Battle of the Somme: The Hinge of the Great War

George Will and I disagree about some important political things, but evidently we share an appreciation of the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him quote FSF — here is what he uses to open his new article about the one-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in World War I:

See that little stream? We could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

Since 2014 I have been linking to various webpages and articles noting the anniversary of The Great War — you can find the links here. I will continue to add to the list, I’m sure, until at least June 1919, the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles.

Here is a one-minute video outlining some facts about the Battle of the Somme from the First World War Centenary:

Back to George Will’s column:

In the horror of the nearly five-month-long battle, the 20th century was changed forever.

The walk began at 7:30 a.m., July 1, 1916, when British infantry advanced toward German trenches. In the first hours, eight British soldiers fell per second. By nightfall 19,240 were dead, another 38,230 were wounded. World War I, the worst manmade disaster in human experience, was the hinge of modern history. The war was the incubator of Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, World War II, and innumerable cultural consequences. The hinge of this war was the battle named for “that little stream,” the river Somme.

The scything fire of machine guns could not be nullified even by falling curtains of metal from creeping artillery barrages that moved in advance of infantry. Geoff Dyer, in The Missing of the Somme, notes: “By the time of the great battles of attrition of 1916–17 mass graves were dug in advance of major offenses. Singing columns of soldiers fell grimly silent as they marched by these gaping pits en route to the front-line trenches.”

William Philpott’s judicious assessment in Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century is that the Somme was “the cradle of modern combat,” proving that industrial war could only be won by protracted attrition. And hence by the new science of logistics. The 31 trains a day required to supply the British at the Somme became 70 when the offensive began. The romance of chivalric warfare died at the Somme, which was what the Germans called Materialschlacht, a battle of materials more than men. Geographic objectives — land seized — mattered less than the slow exhaustion of a nation’s material and human resources, civilians as well as soldiers.

In the next world war, the distinction between the front lines and the home front would be erased. In 1918, Randolph Bourne, witnessing the mass mobilization of society, including its thoughts, distilled into seven words the essence of the 20th century: “War is the health of the state.” Relations between government, the economy, and the individual were forever altered, to the advantage of government.

Read more: National Review

Also of interest, photos from the battle courtesy of

Image credit: Screen capture from the embedded video above.