The Somme at 99: WWI, Death, and the Trap of Technology


“The nearer to the Front one goes, naturally, the more blasted the countryside becomes. Beyond Roeselare, the land grows crater scarred, crisscrossed with collapsing trenches and pocked with burnt patches where not even weeds take root. The few trees still standing here and there are, when you touch them, lifeless charcoal. The skein of green on the land seems less nature revivified, more nature mildewed … farmers still daren’t plow the land for fear of unexploded ordinance. One cannot pass by without thinking of the density of men in the ground. Any moment, the order to charge would be given, and infantrymen well up from the earth, brushing off the powdery soil. The thirteen years since Armistice seemed only as many hours.”[1]

In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Robert Frobisher visits the alleged resting place of his older brother. Thirteen years after the end of WWI, the land remained pocked marked by destruction. In a novel of six stories from six different time periods, told in six different genres in ascending and then descending order, WWI occupies the story as a momentary backdrop, serving more as a mechanism for deepening readers’ understanding of Robert Frobisher. Yet, acting as a conduit, Frobisher provides a window into the experience of soldiers as filtered through the eyes of a civilian sibling.

Years later, the war continued to define the Belgian town as a “ramshackle village of semi-repaired ruins and the site of a cemetery of the Eleventh Essex of the Fifty Third Brigade.” It remained crippled, its identity attached to the death of servicemen. Having died in “the charge of July 31 on Messines Ridge, right in the thick of it,” Frobisher’s brother Adrian disappeared into the carnage of WWI, specifically the Battle of Messines (1917). Hoping for some kind of divine or transcendent inspiration in locating his brother’s grave, Frobisher admits to no such intervention: “Always felt I would divine which KNOWN UNTO GOD was Adrian’s. A glowing inscription, a nodding magpie, or just a musical certainty would lead me to the right plot. Utter tripe of course.”[2]

Ninety-nine years ago this July, the Battle of the Somme began and with it, one of the bloodiest carnages of a carnage-filled war. In America, WWI often receives short shrift, a bitter but successful foray into international conflict that left Americans dubious of European interests and isolationist, at least in terms of the world across the Atlantic. After all, American imperial adventures in the Pacific and Latin America give lie to the premise that the nation’s foreign policy stood as entirely isolationist.

Yet for Europe, WWI marked the beginning of a rapid decline and the Somme a symbol of its follies. With 60,000 British casualties on the first day of fighting, the Somme Offensive initiated Britain’s descent from great political, economic, and psychological heights. “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered,” wrote John Keegan in his 1998 work The First World War.[3] Over 1,000,000 soldiers perished between July 1 and November 19, 1916: 600,000 Germans, 194,451 French, and 419,654 British.[4] Keegan’s own father had experienced the battle, which no doubt added a certain amount of sadness to his own historical account. “Describing the horrors at the Somme,” wrote David Binder in the New York Times after Keegan’s passing, “where his father was gassed, [Keegan] appears to grow melancholy, pausing to reflect on how the war’s shadow lingered even 60 years later.”[5]


By the end of the war, over eight million combatants would perish. “In the summer of 1914, the rulers of Europe, after a century of huge economic progress and a decade of rising tensions, marched their peoples, the boss-eyed leading the blind, to the brink of collective suicide,” wrote the Economist in their 1999 Christmas/Millennium issue.[6] While the blame for the war’s outbreak remains in debate, in the aftermath of the war and the Somme, many observers blamed feckless, arrogant, and ignorant commanders for the bloodbath that had ensued, regardless of who might have been seen as responsible for starting it all.

Before WWI, “all the leading commanders of the war, were seen as great men, the imperturbable [Joseph] Joffre, the fiery [Ferdinand] Foch, the titanic [Paul von] Hidenburg, the Olympian [Douglas] Haig,” reflected Keegan. “Between the wars their reputations crumbled, largely at the hands of memoirists and novelists – Sassoon, Remarque, Barbusse – whose depiction of the realities of ‘war from below’ relentlessly undermined the standing of those who had dominated from above.” British historians and others proved no more forgiving, portraying the war’s military leaders as “’donkeys leading lions’, as flint hearts bleeding the tender fish of a generation to death in Flanders fields or as psychological misfits.” French commander Joffre took daily two-hour lunches and Germany’s Hindenburg made sure to get 10 hours of sleep a night while their soldiers died in the muck.[7]

Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch

The reality had less to do with arrogant generals and more to do with the rapid technological change that had unfolded in the early decades of the twentieth century. As Stephen Kern points out, the collapse of space, the imposition of time, the destruction of form, and the rapidly increasing importance of the present due to technological advance drove intellectual thought, art, literature and even war.[8]

When one considers that 34 British generals died in battle during World War I as compared to only 21 in World War II, one could argue that commanders might have been arrogant and feckless, but that these factors mattered less than the fact of technological change. Several hundred generals died in the American Civil War, but the difference between the nineteenth century conflict and it’s twentieth century successor hinged much more on the fact that modes of communication and their immediacy, or lack thereof, failed to match the weaponry of war.[9]

Transportation and communication advances enabled war to be conducted from great distances. Command centers, theatre of operations, and troops grew further and further apart from one another. This physical distance created social distance as it “created an experiential and emotional gap between generals and the men at the front that enabled commanders to continue to spin table top plans for offensives and be shielded from direct contact with disastrous consequences,” notes Kern.[10]

If in earlier wars, generals drew close to the battle to gain courage, they now distanced themselves in order to preserve that very same courage. Many believed that if they had seen the actual slaughter at hand they would not be able to order their troops to attack at all.   Bombings as well altered the nature of conflict, increasing war’s territorial reach but also blurring the line between “soldier and civilian, front and home, safety and danger.” Though airplanes never dominated WWI like they would WWII, they nevertheless unsettled civilian security by creating a “new vulnerability among those at home who had formerly felt safe.”[11] With such developments, it made more sense to be further from battle so as to better gather intelligence, delegate authority, and give out orders.[12]

The Somme demonstrated the tension of new technology that enabled more expansive warfare but limited battlefield communication. “[T]he generals,” Keegan points out, “were trapped within the iron fetters of a technology all too adequate for mass destruction of life, but quiet inadequate to restore them the inflexibilities of control that would have kept destruction of life within bearable limits.”[13]

Despite improvements, radio proved ineffective. Dependent on trench lines and a “fixed and inflexible grid of telephone cables,” communication broke down upon bombardment. “In offence, as the troops moved forward from the heads of the cable grid, they automatically lost contact with the rear,” writes Keegan. “Unwound telephone cable broke as a matter of course and expedients – signal lamps, carrier pigeons – were haphazard.” No swift exchange of orders existed in this context. During the Somme it took eight to ten hours for the average message to travel from the division headquarters to the front and vice versa.[14] “The iron curtain of war had descended between all commanders, low and high alike, and their men, cutting them off from each other as if they had been on different continents,” notes Keegan.[15] Weaponry outpaced communication and the war consumed the commanders who led it. “Generals were like men without eyes, without ears, and without voices, unable to watch the operations they set in progress, unable to hear reports of their development and unable to speak to those whom they had originally given orders once action was joined,” Keegan points out. “The war had become bigger than those who fought it.”[16]

While one of the most obvious advantages of railroad expansion might be speed of movement, as Kern and others discuss, Michael Howard in his 1976 work War in European History points out other advantages that arose decades before “the Great War” in the late nineteenth century. First, railways made supplying troops easier and more rapid. “No longer were armies dependent on the supplies stock piled in forward magazines for a single campaign; now the economy of the entire country could be geared to providing a continuous supply,” he noted. It also helped troops physically since now armies no longer had to travel long distances to fight and arrived at battles “in full strength and in good physical shape.” Third, it made it easier to maintain forces as the injured could be evacuated to “base hospitals” and replaced with healthy recruits. Moreover, in long campaigns it made troop rotation more feasible.[17] It should be noted, however, that though railroad systems had expanded greatly, most military leaders lacked any understanding of how to move soldiers safely “beyond railhead unless on their feet, and how to signal quickly and unambiguously between headquarters and units, between unit and unit, between infantry and artillery, between ground and the aircraft ….”[18]


This also meant changes in fighting, which I will only touch on briefly here. Earlier conflicts in the late nineteenth century had hinted at the kind of weaponry and troops that would prove most valuable in WWI. Artillery, particularly more mobile artillery became one of, if not the most important aspect of warfare. “By 1918, it was artillery that took ground, infantry that held it; and ground derived its importance very largely from the facilities it provided for artillery observation, ” writes Howard. While cavalries had been of critical importance in wars of the nineteenth century, the new tools of conflict made them more useful in ancillary roles such as scouting. In the vast expanses of Eastern Europe, it still retained some importance during WWI, but in Western Europe, cavalries quickly proved a remnant of past warfare. Even as reconnaissance, cavalries gave way to motorcycles and armored cars during the war.[19]

In terms of soldiers’ health, though WWI’s participants witnessed unprecedented and massive carnage, the conflict also revealed great advances in medicine. Prior to 1870, sickness and disease, by a margin of five to one, killed more combatants than actual battle. However, by 1918, this proportion had been flipped. Moreover, in wars of the nineteenth century, wounded soldiers often died, but with medical advances of the early twentieth century many more WWI combatants survived injury. Additionally, the International Red Cross (IRC), established in 1859, played an active role in WWI. In the decades between 1859 and 1914, international conferences had set standards or regulations for the “treatment of civilians, of the wounded, and prisoners of war,” Howard points out. The end result, he writes, was that wounded enemy soldiers received humane (or at least more humane) treatment than in previous eras: “Reciprocal caution and international inspection ensured the fair treatment of prisoners of war.”[20]

One might accept Howard’s argument but add a very significant caveat. The Spanish influenza that spread during the war killed far more than the conflict itself.   WWI, no matter how much medicine had advanced, helped spread the illness in numerous ways. Malnourished and tired German troops contracted the flu easily. Hundreds of thousands of Americans packed tightly into ships to cross the Atlantic, arrived in upwards of 250,000 per month in 1918, infecting one another and carrying the illness further to and through Europe. Wartime priorities distracted from a concerted effort to stamp out the illness. In the end, between 20-40 million worldwide died of the pandemic, and the war greatly facilitated its deadliness.


That said, in general, soldiers of the Great War lived under conditions that though perhaps horrific to modern observers, vastly exceeded that of their predecessors. “They were regularly and adequately fed. Many of them indeed were better cared for, thanks to the development of ancillary military services, that they had been in civilian life at home,” reflects Howard. “The image of the Great War in Europe as a period of almost unrelieved horror was not shared by many of the soldiers themselves when they returned to a postwar world which was for many of them disappointing and drab and for some one of real deprivation.”[21] One finds this last statement present even in the works of American novelists like Earnest Hemmingway. His book The Sun Also Rises follows a group of disillusioned, alienated Europeans and Americans living in post-WWI Europe and symbolizes the drift of “the lost generation.”

Of course, none of this is to downplay the incredible loss of life that occurred or the tragic ends that had befallen millions of soldiers. The concept of “shell shock,” perhaps diagnosed today as PTSD, was certainly real for many of those who survived the war. Though it could lead to anxiety and neurosis after the war, during battle constant artillery bombing could act as sedative. “Nobody could stand more than three hours sustained shelling, before they started feeling sleepy and numb,” Private T. Jacobs of the 1st West Yorkshire Regiment told listeners. “You’re hammered after three hours and you’re there for the picking … It’s a bit like being under an anesthetic; you can’t put up a lot of resistance.”[22] Others who survived the war due to medical advances had to live with terrible physical disabilities and deformities. Some reported problems with impotency after having fought in a war in which soldiers had so little control.[23]

Death brought sorrow to millions, and for hundreds of thousands, recovering the body of a loved one proved impossible. [A]t the war’s end, the remains of nearly half of those lost remained lost in actuality,” writes Keegan. For Britain, estimates reach over 5,000,000; for the 1,700,000 French who perished, similar numbers are given. War cemeteries arose along the Western Front, as the British created positions known as grave’s officers who “marked the plot and when time permitted, chaplains and the dead men’s comrades observed the solemnities.”[24] Still, as Mitchell depicts in Cloud Atlas, the end result did not always provide such clear commemoration:

“The headstones were uncountable, uniform, arrayed as if on parade. Coils of brambles invaded the perimeter. The air was stuffy as if the sky were sealing us in. Along the aisles and rows I searched the F’s. Long odds, but one never knows. The War Office makes mistakes – if war’s first victim is truth, its second is clerical efficiency.   In the event, no Frobisher was resting in that plot of Flanders. The closest was “Froames, B.W., Private 2389 18th (Eastern Division), so I laid J’s white roses on his stone. Who is to say? Maybe Froames asked Adrian for a light one tired evening or cowered with him as bombs rained down, or shared a Bovril. Am a sentimental fool and I know it.”[25]

As heart wrenching as the fictional Frobisher’s observations might be, in the sprawling Eastern Front no such remembrances were even constructed. The Ottomans did not even tally their losses, leaving historians only to estimate. The dead returned to the Earth and no one, besides the loved ones they left behind, knew better. France, Germany, and England, however, did take some measures to honor their fallen. The French utilized individual graves and on occasion “collective ossuaries” as they did at Verdun. Since the Germans fought the war largely on the soil of other European nations, they could not take any sort of individualized or grand approach. Instead, they built “inconspicuous cemeteries [and] often excavated enormous mass graves.” One such example at Vladslo in Belgium consists of a slab that marks that remains of over 20,000 German soldiers.[26]


The British, however, took an entirely different course. Officials bestowed on every body a “separate grave, recording name, age, rank, regiment and date and place of death.” For those unable to be identified, a simple headstone with the words of Rudyard Kipling inscribed atop: “A soldier of the Great War Known to God.” Architectural monuments with the names of those who perished dot the European landscape, the most extensive being at Thiepval where over 70,000 names from the Somme have been recorded.   Moreover, over 600 cemeteries constructed on the English country garden model were built largely in France and Belgium; tended to by the Imperial War Graves Commission and over 1,000 gardeners dedicated to caring for the cemeteries for time immemorial. “All survive, still reverently tended by the Commission’s gardeners, much visited by the British sometimes by the great grandchildren of those buried within,” along with those of other curious nationalities, writes Keegan. “None fail to be moved by their extraordinary beauty.”[27]

In a few years, WWI’s centennial will end and in all likelihood it will recede into memory. World War II’s atrocities and even larger scale has overshadowed it for sometime anyway; once the anniversary passes so too will the public’s already slight attention to it. While it’s been said before, it bears remembering that WWI set the tragic tone of the first half of Europe’s twentieth century. “All that was worst in the century which the First World War had opened, the deliberate starvation of peasant enemies of the people by provinces, the extermination of racial outcasts, the persecution of ideology’s intellectual and cultural hate objects, the massacre of ethnic minorities, the extinction of small national sovereignties, the destruction of parliaments, and the elevation of commissars, gauleiters, and warlords to power over voiceless millions, had its origins in the chaos left behind,” writes Keegan.

Perhaps, we will never see total war again, left instead with the smaller conflicts of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. However, those wars left millions of dead Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqis and scarred the superpowers that engaged them. Death by a thousand paper cuts—guerilla warfare and terrorism the frightening but small bore method of warfare today—might seem more ignoble than defeat by the “Great Powers” of the world, but one bleeds out all the same. Tropes about American exceptionalism look to be pure canard when one looks back at WWI; all nations decline, all empires fall. How this happens just depends on context, and the 99th anniversary of the Somme reminds us that context changes, but the ends do not.

[1] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (New York: Random House, 2004), 440.

[2] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 441.

[3] John Keegan, The First World War, (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 321.

[4] Keegan, The First World War, 321.

[5] David Binder, “John Keegan, historian who put a face on war, dies at 78,” New York Times, August 2, 2012,

[6] “Attempted Suicide,” Economist, December 23, 1999,

[7] Keegan, The First World War, 336-338.

[8] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, Cambridge, (Mass: Harvard UP, 2003).

[9] Keegan, The First World War, 338-339.

[10] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, Cambridge, (Mass: Harvard UP, 2003), 309.

[11] Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 311.

[12] Keegan, The First World War, 338.

[13] Keegan, The First World War, 342.

[14] Keegan, The First World War, 339.

[15] Keegan, The First World War, 341.

[16] Keegan, The First World War, 346-347.

[17] Michael Howard, War in European History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 97-98.

[18] Keegan, The First World War, 279.

[19] Howard, War in European History, 104.

[20] Howard, War in European History, 117.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Keegan, The First World War, 427.

[23] Kern, The Culture of Time and Space.

[24] Keegan, The First World War, 451.

[25] David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 441.

[26] Keegan, The First World War, 451.

[27] Keegan, 451-452.