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Veterans Day Celebrates Warriors From Our Disastrous Wars, But the Day Was Established for Peace and the End of War's Destruction

Today's holiday originally marked a peace agreement.

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Riding a black horse and with his usual escort of lancers, General Haig inspected his divisions as they rehearsed their attacks on practice fields where white tapes on the ground stood for the German trenches. On June 20th, the commander in chief wrote to his wife, “The situation is becoming more favourable to us.” On June 22nd he added, “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help.” On June 30th, as the great artillery barrage had been thundering for five days, Haig wrote in his diary, “The men are in splendid spirits.... The wire has never been so well cut, nor the Artillery preparation so thorough.” For good measure, the British released clouds of deadly chlorine gas toward the German lines.

As it grew close to zero hour, 7:30 a.m. on July 1st, men detonated 10 enormous mines planted by British miners tunneling deep beneath the German trenches. Near the village of La Boisselle, the crater from one remains, a stark, gaping indentation in the surrounding farmland; even partly filled in by a century of erosion, it is still 55 feet deep and 220 feet across.

When the artillery barrage reached its crescendo, 224,221 shells in the last sixty-five minutes, the rumble could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath in London. More shells were fired by the British this week than they had used in the entire first 12 months of the war; some gunners bled from the ears after seven days of nonstop firing. At a forest near Gommecourt, entire trees were uprooted and tossed in the air by the shelling and the forest itself set on fire.

Soldiers of the First Somerset Light Infantry sat on the parapet of their trench, cheering at the tremendous explosions. Officers issued a strong ration of rum to the men about to head into no-man’s-land. Captain W.P. Nevill of the Eighth East Surrey Battalion gave each of his four platoons a soccer ball and promised a prize to whichever one first managed to kick a ball into the German trench. One platoon painted its ball with the legend:

THE GREAT EUROPEAN CUP 
          THE FINAL 
EAST SURREYS V. BAVARIANS

Throughout the British Isles, millions of people knew a great attack was to begin. “The hospital received orders to clear out all convalescents and prepare for a great rush of wounded,” remembered the writer Vera Brittain, working as a nurse’s aide in London. “We knew that already a tremendous bombardment had begun, for we could feel the vibration of the guns... Hour after hour, as the convalescents departed, we added to the long rows of waiting beds, so sinister in their white, expectant emptiness.”

“God, God, Where’s the Rest of the Boys?”

Haig waited anxiously in his forward headquarters at the Château de Beauquesne, 10 miles behind the battlefield. Then, after a full week of continual fire, the British guns abruptly fell silent.

When whistles blew at 7:30 a.m., the successive waves of troops began their planned 100-yards-a-minute advance. Each man moved slowly under more than 60 pounds of supplies -- 200 bullets, grenades, shovel, two days’ food and water, and more. But when those soldiers actually clambered up the trench ladders and over the parapet, they quickly discovered something appalling. The multiple belts of barbed wire in front of the German trenches and the well-fortified machine gun emplacements were still largely intact.

Officers looking through binocular-periscopes had already suspected as much. Plans for any attack, however, have tremendous momentum; rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is awry. To call off an offensive requires bravery, for the general who does so risks being thought a coward. Haig was not such a man. Whistles blew, men cheered, Captain Nevill’s company of East Surreys kicked off its four soccer balls. The soldiers hoped to stay alive -- and sometimes for something more: troops of the First Newfoundland Regiment knew that a prominent young society woman back home had promised to marry the first man in the regiment to win the Empire’s highest medal, the Victoria Cross.

 
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