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Paul O’Flinn

A Day in the War

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.29-30.
The Menin Road, 1919 by Paul Nash used with kind permission of the Imperial War Museum.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The First Day on the Somme
Martin Middlebrook

The Nuremburg Raid
Martin Middlebrook
Fontana, £1.50 each, paperbacks.

These superb but disappointing books deal with just one day in the First World War and one in the Second.

The first covers the opening day of the Battle of the Somme: 1 July 1916, the day that saw the largest casualties in British military history. Infantrymen were ordered to walk towards German trenches which contained approximately a thousand machine-gun posts. By midnight, 21,392 lay dead, 35,493 were wounded and 585 were prisoners – losses in less than fifteen hours that add up to more than all British casualties in the Crimean War, the Boer War and the Korean War put together.

The second book describes another appalling episode, this time in the Second World War – the Nuremburg raid on the night of 30 March 1944. 782 bombers took off for Nuremburg; 95 were shot down and 10 crash landed. Bomber Command lost 545 men killed and 159 taken prisoner, its worst night of the war.

What’s chilling about all this carnage is that, as some of our readers will perhaps be aware, there hasn’t been a revolution in this country since, so that the power structures, the kind of thinking that made horror of this sort possible, remain in control. The grandson of the divisional commander on the Somme who wouldn’t issue his men with steel helmets because he thought it would make them go soft is, perhaps, a company director today. The mentality that gave Haig, Commander-in-Chief at the Somme, an earldom and £100,000 after the war and the infantrymen a bob a day during it still rules in the Treasury.

I said at the start that the books were superb but disappointing. They’re disappointing in the way that, they fall into the rut of so much British historiography: massive, painstaking, impressive accumulation of facts but little idea what to make of those facts. If you want to know where Private Dick King, ex-Yorkshire miner, was at 7.28 a.m. on 1 July 1916, or where Flight Sergeant Tom Hall was at 00.45 on 31 March 1944, these books will tell you.

But if you want to know, in any broad sense, why they and their colleagues were there, getting killed, and how perhaps we could stop it happening again, these books won’t tell you. Not so much because they don’t give the answers but because they don’t even get into the position where such questions might be asked.

The books survey meticulously the heaps of corpses but are not inspired to question or challenge anything – not even the unspeakable Haig or ‘Butcher’ Harris, the Rhodesian C-in-C of Bomber Command, much less the entire system which could throw up such men and place them in control.

So both books fall back again and again on the word ‘tragedy’ in describing events. Not so much an analysis but rather a word that papers use to cover the absence of analysis.

Paul Nash: The Menin Road, 1918 (detail)

Paul Nash: The Menin Road, 1918 [1]

Yet for all that the books are superb – superb in the evidence they assemble. Martin Middlebrook talked to a staggering 526 British and 20 German soldiers who fought on the first day on the Somme. He interviewed 380 men and women who were involved in the Nuremburg raid in one way or another.

The result is a mass of comments and memories, useful not just for the professional historian, but deeply moving for the general reader. Mr Middlebrook may not be disposed to ask very radical questions himself but we are all in his debt for the record he has provided of the bitterness, the insight and the experience of the people caught up in these shambles. I make no apologies for closing by quoting from them at length. They are the best things in the books. They brought a lump to my throat and they still ring with warning, wisdom and anger for the present generation:

The date 1 July is engraved deep in our hearts, along with the faces of our pals ... We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying. (Private A.V. Pearson)

More than anything I hated to see war-crippled men standing in the gutter selling matches. We had been promised a land fit for heroes; it took a hero to live in it. I’d never fight for my country again. (Private F.W.A. Turner)

When I was out of work, I had to go before a Means Test Panel. There was a very fat lady on the Panel, cuddling a Pekinese on her lap. She said, “We’ve all got to pull our belts in a hole or two these days.” I was fed up and told her, “Your words belie your appearance. That bloody dog’s had more to eat today than I’ve had.” There was a lot of argument and it ended in a row. My chair went over; papers and inkwells went flying and the dog was yapping and squealing. I was charged with common assault and got three months in Wormwood Scrubs. (Private G. Kidd)

One universal question which I have never seen answered: two or three million pounds a day for the 1914-1918 war, yet no monies were forthcoming to put industry on its feet on our return from that war. Many’s the time I’ve gone to bed, after a day of ‘tramp, tramp’ looking for work, on a cup of cocoa and a pennyworth of chips between us; I would lay puzzling why, why, after all we had gone through in the service of our country, we have to suffer such poverty, willing to work at anything but no work to be had. I only had two Christmases at work between 1919 and 1939. (Private C.A. Turner)

Note by ETOL

1. This review was illustrated with the black and white image above. This is part of the Paul Nash painting below (the date is mistakenly given as 1918):

Paul Nash: The Road to Menin (1919), Imperial War Museum

IWM ART 2242 The Menin Road, 1919 by Paul Nash oil on canvas,
1828 mm x 3175 mm Credit: Imperial War Museum

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