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July 01, 2006

 July 1, 1916

The first day of the battle of the Somme : the worst day in the history of the British Army. The butcher's bill may well have been higher on September 7, 1812, August 2, 216 BC, February 14, 1945 and certainly on August 6, 1945; September 17, 1862 was a smaller slaughter. Still, the start of the Somme offensive stands out by its hallucinatory combination of stoic courage and abysmal generalship. It's easier to believe in Cannae.

By evening, according to the military historian John Keegan (The Face of Battle, p.255):

The British had lost about sixty thousand, of whom twenty-one thousand had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps in the first few minutes.....There is something Treblinka-like about almost all the accounts of July 1st, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire.

By the time the battle petered out in November, with no strategic result apart from relieving the pressure on Verdun, 300,000 soldiers (British, British Empire, French and German) had died, and at least twice as many wounded. Compare the decisive three-month WWII Battle of Normandy: allied casualties on D-Day are estimated at 10,000, including 2500 dead; for the whole battle up to the closing of the Falaise pocket, about 110,000 dead on both sides and three times that wounded. British military deaths in the whole of WWII are given as 382,600, against the 90,000 on the Somme alone.

There a story in Julian Barnes' fine collection Crossing the Channel about the mother of one such man, who goes back year after year to his grave and Lutyens' huge monument at Thiepval, fighting a losing struggle against the healing oblivion of time. It's not working out quite like that. There are more commemorations today than ever: as the survivors shrink to a tiny handful of very old men, squads of young enthusiasts march in uniform with pack across the sleepy sugar-beet fields and the wild poppies. What happens I think is that memory becomes stylised: a few points stick up from the general forgetting, the Somme, Verdun, D-Day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, like rock pillars on an eroded coast; the same is happening to the remembrance of the Holocaust, increasingly symbolised in the public mind by Auschwitz alone.

The danger in this inevitable process is the loss of individuality: the dead become mere pixels in a collective image, easily Photoshopped by politicians. There's an interesting if unfair film by Bertrand Tavernier, La Vie et rien d'autre, set in 1920 around the work of a French army casualty identification unit, which is a polemic against the convenient cult of the "Unknown Soldier". Lutyens was apparently aware of this problem, for the walls of the Thiepval arch are covered with the names of soldiers and their units; one inspiration for the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington. His friend and patron Gertrude Jekyll, the great gardener, designed the simple plantings for the British war graves, using the flowers the soldiers would have known in their childhoods.

You can look up your relatives on the austere website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The database of 1.2 million (from a lot of wars) includes of course a large number of Irish dead in WW I - contrary to the implication of Yeats' fine but tendentious poem An Irish Airman foresees his Death, far more young Irishmen followed John Redmond's call to volunteer, because they thought the cause was just, than joined the Easter Rising. There are also presumably a small number of American volunteers killed in British forces in both wars before 1917 and 1941. I've found two Wimberleys: a WW I infantryman in Boulogne, where he died in a base hospital, and a WW II airman in Cambridge (I imagine his damaged bomber just made it back).

The US Veterans Administration doesn't seem to have a similar database. You can create a page for your fallen relative, but it's up to you. The best virtual war memorial I've seen is the Canadian : it's comprehensive like the British, and relatives are encouraged to add photographs and other memorabilia. Seems the obvious thing to do.

As is respecting the laws of war under which they fought and died.

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