched in monstrous bandages. All these things that were hidden are brought into the light.”

The violence of the war reaches its climax in the chapter “Dawn,” one of the most harrowing depictions ever written of the hell of the First World War, or indeed any war. After a bombardment and a heavy rain, the trenches have been decimated and the ground is strewn with dead men, many of whom who perished by drowning.

Of the dead, both German and French, the narrator says: “All their efforts to escape from the ditch, with its sticky embankment, slowly, fatally filling up with water, only served to drag them further to the bottom. They died holding on for support to the earth as it slid away from them.”

The chapter is especially tragic because the beginnings of an understanding among the soldiers of the meaning of this experience, that is, of the real character of the war, has begun 60 pages earlier.

The narrator, as he wanders in “the midst of this dark chaos,” meets Corporal Bernard from his squad who is sitting on the embankment of a trench. He has recently killed German soldiers in battle and says, “‘How will they who come after us … how will they think of these massacres, these deeds, when even we who commit them don’t know whether they are like the exploits of heroes … or the doings of bandits! ‘And yet,’ he went on, ‘there is someone who has risen above the war and who will shine out for the beauty and extent of his courage …’ He exclaimed in a clear voice: ‘Liebknecht!’”

Critics have termed this scene “incongruous.” But it is just the opposite: it bears, more than almost any artistic depiction of the First World War, the imprint of the historical logic at work in the war: the emergence of the social revolution.

This logic was fully apparent only to a few in 1916, including the man named in this passage, the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht, leader of the antiwar tendency in the German working class. The handful of internationalist socialist leaders included Liebknecht’s comrade, Rosa Luxemburg, imprisoned since 1915; the Bolshevik leader, V. I. Lenin, who was still in exile in Geneva; and Leon Trotsky, who would shortly be expelled from France by a government which could sense where events were heading.

At the end of April 1917 large sections of the French army would be racked by mutinies as a result of the failed Nivelle Offensive, although the March Revolution in Russia and antiwar dissent in the working class behind the lines were also influences. In one protest, French soldiers bleated like sheep as they paraded past their officers to show they knew they were being led to the slaughter. The role of Under Fire in fanning this sentiment cannot be discounted.

Under Fire ends with a passionate discussion among the squad—those who remain alive—about social equality. “‘The people are nothing and should be everything,’” one soldier says. The narrator remarks, “These men of the people … are the Revolution greater than the other [the French Revolution of 1789], with themselves as its source—rising already, rising in their throats, repeat ‘Equality.’” [10]

The novel sold tens of thousands of copies, and won the most prestigious French literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Many French soldiers testified to the authenticity of Under Fire‘s descriptions. Particularly striking for the time was the frank language of the poilus that he reproduced. Because of the popularity of the novel and because of his exemplary war record, Barbusse could not be persecuted by the government.

World War I Somme bloodbath, 100 years ago


This video says about itself:

The Great War: The Somme (WWI Documentary)

22 April 2015

BATTLEFIELD DETECTIVES: WORLD WAR ONE – THE SOMME

In just one day almost 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded. Why was this first day on the Somme such a disaster for the British? World War I, trenches and barbed wire ran across the entire continent of Europe from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

At 7:30am on July 1st, 1916, after a devastating artillery bombardment lasting more than a week, 100,000 British soldiers waited in their trenches ready to advance on the German lines. They’d been told to expect minimal resistance, but as they picked their way slowly across no-man’s-land, guns opened fire. Shells burst overhead, and waves of men were machine-gunned down.

It was a military catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Filmed on the battlefield itself, in laboratories and on firing ranges – archaeologists, military historians, and other experts from disciplines as diverse as metallurgy and geology investigate the factors and conduct tests to replicate and understand the factors that turned one terrible day into the bloodiest in the history of the British Army.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

When lions were led to slaughter by donkeys

Friday 1st July 2016

One and a half million causalities in a single battle or the death of one single man – both underline the futility of war, says PETER FROST

The battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles of WWI, indeed perhaps the bloodiest conventional battle in all human history. One and a half million participants were killed or injured in this single engagement.

The British suffered 419,654 casualties, the French 204,253 and the Germans 465,000, Canada 24,029 casualties, Australia 23,000, New Zealand 7,408 and Ireland 25,000.

One young German soldier suffered a wounded leg during the battle. His name was Adolf Hitler.

The Somme was one of the first battles in military history to include air warfare. The British Royal Flying Corps had 185 planes which, along with their artillery-spotting observation balloons, gave them air superiority. The Germans had only 129 aircraft.

This battle also saw the first use of tanks. Untried and unreliable, of the 40 used most could not even drag themselves to the front line. Another British tactic was to use miners to tunnel under the German entrenchments to plant explosives.

The battle started at 7.30am on July 1 1916 when the British detonated 40,000lbs of explosives under the German positions before the British infantry advanced across no-man’s land facing heavy artillery and murderous machine gun fire.

It was soon apparent that the British artillery bombardment had been largely ineffective — advancing troops suffered tremendous losses and the few that reached the German line were easily cut down.

Poor communications and arrogance from the officers led the British command to mistakenly assume the assault was working and send forward reinforcements. These too were cut down in huge numbers.

The first day ended in disaster — 19,240 British dead and 35,493 wounded, 21,152 missing and 585 taken prisoner, resulting in a total loss of 57,470 troops. The French and Germans suffered only 7,000 casualties each.

Eventually realising the heavy losses, British command largely suspended the offensive for a time but then the battle and the slaughter went on for many months.

All through the summer and autumn there was little advance by either side. As winter set in, prospects of a breakthrough became less and less likely. On November 13 British Somme commander Douglas Haig ordered an attack north of Thiepval to save face and it looked as if his strategy was succeeding.

By late November the battle of the Somme was over. Five long months of fighting had seen minimal gains but very heavy casualties. The French had captured perhaps five miles of German territory, the British only two miles.

Today we know that the battle was a disaster. It was the classic example of lions led by donkeys when brave men who died for their country were led by a remote, ignorant and uncaring officer class who believed they had the divine right to rule.

Perhaps we should give the final word to a German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher. “Somme,” he said, “the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

A composer struck down in his prime

George Butterworth is my favourite English composer. His pastoral works speak of England and its countryside in a the same way as Ralph Vaughan Williams or Gustav Holst and is often based on old folk songs collected in the halcyon days before WWI.

Yet no other composer’s reputation is built on so few works. His Banks of Green Willow and Two English Idylls are among the finest in English music and his wonderful settings of Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad are among only a score or two of his works that remain.

Houseman’s line “Lads that will die in their glory and never grow old” would prove sadly prophetic in Butterworth’s own life.

Just before he left for the trenches of France, Butterworth went through all of his compositions and destroyed much of his music scores believing he could and would write much better when he returned from the war. It was not to be.

Born in Paddington in 1885 Butterworth became not just a composer but also a collector of folk songs, a Morris dancer and, of course, a cricketer.

He grew up in Yorkshire where he showed an early aptitude for the piano. At school he excelled more in sports and music than in academic subjects and in 1904 went to Trinity College Oxford to read Greats — classics, ancient history and philosophy. But even here music overshadowed his academic application.

In 1906, Butterworth became interested in traditional folk song and dance, part of a popular revival that was developing a distinctly English musical style.

Along with friends Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams he started collecting folk music.

In Sussex in 1907 he found local folk songs which he would use in his two English Idylls.

All in all, Butterworth collected around 450 songs and dance tunes and published several books of country and Morris dances, joined the Folk Song Society and was one of the founders of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 dancing in its original Morris side.

In 1910, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied organ, piano, composition and harmony, but he was soon disillusioned and left a year later. Most of Butterworth’s compositions date from 1910-14.

In 1911 he wrote his rhapsody A Shropshire Lad which quotes from his earlier settings of Houseman’s poems and is widely recognised as his finest work. Although inspired by the folk tradition, it is entirely original.

The music is pastoral in nature, poignant and expressive. It hints at what might have been.

Butterworth’s final completed work for orchestra is the Banks of Green Willow, a third English Idyll which was written in 1913 as war clouds gathered.

In those final months before the war Butterworth provided both moral and practical support in the composition and performance of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. When Vaughan Williams revised the work in 1920 he was to dedicate it to Butterworth’s memory.

When WWI broke out in August 1914, Butterworth enlisted as a private soldier.

By October he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 13th Durham Light Infantry, leading Durham miners with whom he developed a real bond.

Early in the morning of August 5 at Pozieres Butterworth was shot in the head and killed.

He would be awarded his second Military Cross for his heroism that night. Butterworth has no known grave.

If you seek a memorial to him, and the many other victims of the battle of the Somme, just listen to his music.

This music video is called George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow.

By John Ellison in Britain:

Conflicting imperialist ambitions root cause of the war

1 July 2016

John Ellison puts the Somme battle disaster in a wider context of organised civil opposition to WWI carnage

July 1, 1916. The first day of senseless slaughter in the Western Front battle of the Somme, launched by a long-planned British advance. No-one could say there had been no military preparation. The German lines had been pounded with artillery shells for five days before British troops went over the top to their deaths.

“But at that terrible moment,” wrote Adam Hochschild in his 2011 To End All Wars: “The multiple belts of barbed wire in front of the German trenches and the well-fortified machine-gun emplacements dotted among them were largely intact.

The bombardment, it turned out, had been impressive mainly for its tremendous noise.”

Commander-in-chief and friend of King George, Sir Douglas Haig, was not a man given to rationally required changes of plan, let alone to anguished self-doubt, or even self-doubt without anguish.

So the British death tally mounted astronomically, as the offensive continued, throughout July and into August, September, October.

When the battle began on July 1, this “war to end all wars” had been raging for 23 months and British, French and German soldiers had died in vast numbers during relatively passive confrontation along the long, wavy line of the Western Front and during major set-piece battles over which time the front shifted only very slightly.

British casualty milestones speak for themselves. By the end of 1914 the total figure of dead and wounded reached 90,000.

On September 25 1915 the British attacked near the village of Loos employing poison gas — chlorine —- for the first time, as the Germans had done several months before, at Ypres. Wind conditions, however, caused the attackers to suffer more from its use than the Germans.

Next day British infantry walking directly towards enemy machine guns incurred huge losses. Four-fifths of the 10,000 who advanced were either killed, wounded or missing but this fact did not pause the battle. A few weeks more, a mile or two of ground had been gained and British casualty numbers exceeded 61,000.

In Britain in spring 1916, with many volunteers now dead and volunteering slowed, conscription was introduced, first for single men, then for married men.

On July 2, the second day of the Somme battle, Haig was given a gross underestimate of casualties so far — over 40,000.

Satisfied with progress, he wrote in his diary: “This cannot be considered severe, in view of the numbers engaged and the length of front attacked.”

In fact — horrifically to almost anyone but Haig, then or since — on July 1 almost half of the attacking force of 120,000 men were killed or wounded.

By the end of October British deaths alone exceeded 95,000 and the fighting continued for more than another fortnight.

“The allies had gained,” wrote Hochschild, “roughly seven square miles of ground.”

Casualties in French forces, which had earlier in 1916 withstood the Verdun German offensive, were also vast, as were those of Germany — where anti-war socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg both spent time in prison that year.

“Strategically,” historian AJP Taylor declared in his book on World War I more than 50 years ago: “the battle of the Somme was an unredeemed defeat … Idealism perished … 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 … went on for its own sake…”

In harmony Hochschild described the Somme battle as a turning point. He wrote: “It was not a turn towards rebellion but towards a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference.”

But whatever the beliefs about the war’s justifications among fighting men on all sides, it is demonstrable that this war, as great labour historian Eric Hosbawm considered in his 1994 Age Of Extremes: “Was waged for unlimited ends,” unlike earlier wars usually waged for “limited and specifiable objects.”

He developed the point. In the Age Of Empire, he wrote: “Politics and economics had fused…for the two main contestants, Germany and Britain, the sky had to be the limit, since Germany wanted a global political and maritime position like that now occupied by Britain, and which therefore would automatically relegate an already declining Britain to inferior status.”

The argument that conflicting imperialist ambitions were the root cause of the war had not, however, yet filtered through to most people in Britain. Yet the small socialist, radical and religious anti-war army in Britain was not insignificant and the imposition of conscription offered a fresh focus for activity.

The No Conscription Fellowship supported conscription refusers, produced a regular bulletin, distributed more than a million leaflets — at the cost of arrests and imprisonments — and held meetings. Its national convention was held in April 1916 in an old Quaker Hall in Bishopsgate, attended by some 2,000 people, besieged by a crowd of “patriots” outside.

During the same month Suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst organised and spoke in the face of “patriot” aggression at an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square.

While some conscientious objectors, whether motivated by religious or other reasons, accepted non-combatant alternative service if offered it, many were in prison, 34 were in army custody, treated as soldiers while refusing military service, and received death sentences in France.

As a result, however, of a visit to prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith by (plus others) philosopher and anti-conscription campaigner Bertrand Russell, the order went to Haig that no conscientious objector should be shot. The death sentences were commuted, and the COs were returned to Britain by the end of June to serve long prison sentences.

An influential organisation which queried the war’s continuance was the Union of Democratic Control, led by radical Edmund Dene Morel, whose 1916 book The Truth About The War exposed official claims. Responsibility for the war, he insisted, was “distributed.”

The Independent Labour Party’s weekly Labour Leader was edited by anti-war socialist Fenner Brockway, while the previously divided small British Socialist Party now expressed a firmly anti-war and anti-imperialist position through its paper The Call.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s east London-based organisation and the Glasgow-based Socialist Labour Party shared that outlook. The newspapers of these small parties were always at risk from police raids.

Britain had declared war, so the official line went, to save “little Belgium,” whose independence was sacrificed by Germany’s unquestioned initial aggression through invasion on August 3 1914.

But Britain had no record of protecting the independence of other countries. On the contrary, it had robbed independence from many, including India, whose troops were fighting and dying for Britain’s empire.

Britain was still refusing independence to its oldest colony, Ireland, where the Easter Rising had lately been suppressed with leaders executed.

Britain’s motive in this war was to maintain its dominant world position and it was therefore willing to agree with allies that they have slices of territory outside its own empire. But these deals were secret, first publicised by the Bolsheviks from tsarist archives after the 1917 November revolution.

Thus a treaty of April 1915 granted Italy (in exchange for joining the war) lands in Austrian and Turkish control and even, if France and Britain extended their colonial empire in Africa at Germany’s expense, some African territory too.

A year later it was agreed with Russia that France was to have territory ruled by Turkey, while Britain was to have much of Iraq and more.

“MP for humanity” James Keir Hardie had been at the forefront of socialist demands at the war’s outset that Britain keep out, but died in September 1915. John Maclean, in Scotland, had been similarly at the forefront of the movement opposed to the war and was now in prison. Fenner Brockway, imprisoned briefly in the summer of 1916, would soon be in jail for much longer.

In 1917, the war would begin to unravel. Meanwhile, the words on the front page of the Labour Leader, on August 6 1914, continued to have great relevance: “Down with the War! WORKERS of Great Britain, you have no quarrel with the workers of Europe. They have no quarrel with you. The quarrel is between the RULING classes of Europe.”

New opera on World War I butchery


This video series from Wales is about the new opera In Parenthesis.

By David Nicholson in Britain:

Superb commemoration of Somme slaughter

Thursday 19th May 2016

In Parenthesis
Millennium Centre, Cardiff
4/5

NEW operas are rare events and even rarer are ones that are as good as In Parenthesis.

Eagerly anticipated, it’s being staged both to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Welsh National Opera and mark the centenary of the slaughter at the Battle of the Somme.

Iain Bell’s moving and visceral new opera about the great war, based on Welsh poet David Jones’s epic poem, is an ambitious project, with WNO director David Pountney, Emma Jenkins and David Antrobus’s libretto combining to brilliant effect with Bell’s music.

Through the eyes of tenor Andrew Bidlack’s Private John Ball, we watch a band of Welsh soldiers embark for France, journey to the horror of the trenches and perish in the final bloody battle at Mametz Wood.

Under the assured direction of David Pountney, aided by set designer Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a brilliantly staged production that captures the terror and claustrophobic atmosphere of a troop ship and the trenches of northern France.

But, as ever with the WNO, it is the sublime choral singing that pulls all the strands together. They are a perfect match for the drama of the reckless death of young men, in which Mark Le Brocq as a convincingly gruff sergeant and George Humphreys as a sensitive and caring young lieutenant take the acting honours.

The cafe scene before the men move off to the Somme is a thrilling highlight as the brilliant Welsh song Sosban Fach is sung with all the power at the disposal of the WNO.

The mythic return to the earth of the slaughtered band of Royal Welsh Fusiliers is touchingly realised by the nymphs who haunt Mametz Wood.

It’s a superb rendition by the women’s chorus who, dressed in an abundance of foliage and twigs, return the torn and bloodied bodies of Ball’s fallen comrades to the earth. Their heavenly singing moved many of the opening night audience to tears.

In Parenthesis ticks every box when it comes to music, acting and production values, though whether Bell’s opera will still be performed in years to come is the real acid test.

But this is a production to go and see now. As a sensitive, moving and visceral portrayal of the horror of war, it is a superb evening of pure theatre.

At the Millennium Centre until June 3, then tours until July 1, box office: wno.org.uk.

Refusal to wage wars takes courage


This music video from the USA is called Edwin Starr – War (What is it good for) + Lycris HQ.

The lyrics are:

War…huh…yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
Uh ha haa ha
War…huh…yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…say it again y’all
War..huh…look out…
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…listen to me ohhhhh

WAR! I despise,
‘cos it means destruction of innocent lives,
War means tears to thousands of mother’s eyes,
When their sons gone to fight and lose their lives.

I said WAR!…huh…good God y’all,
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…say it again
War! Huh…What is it good for (Edwin sings ‘Wohh oh Lord’ over the top)
Absolutely nothing…listen to me

WAR! It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker,
War. Friend only to the undertaker.
Ohhh! War is an enemy to all mankind,
The thought of war blows my mind.
War has caused unrest within the younger generation
Induction then destruction…who wants to die? Ohhh

WAR! good God y’all huh
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…say it say it SAY IT!
WAR!…uh huh yeah hu!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…listen to me

WAR! It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker,
War! It’s got one friend that’s the undertaker.
Ohhhh! War has shattered many a young man’s dream,
Made him disabled, bitter and mean,
Life is much too short and precious to spend fighting wars these days.
War can’t give life, it can only take it away!

Ohhh WAR! huh…good God y’all
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…say it again
War!…huh…woh oh oh Lord
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing…listen to me

War! It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker,
War. Friend only to the undertaker…woo
Peace lovin’ understand then tell me,
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight to keep our freedom,
But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way.

Ohhhhhhh WAR! huh…good God y’all…
What is it good for?…you tell me!
Say it say it say it saaaay it!
War! good God now…huh
What is it good for?
Stand up and shout it…NOTHING

By Symon Hill in Britain:

Refusing to fight is an act of resistance

Saturday 14th may 2016

On International Conscientious Objectors’ Day we should remember those who bravely refused to wage wars and destruction, writes SYMON HILL

EIGHTEEN-year-old Israeli woman Omri Baranes was last week sentenced to 30 days in a military prison. Her “crime” is a refusal to fight for the euphemistically named Israeli Defence Force.

“The military creates a cycle of violence while claiming to the defend the country,” says Omri. “Public leaders are responsible for the creation of this criminal institution and our country is militaristic as a result.”

On the same day, the Israeli courts sentenced 19-year-old Tair Kaminer to her fifth prison sentence, as she repeatedly refuses to fight and insists that violence cannot solve the problems of Israel and Palestine.

Omri and Tair are among the hundreds of people around the world who are in prison for refusing to join armed forces. Over a hundred are locked up in South Korea alone.

This weekend, International Conscientious Objectors’ Day (CO Day) will be marked around the world. It is observed every year on May 15.

Conscientious objection is sometimes misrepresented as an individualistic attitude. In reality, COs do not generally demand exemption from the armed forces simply as a matter of personal choice. Refusal to fight is an act of resistance.

In Britain, mass conscription was first introduced 100 years ago, in 1916. Under pressure, the government offered exemption to those with a conscientious objection to killing. This clause of the Bill was openly jeered by Tory MPs when it was presented in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, it was passed. In the vast majority of cases, however, it was not honoured.

The reality of conscientious objection in WWI is revealed in stark form on the walls of Richmond Castle. The stones still display the graffiti of the COs who were imprisoned there in 1916. On one wall you can read the words: “The only war which is worth fighting is the class war. The working class of this country have no quarrel with the working class of Germany or any other country.”

The unnamed conscientious objector added: “Socialism stands for internationalism. If the workers of all countries united and refused to fight, there would be no war.”

This message remains just as relevant today.

In Britain, we no longer face physical conscription. Militarisation is now more subtle — but no less deadly.

We are taught from an early age that violence is the solution to conflict and that our first loyalty should be to the nation state in which we happen to have been born. The unquestioning obedience that is required of soldiers is held up as something to be admired rather than an assault on human dignity. The promotion of these attitudes from childhood is a form of mental conscription. Our bodies are not conscripted, but our minds are.

Our taxes are used to fund the fifth-highest military budget in the world (though you wouldn’t know it from the way the right-wing media talks about “defence cuts”). Even our language is conscripted, with preparations for war described inaccurately as “defence” and “security.”

Ever since the invasion of Iraq, politicians and generals have been unable to rely on the support of the British public when going to war. They have responded to anti-war feeling by whipping up support for the armed forces. Initiatives such as Armed Forces Day portray all forces personnel as heroes and present any questioning of their role as unpatriotic. Meanwhile, research reveals that armed forces visits to schools are more common in poorer areas, as the army attempts to recruit vulnerable young people with few options in life.

In one of the most absurd examples of everyday militarism, the RAF are planning a “flypast” over London LGBT Pride. Thus a human rights march is co-opted to promote militarism — the very opposite of human rights.

As everyday militarism becomes more and more visible, we need to resist it with everyday objection.

Ahead of CO Day, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) has called for critics of warfare to become “conscientious objectors” in everyday life.

This sort of resistance can take many forms: there are engineers who refuse to work in the arms industry, self-employed people who withhold tax in protest against military spending, teachers who object to the army cadets, LGBT people who speak out against the militarisation of Pride.

Everyday objection can be as simple as refusing to use the language of “defence” and “heroes.”

Resistance is varied. We are compiling examples of ways in which people are resisting everyday militarism — whether big or small, common or unusual. We would love to hear your own examples (contact coordinator@ppu.org.uk).

Conscientious objection is both a personal commitment and part of a wider struggle against war and exploitation. The socialist journalist Will Chamberlain, imprisoned for much of WWI, wrote that conscientious objection “is an active protest against what we consider the greatest evil in the world, and our method of protesting is to refuse to acquiesce by a single act or deed in a system which is indescribably evil, both in origin and purpose.”

Symon Hill is co-ordinator of the Peace Pledge Union.

German Liebknecht’s anti-World War I speech


This video says about itself:

14 January 2016

On the 15th January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by members of the [extreme right paramilitary] Freikorps. The two German socialists were joint-founders of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany, and were captured following the Spartacist uprising that began on the 4th January.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht were members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany when Germany declared war in 1914. Frustrated by the wider SPD’s support for Germany’s declaration of war, they and other leftists created a separate organisation known as the Spartakusbund or Spartacus League. Named after the leader of the Roman Republic’s largest slave rebellion, the Spartacus League actively opposed the ongoing war. In 1916, both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were found guilty of high treason and imprisoned after they organised an anti-war demonstration.

From the World Socialist Web Site, 14 March 2016:

100 years ago: German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht denounces militarization of education

On March 18, 1916, Karl Liebknecht, the German revolutionary socialist and opponent of World War I, delivered a series of remarks in the German Reichstag, or parliament, denouncing the militarization of education and the glorification of war taking place in schools across the country. Liebknecht’s speech was one of a series in which he defied the Social Democratic majority, which had betrayed socialist internationalism by supporting the German war effort, and spoke out against the imperialist slaughter.

Liebknecht stated, “The ideal of classical education lies in the spirit of independence and humanity.” Addressing the government, and all of the pro-war parties, he said, “Your ideal of classical education is the ideal of the bayonet, of the bombshell, of poison gas and grenades, which are hurled down on peaceful cities, and the ideal of submarine warfare.”

He declared, “The higher schools are also used as practical helpers in the service of the present war. A systematic propaganda is conducted in them for the war loans, and gold is collected in them. … The schools are converted into training stables for the war. The physical upbuilding of the youth is encouraged now to attract new material for the Moloch, Militarism. Strengthening especially human health has thus as its aim the destruction of human life.”

He denounced the war propaganda promoted in schools, which focused exclusively on the crimes committed by Britain, France and the other Allied powers, and painted the actions of German imperialism in the brightest colors.

“In school must be taught, how this war arose, not only that the abominable murder of Sarajevo was an incident to inspire horror, but also the fact that the crime of Sarajevo was looked upon in many circles as a gift from Heaven, serving them as a war pretext,” he said. His reference to the fact that sections of the ruling elite had welcomed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, seeing it as an opportunity to launch longstanding military plans, provoked outraged howls from the Conservative and opportunist Social Democratic deputies to the Reichstag.

Amid repeated interruptions, Liebknecht concluded with a call for a revolutionary struggle against the German government and the imperialist war, declaring, “To action! Those in the trenches, as well as those here at home, should put down their arms and turn against the common enemy, which takes from them light and air.” The president of the Reichstag called Liebknecht “to order” for the third time, and asked the deputies whether he should be allowed to continue to speak. Only a handful of socialist opponents of the war voted in favor.

World War I and poetry


This video from Britain about World War I says about itself:

The Somme – Lions Led By Donkeys

Documentary about the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. A number of excellent interviews from old soldiers.

By John Green in Britain:

Well versed in the realities of first world war

Monday 25th January 2016

Everything to Nothing: A History of the Great War, Revolution and the Birth of Europe by Geert Buelens (Verso, £20)

EUROPEANS plunged like lemmings into the engulfing abyss of WWI under the influence of “the massage of propaganda, the gospel of terror,” as Polish poet Anatol Stern observed in 1914.

That perception is typical of this very different and fascinating take on the conflict, reflected in the outpouring of writing amid the tumult and chaos.

The war opened up new imaginative possibilities for exploring personal tragedy and the extremes of human experience.

Poetry, particularly, took centre stage, both as a means of propaganda and for manipulating sentiments but also as a means of portraying a scarcely communicable horror.

Buelens undertakes a cultural history of the war through the writings of those caught up in the maelstrom, from the point of view of poets from all the European countries involved, including Anna Akhmatova, Rupert Brooke, Guillaume Apollinaire and many less well-known writers.

He provides a panorama of those short but intensive four years from 1914-18 through the eyes of those poets who charted its course but also imagined its aftermath and encapsulated the human Calvary in a way that no traditional history, however good, could do.

The author draws on an amazing range of poets to weave a comprehensive picture of the psychology of the immediate pre-war period and the premonition of the chaos, nihilism and nationalism as well as a yearning for change.

These poets, in the main, were actual participants and describe the war’s raw reality, unlike the onlookers and outsiders who could afford to squander their patriotic rhetoric and appeals to romantic sacrifice while others were obliged to squander their blood.

The French poet Paul Valery wrote: “The illusion of a European culture has been lost.” How right he was.

Despite the ideals of pre-war socialists throughout Europe that working men and women of all nations would stand together and refuse to slaughter each other, a short time later they followed their governments like lambs to the abattoir, cocooned in the heady patriotic fervour of national anthems and swirling banners.

This book undoubtedly represents a unique approach to the history of the war but without a political and economic context it can of course provide only a literary reflection on it, without offering any analysis.