Rosalind Robson reviews The Last Tommy (BBC1), and The Somme, (Channel Four)
For socialists the two world wars of the last century are of tremendous importance. These events gave birth to massive class struggles.
In the First World war, workers who had been conscripted to fight the bloody battles, were to turn against the ruling class, the brass and the politicians, who had pushed them to slaughter. In Russia, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, workers made revolutions. Revolutions which were to shape the course of revolutionary Marxist politics up to the present day.
Strange then to think that the First World War is almost, if not quite, no longer “in living memory”.
The BBC gave six men, now in their early hundreds, a chance to voice their memories. And there are not many more still alive of the 5.5 million British people who fought in that war. Eighty plus years on, the bitterness and hurt remains.
Fortunately depicting history on film can be very well done, can help us remember and can help educate the great great grandchildren of the people who fought. It can’t be much better done than Channel Four’s “docudrama”, The Somme.
Why Channel Four picked the battle of the Somme is easy to explain. It stands for everything that was wrong with the First World War — the futile indiscriminate slaughter. True there is nothing new to be told in the story. It is probably very familiar to many — the incompetent military “leadership”, the youth of the troops.
But perhaps the story is not at all familiar to young people today, people who are, like the 20,000 men who were killed in that battle (on the British side alone), only 17 or 18. Or even younger if, like my granddad, they lied about their age in order to enlist.
Here it all was, told through letters, diaries and journals written at the time by men who survived and men who died.
At 7.30am on 1 July, 1916 60,000 British soldiers went “over the top” in a “big push” against the German lines. “Over the top”. “Big push”. The language is so public school, so typical of the officer class of the time, the insensitive morons who dictated the dreadful plan of battle.
The British brass thought the German artillery had been destroyed in bombardments prior to battle. They brooked no talk of failure, they had no means or sense to find out if their assumptions were correct. Yet they did not bother to cover up their preparations for the assault and the Germans knew quite a bit about what the British planned. Their artilery hunkered down in the trenches and waited out the British bombardment by air.
So these few privileged men, the British officer class, risked the lives of thousands upon thousands.
The German troops were not destroyed. And as the British soldiers walked into no man’s land to confront the German trenches, they were shot down by machine guns.
There were 60,000 casulties in total on that first day, and sixty per cent of the ordinary officers, the men that blew the whistles that led the soldiers out of the trenches, were killed.
Battles in this area ended in November. At the end the British, French and other allies had advanced only five miles. The British suffered around 420,000 casualties and the French 195,000. The Germans too suffered greatly with 650,000 casualties.
The scale of the slaughter is incomprehensible. It must have felt to many of the men involved, as so many of their comrades fell around them, that they were losing their humanity. As one junior officer in the Channel Four film put it, “I feel like an ape tearing up a picture of god.”