In the war to end all wars, it was the battle to end all battles.
The date the offensive began, 1 July, was etched on to the collective memory for generations. Now 100 years have elapsed and other battles and place names associated with extraordinary British military endeavour have become engrained in the popular consciousness, from Dunkirk and Arnhem to Goose Green and Helmand Province.
Yet arguably no other battle, from a British perspective, matches the awful resonance of the Somme. The first day of the battle, which began at “zero hour” 7.30am as whistles were blown up and down the line, remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. In a small patch of Northern France, there were more than 57,000 casualties – a number that roughly equates to a town the size of Kidderminster – of which 19,240 died.
Walter Hutchinson, a stretcher-bearer in the 10th Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment, recorded the events in his diary. He said of July 1:
German shells was dropping all around … We hadn’t gone far up the trench before we came across three of our own lads lying dead. Their heads had been badly damaged by a shell.
We had to go scrambling over the poor fellows – in and out, in and out. It was one of the most awful sights I’d ever witnessed.
Then the order came down to dump everything and fix bayonets, you have got to fight for it lads. We obeyed the order like men…
Mass Army stand-offs of this kind are no more. For the British Army, a small professional, all-volunteer force has replaced the inexperienced conscripts of the Somme. On the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle, it is right that we should honour the fallen and recognise their sacrifice. The futility, or otherwise, of the engagement, which lasted 141 days and incurred 419,654 Commonwealth casualties, we will leave to the military historians and strategists.
What is not in dispute is the fact that the Somme reminds us of the timeless features that comprise the character of the British soldier and it is right that we should celebrate the virtues of combat on this day of national remembrance.
Clearly, Private Hutchinson’s reference to obeying the order to fight ‘like men’ may jar in light of today’s mixed-gender composition of the Army. But the soldier is referring to a quality equally available to female soldiers – namely, military courage.
For Aristotle, true courage is a dispositional capacity to find balance between an excess of rashness and a deficit of cowardice towards a worthy cause. Military courage involves steadfastness in the face of death on the battlefield, and war offers opportunity to express this virtue that is worthwhile in its own right.
Courage is one of the Army’s core values, as outlined in Developing Leaders, A British Army Guide, written on behalf of Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
The guide makes a distinction between moral courage (the ‘preparedness to “do the right thing” and make the hard decision’) and physical courage (exemplified by ‘tenacity, self-control, the will to win and resilience to endure sustained danger, hardship and privation’).
Army leaders have to accept the same dangers as their subordinates and ‘fear’ in combat is ‘inescapable’. Leaders, however, must overcome fear and give ‘individual consideration to its effect on their subordinates.’
Fear, if you like, goes with the territory. It is how soldiers deal with fear that makes the difference. The guide quotes an anonymous squadron leader, who served in Afghanistan, as saying: ‘At times I was afraid. I made no bones about it, particularly when talking to the soldiers after the event, because there is no shame in it. The shame lies in not being able to conquer it.’
It is perhaps our common humanity with the soldier, and the fact that there are limits to military courage, that forges the type of respect we feel towards the troops who were obliterated at the Battle of the Somme. If we were in their shoes, how would we behave as the barrage rained down? Would we fail, or would we cope? Would we embrace fear and still be able to act?
There is a pertinent sub-section in the Army guide titled ‘Know Your People’, which reinforces the fact that there are limits to courage:
Stress can be contained, concealed or delayed, but every man has his limit. Under conditions of constant stress, reaching breaking point is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Indeed Lord Moran, a medical officer on the Western Front in the First World War, recalled the psychological effects of sustained bombardment:
When the shelling became heavier we got down to the bottom of the trench waiting, listening. We heard a shell that seemed by its rising shriek to be coming near. Then there was a shattering noise… a cloud of fumes, and a great shower of earth and blood and human remains.
As the fumes drifted away I had just time to notice that the man on my right had disappeared and that the trench where he had stood was now only a mound of freshly turned earth, when another angry shriek ended in another rending explosion… At the time I do not think I was much frightened… But it took its toll later… In the trenches a man’s will power was his capital and he was always spending, so that wise and thrifty company officers watched the expenditure of every penny lest their men went bankrupt. When their capital was done, they were finished.
Comradeship is often considered the best military reason to fight. Love among comrades is a vital source of morale, fighting spirit and comfort, a bond that motivates, illustrated copiously and elegantly in much war poetry.
In the military context, courage is linked to other traits of virtuous behaviour, not least dignity and purpose. In this sense, we are reminded of the celebrated eve of battle speech given by Colonel Tim Collins to 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003. Colonel Collins told his troops:
We go to liberate, not to conquer… if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory… If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death…
Edgbaston, where the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is based at the University of Birmingham, has its own unique links to war. Today, the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital is home to the tri-service Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and provides specialist care to members of the armed forces. The facility is less than a mile from the Great Hall at the University of Birmingham, which served as the base for 1st Southern General Hospital during the First World War. By the end of 1914, more than 600 patients were being treated in the hall.
The visible and invisible wounds of modern soldiers show that the costs of war continue to be high for individuals. Paradoxically, war needs to be conducted with love, compassion and respect. Good soldiers need to be good people and societies have a responsibility to their soldiers who fight on their behalf. Soldiers need to know that when abhorrent methods are necessary they are being executed legitimately and according to existing laws for good purpose.
A century on from the Battle of the Somme, British soldiers’ military virtues of courage, comradeship and loyalty continue to be identified as being as worthy of admiration as they ever were.
Dr David Walker, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is undertaking a ground-breaking research project with the British Army, titled Soldiers of Character. Findings will be published in late 2017.
Picture courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library