One hundred years ago on July 1 the army of the British Empire suffered its largest one day losses ever in the opening of the battle of the Somme: 60,000 causalities, including nearly 20,000 killed. Indifferent to the scale of the slaughter, Field Marshal Haig would continue the battle for four more months. The battle ended in November of 1916, not due to the victory of either empire, but due to the terrible fall weather.
It is worth remembering what the first world war was all about. The empires of the time—British, French and Russian on one side, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman on the other—had already conquered most of the world. The only way for any empire to increase the number of nations it enslaved was to take them away from another empire. Hence, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, this gave Germany the pretext to invade Serbia, and the other empires joyfully joined in.
The pretext for the British Empire to join the war, and Canada along with it, was the invasion of Belgium by the German Empire. Of course, Britain never contemplated attacking Belgium after it invaded Congo. And Belgium, or the German Empire would never imagine attacking Britain in order to secure the freedom of India. Then as now, our ruling class only opposes invasions and occupations when it harms their interests.
As the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, "Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries. And this “booty” is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth (America, Great Britain, Japan), who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty."
The idea that this was some how a war for democracy is equally ludicrous. The British Empire didn’t allow working men or any women to vote. They were allied with the Russian Empire where each workers vote counted for a fraction of an aristocrat’s vote, and the limited parliament was dispelled by the Czar whenever he was unhappy about the decisions it made. On the other side, the German Empire, in letting working men vote was more democratic than either the Russian or British Empire. Of course, on all sides, the people of the colonies were never given any kind of vote at all.
The attack was originally planned in December of 1915 as a means to end the year long stalemate of each empire’s trenches facing their enemies’ with no means of moving. The date was set for the summer of 1916 along the British and French trenches facing the Germans, near the River Somme in northern France. In February of 1916 the Germans advanced on another area in France, Verdun, and so the objectives were changed to include forcing the Germans to move troops away from Verdun. The British failed to breakthrough at the Somme and the Germans failed to breakthrough at Verdun. The reason in each case was the ease of slaughtering each other’s advancing soldiers with modern weapons.
By the beginning of 1916, the trenches were largely unmoved from the fall of 1914. This was due to the combination of machine guns that could kill thousands and barbed wire that prevented soldiers from advancing quickly across the land between the trenches. Despite this, the rulers all all sides still dreamt of the sort of one-sided victory that their armies’ machine guns had been able to inflict on the peoples of Africa and India who resisted their rule. Field Marshall Haig Haig was responsible for the planned offensive also dreamt of the glories of a triumphant cavalry charge. The cavalry was kept behind the lines, playing polo, fox hunting and involved in other aristocratic pursuits, waiting for the breakthrough that would allow them to win the battle.
In this battle, the German machine guns and barbed wire would be removed by the most fierce artillery bombardment the world had ever seen. The British fired 1.5 million shells in the five days leading up to the attack. Around one quarter of them didn’t explode, and these still dangerous explosives are still found in farmers fields in France. In the final hour before the soldiers were ordered to attack, more than 200,000 shells were fired. This was supposed to destroy the barbed wire and the German machine guns. The Germans were dug far enough below ground , and covered with concrete and metal, so that they were able to survive the blasts and once the artillery stopped they knew the advance was about to begin. This gave them time to set up their machine guns. The barbed wire was also largely untouched by the bombardment. Soldiers who survied recalled seeing the bodies of the dead suspended where they were caught on the wire.
As the battle continued Field Marshall Haig eventually gave up on his dream of a breakthrough the German trenches and instead substituted the goal of attrition. If slightly more German soldiers were killed than British ones, the opposing empire would run out of young men first and the British Empire would be victorious. As he wrote in his diary, “The nation must be taught to bear losses . . . to see heavy casualty lists for what may appear to the uninitiated to be insufficient objects . . . Three years of war and the loss of one tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in so great a cause.” (Quoted in To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild.)
The strategy of attrition lead to senior officers congratulating each other on the large numbers of casualties amongst their soldiers. These pleasantries could be exchanged over sumptuous dinners with the Field Marshal at his headquarters in a French Chateau behind the lines. Or perhaps during the polo games that the cavalry officers pursued. By the end of the battle in November the French and British empires had sacrificed 700,000 of their people (killed or wounded) to gain around seven square miles of ground.
A century after the "war to end all wars," imperialist powers like Canada are still at war. Our rulers and the mainstream media who support them will be celebrating the slaughter of the battle of the Somme as a necessary sacrifice. Their slogan "Never forget," is not about remembering the imperialist roots of war, the colonial domination that it maintained, or the tens of thousands of working class people slaughtered for profit. Instead this slogan is about "remembering" and continuing the sacrifice that the 99% are called upon to make for the 1%. We must respond to their slogan of “Never Forget,” with the much more important, “Never again!”