WW1 - An Enigma

Perceptions of the First World War

For many years I regarded WW1 as a pointless war, a war epitomised by a combination of futility and military incompetence, a view reinforced in my youth by my secondary school history lessons and films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Gallipoli. For me, like many others, this futility and military incompetence was perfectly captured in the BBC TV series Blackadder Goes Forth.  Having been brought up on a diet of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ very little of my WW1 historical reading ever challenged the emotional view I had built in my mind.

Somme Battlefield Visit

That was until May 2004, the first time I visited the Somme battlefield.  Standing with my back to the Connaught Cemetery on the north side of Thiepval wood I glanced to my right and looked up towards the ridge line where the Thiepval memorial was clearly visible.  The words in Lyn Macdonald’s book Somme rang loud and clear in my head:

' [The Germans] had positioned their line with care…… they had backed off to build a line that hugged the high spurs and contours of the chalk downland, so that every slope, every natural ravine, each natural declivity, ever wood and hilltop could be turned to maximum advantage….’

View from Connaught CWCG towards Thiepval

With this in mind I walked briskly across the road and set off along a slowly rising track towards the Mill Road Cemetery, no more than 500 metres away, the distance between the two opposing trench lines in that area on 1 July 1916.  I later realised that the route I took was probably that taken by elements of the Ulster Division on 1 July 1916 on their way to the Schwaben Reboubt.  As I reached the Mill Road Cemetery I was a little out of breath, I turned to look back down the track.  My thoughts were on the men, who attacked, under machine gun fire, across this open and exposed ground in 1916, each carrying up to 60lbs of equipment! No wonder the casualties were so high!

I returned home from this visit to the Somme deeply moved by what I had seen.  On the surface everything seemed to reinforce my ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ emotional view of WW1.  However, deep inside questions were forming. What motivated so many men to lay their lives down for their country?  What was the sequence of events that led to the British army sustaining 60,000 casualties on the 1July 1916?  Could it have been different?  Why did the attacks continue until November 1916 with the resulting 150,000 dead and twice as many maimed or wounded?

The Challenge

These questions appear to be answered by the revisionist school of thought that emphasises the British armies’ learning curve, particularly between 1916 and 1918 (I was first introduced to the concept of the learning curve when I read Gary Sheffield's book Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities).  However, accepting for the moment that the learning curve process was valid I find it hard to accept that there wasn’t more that could have been done before 1916.

This was my position in September 2008 the month I started my MA in First World War Studies at Birmingham University.  What will follow in this section of the Blog is a distillation of my understanding, developed over the last 2 years, of the British involvement in the First World War.  Some of the areas that I intend to cover include: