Remembering the war to end all wars

“First Day of the Somme — The Complete Account of Britain’s Worst-Ever Military Disaster” by Andrew MacDonald (Harper Collins, 462 pages, $19.99)

“Storm of Steel” by Ernst Junger (Penguin Classics, 289 pages, $18).

A century ago World War One was underway. In northern France during the summer of 1916 the German forces were dug in to their trenches. British troops in trenches were facing them. Things were at a stalemate. The United States did not enter the war until the following year.

British military strategists devised a plan to break through. During the last week of June the British launched a non-stop bombardment of the German positions in the Somme region of France. British artillery pulverized the German trenches for the entire week.

They presumed the German positions were obliterated. British infantry could then sweep in and recapture the territory. On the morning of July 1, 1916 the British guns went silent as their infantry massed to go over the top and swarm across no-man’s-land in a massive attack upon the German positions.

Andrew MacDonald describes what happened next on that tragic day in his book “First Day of the Somme — The Complete Account of Britain’s Worst-Ever Military Disaster.” The Germans anticipated the assault. They had been underground in dugouts-most had survived. After enduring that bombardment they were eager to exact a terrible revenge upon the overconfident British.

This book takes us slowly through the disaster as it unfolded. The Germans knew the exact moment when the attack would commence. Their machine gun emplacements created deadly fields of fire. Soldiers describe the carnage that occurred there. Here’s the final tally : “Britain’s official casualty roll for 1 July came in at 57,470. Of these, 19,240 were dead, a further 35,493 were wounded and 2737 others were recorded as either missing or prisoners of war.”

Ernst Junger was a German soldier at the Somme. “Storm of Steel” is a memoir based upon his experiences. He has a matter of fact style of writing. On June 30 Junger’s unit was sent away from the front lines. They did not return until July 3. He missed out on the British assault.

Junger’s recollections of life in the trenches can be morbidly fascinating: “a rather alarming neighbor was Lieutenant Pook, who was housed by himself in a dugout in the maze of trenches behind our left flank. He had collected a number of enormous dud shells, and amused himself by unscrewing the fuses, and tinkering with them as if they were bits of clockwork. Every time I had to go past his lair I made a wide detour.”

Junger enumerates his injuries: “during the endless hours flat on your back, you try to distract yourself to pass the time; once , I reckoned up my wounds. Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me with an even twenty scars.”

Junger was a fortunate fellow. He lived to be 102.

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