[This article first appeared in Stand To! 34 Spring 1992 pp7-12]

I think I have to begin with an apology today. It is addressed to any of you who may have come to this meeting hoping that they would be hearing about the Aisne, the Department of Northern France named after a quiet, pretty river, noted for its fishing, which in 1914 became the scene of some of the most ferocious battles of the whole of the Great War.

I will explain in a moment why I decided not to pursue this most worthy subject. I want you to understand that I do this with considerable regret, because I regard the Aisne sector as one of the most important parts of the Western Front, as well as being the scene of some of its highest dramas.

It became a battlefield in mid-September 1914, when the victorious Allies following up the German retreat from the Marne crossed the Aisne and came up against the formidable obstacle of the Chemin-des-Dames (the 'Ladies' Road') Ridge on the north bank. And that was where the trench warfare with which the First World War is always associated began, which alone should make it deserving of our close attention. The BEF—six divisions strong—now made its first acquaintance with the grim realities of barbed wire backed by numerous machine guns, trench mortars (which neither it nor its French allies possessed), hand grenades (which the Allies also did not possess) and heavy artillery concentrations (in which the Germans again had all the advantages). As early as 16 September General Haig, commanding the I Corps, was noting that: 'Our own high explosive is of little use compared with the German, so the enemy's big guns possess a real moral superiority for some of our gunners. In fact, our gunners cannot "take on" the enemy's heavy batteries.'

What nobody could then know was that this would be a running refrain for the next two years of war.

In 1915 the Aisne was the scene of the two great battles between the French and the Germans which have gone down in history as the First and Second Battles of Champagne—that being the area from which the famous bubbly wine comes to rejoice those who like it (I may say that I am not one of them). And I may also say, without much fear of contradiction, that there was very little rejoicing over the Battles of Champagne.

1916 has generally gone down as the year of Verdun and the Somme, but in fact there was continuous activity up and down the whole Western Front during the year, all the way from the Vosges to Nieuport, and Champagne was not left out.

In 1917 the Chemin des Dames and the Aisne were at the centre of the stage for the great offensive which is usually referred to by the name of the French Commander-in- Chief, General Nivelle. He promised that this would break through the German front in forty-eight hours and then bring on the decisive battle that would finish the war. It turned out that rather longer would be needed, and meanwhile there was more bitter fighting to be done.

The Chemin des Dames was in the news again in May 1918, when the Germans, having failed in their two offensives against the British in Picardy and Flanders, turned upon the French on the Aisne. They achieved surprise and the longest advance in one day of the whole war—and they inflicted a tragedy on four British divisions which had been sent down to the Aisne to rest after heavy losses on their own front. Sydney Rogerson's book, The Last of the Ebb, is required reading for this.

And then, in July, a second group of British divisions went into battle again in the Champagne sector—the Second Battle of the Marne, the turning-point of the War, when the Germans finally lost the initiative. It was a truly international Allied occasion— predominantly French, but with a strong American contingent, an Italian army corps, and the British element even including a mixed Australian/New Zealand cavalry regiment. By the end of the month the Allies were back on the Aisne, and soon after that peace returned to this tormented region.

So you see, there is plenty to be said about the Aisne—several books-full, really—and plenty to think about when you go there. The two rivers, Aisne and Marne, were intimately linked at the two crises of the War; twice this area was the scene of Germany's decisive defeat, twice it steps into the full limelight of French and British history.

But today I am going to talk about something else.

My reason for doing so is that during the past two or three years there have appeared certain publications bearing upon our 'subject'—the Western Front and the Great War of which it formed such a significant part—in what I consider to be a disturbing manner. You may or may not agree with my general views, but I would be surprised indeed if it were not the case that a fair number of people in this room may have been wondering what I was thinking about this latest 'wave' of Great War writing.

There are three publications in particular that I have in mind. The first was The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and The Emergence of Modern Warfare 1900-1918 by a Canadian, Professor Tim Travers. It is a resounding title, but the author does not waste much time before making it clear that what he is really writing is yet another critique of British generalship, with particular stress upon the educational background and Staff College instruction of 'the Edwardian officer corps'.

That book came out in 1987; it made a good forerunner for Douglas Haig 1861-1928, which followed it in 1988, by a thirty-four year-old Californian, Gerard De Groot. Both of these authors claim to be offering new, objective views of the Great War, taking up a 'middle ground' in the great arguments about the War and the Generals, in particular Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. In the case of De Groot, the claim lasts as far as page 4; in the case of Travers, perhaps a little farther, but not much. Neither has any regard for the British generals, Haig least of all.

The third book, as I expect most of you will have guessed, is Denis Winter's Haig's Command, which came out early this year. I don't think he says anything about taking 'middle ground'—perhaps he thought it was getting a bit crowded—but he does describe his work as 'a reassessment'. This seems to me to be stretching the meaning of the word beyond acceptable limits—an infringement of the Trade Descriptions Act. Far from being a 'reassessment', Haig's Command simply dots the 'i's and crosses the 't's of a very old litany, going back to Churchill in the 20s and Lloyd George in the 30s, aided by 'military experts' like Liddell Hart, a string of war poets and novelists, uncounted journalists and film-makers, pacifists and politicians of many hues who prate to this day. Winter has definitely produced no new assessment, only a loud and discordant echo.

What makes his claim so startling is that he not merely echoes opinions which can be explained and in some cases may even be excused by the heat of battle or the vivid memory of it, six or seven decades ago, but are also those of a later generation with no direct involvement and a far better opportunity of reaching balanced judgment, had it so desired. I am referring here to such titles as In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff (another American, in 1958), The Donkeys by Alan Clark (now a Cabinet Minister in the Defence Department—Save Our Souls!) which came out in 1961, and in the same year there appeared The Big Push, by Brian Gardner (who shortly afterwards edited a very good anthology of British 1914-1918 war poetry, Up The Line to Death; he should have stuck to literature).

The fact is that this virulent, sustained criticism of the British military leadership of World War I has continued steadily since about the middle of the 1920s to this day. It is a powerful element in the philosophy and literature of 'Disenchantment', which did much to weaken Britain between the wars, and hampered her in the conduct of World War II; the three books I am speaking of are part of its latest manifestation. Frankly, I think that if anything calls for reassessment, it is this school of thought itself.

Some of you who are here today may remember the address that I delivered to you in 1983. On that occasion I made reference to our motto—what I called our 'watchword'—'remembering'. I consider it a very fine, simple statement of purpose, and I said:

I support that entirely: there is nothing like enough remembering nowadays. The Western Front of 1914-1918, which represents the greatest single military endeavour that this country has ever made, is certainly not sufficiently remembered. And possibly worse still, if it is remembered, it is frequently for the wrong reasons.

So I would like to make a plea for another word— not to be added to our motto, because that would spoil the simplicity and the clarity—but to be present in our minds [and purpose] while we are remembering: and that word is 'understanding'. We all know that some terrible scenes unfolded from time to time on the Western Front. It was, beyond doubt, the costliest part of the costliest war ever fought by the British Army, and that fact, certainly, is to some extent remembered. But I do beg that in the act of remembering that—and who can visit the battlefield cemeteries without remembering that?—we should also make the extra effort of at least trying to understand, because if we don't it seems to me that we are robbing those dead men of their due.

It is not enough to grieve for their suffering; we must also praise their achievement.

And that, you see, is a word that is conspicuously absent from the literature of Disenchantment in all its manifestations. 'Achievement' implies success; success implies victory—and Marshal Foch, in his Introduction to Haig's Despatches, handsomely lists the nine successive victories won by Haig's armies during the final Allied offensive of the War, and remarks; 'Never at any time in history has the British Army achieved greater results in attack than in this unbroken offensive . . .' But Gerard De Groot can only spare them eight and a half pages in a book of 407 pages, and Denis Winter says flatly: 'There had been no clear- cut victories in battle.'

Well, I suppose you could call that a 'reassessment'—it is definitely a new way of summing up a 100-day campaign during which the Allies captured over 380,000 German prisoners and over 6600 guns, and which ended with a German delegation crossing the lines with a white flag followed by another German delegation signing what proved to be an 'Unconditional Surrender' peace.

One thing seems pretty dear: there has been no perceptible advance in general 'understanding' during the last ten years, though I hope there may have been some in the WFA. To say that I find this state of affairs depressing is a very considerable understatement. My complaint about all three of the recent books that I have mentioned, and a number of others like them, is that, so far from aiding understanding, they are repetitive exercises in disinformation—an activity in which the media also excels, and demonstrate this skill with distressing frequency. It seems to be a required qualification for any media or Press treatment of World War I that the journalist in question should be entirely ignorant of the subject. The latest gem for my Press collection came on Guy Fawkes Day, when the Science Editor of The Daily Telegraph reported the finding of the wrecks of HMS Queen Mary and HMS Invincible, two of the three British capital ships sunk at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, which he called: 'The battle off Denmark where British battlecruisers met the German fleet'. It's rather like describing the First World War as the occasion when volunteers from the Isle of Man met the Imperial German Army. Quite true, of course, but it doesn't entirely catch the full flavour of the event.

Forgive the digression; it could be said that the media are there to astound us, and my goodness!—they do. But why, I am constantly wondering, do they and so many otherwise serious people so persistently follow this perennial line—why does it give them such satisfaction to go on heaping scorn on the British generals, and such pure malevolence upon the Commander-in-Chief, Field-Marshal Haig? It is Gerard De Groot who most aptly sums up the drift of this attack, no matter which particular quarter it comes from:

The Great War, it is argued, was the worst disaster in British military history. Since the heroism and skill of the men in the muddy trenches—the lions—is beyond doubt, blame for the disaster must belong to the senior commanders—the donkeys. More specifically, ultimate blame belongs to the supreme commander, Douglas Haig, the most asinine of them all . . .

That, in a nutshell, is the case against Haig as perceived by this American historian. He then goes on to put what he takes to be the other side:

Haig's critics argue from the war to the man; his champions take the opposite approach. Their study of Haig reveals a man whose values are the same as those which made Britain great. They glide smoothly towards the conclusion that if a man of such stature could not limit the casualties, no one could have. In other words, no attempt is made to deny that this was a horrible war. The enormous losses are consequently blamed upon its intractable nature. Haig is revealed as all the more heroic for his ability to endure its ghastliness. Lesser men would have crumbled.

These two sets of propositions seem to me to be very revealing. I don't think either of the other two writers that I have mentioned would disagree with them in any important degree, and their ideas are reflected time after time in media treatments of the subject and the 'literary' versions of it. You can see at once that we have a language difficulty.

The Great War, says De Groot, speaking for the critics of Haig and the British commanders, was the 'worst disaster in British military history'. That seems to me to be a most extraordinary statement. What, I would like to know, was the 1914-18 equivalent of being kicked out of Europe after only sixteen days of battle in May 1940? I can think of none- and certainly none, nothing at all that bears comparison with having already been kicked out of Norway, and being kicked out of Greece early in the following year. On each occasion—but at Dunkirk above all—there was a catastrophic loss of equipment which we had no means of replacing for years to come, at the price of national bankruptcy. As far as I can see, only one thing stood between Britain and the real disaster of absolute surrender: the fact that Hitler was mad—mad enough to march into Russia while we were still just on our feet. There was nothing like that in World War I. Certainly not the deliberate, meticulously planned and completely successful evacuations of the Gallipoli Peninsula in December 1915 and January 1916.

Military disaster not accompanied by defeat does not impress me. I am certain that there is an absolute difference between victory and defeat: victory may be hard and costly, defeat can be easy and cheap. Thanks mainly to the Royal Navy, and on one famous occasion to the Royal Air Force, we have been fortunate enough to avoid national defeat and enemy occupation for nearly a thousand years. But of course within the larger, national picture there are specific occasions of defeat which do have the hallmarks of disaster, and we have had no lack of these down the years. To my mind, out of an impressive list, there has never been anything to match the humiliating misery of the surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942, when 130,000 British and Commonwealth troops were marched off into captivity by some 55,000 Japanese. Slim and his Fourteenth Army did all that men can do to straighten the account in 1944-45, but the name, 'Singapore', stands in history forever as an obituary of British power. There is no mistaking that sort of disaster, and World War I shows nothing that compares with it.

It is quite evident that, to this school of writers, the word 'disaster' has a different meaning from that which has generally been associated with it. In military teaching and military history it has always been associated with a result—a defeat which could not be repaired. But De Groot, summarising the thoughts (as he understands them) of Haig's 'champions', expresses them as:

'if a man of such stature could not limit the casualties, no one could have.'

Well, there it is, out in the open. We are not talking about the purpose of battle, the defeat of the enemy; we are talking only about limiting the cost. This is not, in my opinion, a sensible idea. Commanders who are preoccupied by fear of losses will always be at a disadvantage against commanders who are preoccupied by victory. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

One of the most obviously successful generals of World War II was the Soviet Marshal Zhukov; he was also noted for 'never having fought a battle in which he was sparing of the lives of his men'. After the war, in 1945, he was talking to General Eisenhower, who must have taxed him with this, and Zhukov said:

If we come to a mine field, our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten from machine guns and artillery if the Germans had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of mine fields.

It is not recorded what response General Eisenhower made to that. The American generals themselves were reputed to drive their forces on remorselessly, attacking again and again if the first attempt failed, so Eisenhower would know what Zhukov meant. The American editor of the book which contains this passage remarked:

This was the philosophy of a man determined to attain his military objective. It might cost many human lives. But if the position had to be taken, if the battle had to be won, if the enemy had to be smashed, one must be prepared to pay the price.

Marshal Zhukov ended his war—and ours against Germany—by capturing Berlin. It took twenty-two days to do that, during which the Soviet Army lost 304,887 men— that is a daily rate of almost 14,000, an almost inconceivable wastage. By De Groot's standards—the standards of the anti-general, anti-Haig school—Marshal Zhukov would be written off as a totally incompetent butcher. But not me. Berlin surrendered to Zhukov on 2 May 1945; Hitler was already dead, and the war ended on 7 May. I consider the end of the war to be a very good result. I did at the time, and I still do. I think Marshal Zhukov and his colleagues, Marshal Rokossovsky and Marshal Koniev, and their amazing soldiers did very well indeed. They had ended the war—victoriously.

And that, of course, is what generals are for. As Field-Marshal Lord Slim—'Bill' Slim, of Burma fame—wrote in his splendid book, Defeat into Victory, referring to the defeats in Malaya, the fall of Singapore and the grim retreat through Burma, Slim said:

Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory—for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it.

As I have pointed out on a number of occasions (always wondering why it should be necessary to repeat this glimpse of the obvious) the British generals on the Western Front, Haig and his Army Commanders, did not fail in this duty:

It was not a British delegation that crossed the lines with a white flag in November 1918—as General Percival did in Singapore. No German Army of occupation was stationed on the Thames or the Tees, as the Allied armies on the Rhine in 1918, and in Berlin in 1945. No British Government was forced to sign a treaty like the one that Germany forced on Russia at Brest-Litovsk or on Romania at Bucharest in 1918, or as the Allies did on Germany herself in 1919.

Twice now, in the face of German aggression, British generals have done their duty, and brought their country out on the winning, not the losing, side in a great and terrible war. But there is a difference.

Because we did not, in World War I, suffer the humiliating disaster of being thrown out of the Continent at the end of the first retreat, we were able to build up our forces until in 1916 we were at last able to relieve the French of the main burden there. As this was undoubtedly the main front, where the main body of the main enemy stood, our casualties naturally mounted severely. In 1917 barring only the brief intermission when General Nivelle tried his great war-winning offensive, and failed, the BEF was fighting it out toe- to-toe with the Germans from April to November, and the casualties mounted accordingly. The two German offensives against the British front in March and April 1918 saw the highest daily rate of British casualties of the whole war—5848 a day for forty-one days. This was severe indeed, but we should note that it was below the Italian rate in their 11th Battle of the Isonzo, in August and September 1917—just over 6000 a day, and well below the worst French experience, in August 1914, over 13,000 a day for sixteen days, which is very close to the Russian experience in Berlin in 1945. But more important than numbers is the fact that the 1918 March/April offensives were a defeat for Germany, and before the year was over, the War was over too—a very good result.

The truth is that despite the grim evidence of our war cemeteries, Britain got off lightly in that war. In terms of the totals of war dead, in terms of percentages of population, and in terms of percentages of enlistments, the British figures are substantially below the French, German and Austro-Hungarian returns. Some of you may be surprised to hear this; from the books that I have been talking about you would expect the opposite to be the case. I must admit that when I found this out, I was distinctly surprised myself. And when I discovered that in the final Allied offensive to which I referred earlier Haig's armies took just under fifty per cent of all the prisoners and just over forty per cent of all the guns, I saw clearly that it was the critics and denigrators who needed 'reassessment', and I proceeded to supply a certain amount of it, during the last thirty years.

Part of that reassessment has been the recognition that the war fought between 1914-1918 was by no stretch of an informed imagination the unrelieved, stupid exercise of antique and obsolete methods that the media normally presents and far too many people are willing to believe. Many of you will have heard me say that the key to World War I, without which it cannot be understood, is technology. All the generals of that war, British, European, American, faced a succession of technological revolutions which has never been equalled in history. According to General J.F.C. Fuller, who played a not inconsiderable part in the development of tank tactics which formed part of this technological progress, 'the turn of the century witnessed an outburst of inventiveness which was destined to revolutionise war more completely than had the introduction of the horse in the third millenium BC.'

That is saying a good deal, because it was, of course, the horse that enabled men to travel for the first time faster than their own legs would carry them, and shift loads much greater than their own backs could bear.

By 1914, however, the horse was already being replaced by the horse-power generated by the internal combustion engine. This replacement by the way, was a slow process; between 1914 and 1918 the German Army made use of 1,400,000 horses—but between 1939 and 1945 the figure almost doubled, to 2,700,000. In June 1941, when the German Army marched into Russia it took over 600,000 with it—and the Soviet Army depended heavily on horses and used mounted cavalry throughout the Great Patriotic War. In August 1918, in all theatres, the British Army had 533,173 horses. As we all know, their contribution in the traditional cavalry roles was minimal in Western Front conditions, though Allenby made very good use of the cavalry arm in Palestine, and to the end the field artillery depended on horses for movement—even the 60-pounders, which on a Mark 3 carriage weighed over five tons; it took eight powerful creatures to move one of those guns in ordinary conditions, perhaps as many of twelve if the mud was bad. But from the disaster. His mental picture is divorced from any sense of continuity and he remains ignorant of what occurred before the disaster and what followed it. This piece-meal and haphazard treatment of the subject fails to produce any proper appreciation of the problem as a whole.

The second method of approach is panoramic, and widens the field of inspection to the horizon. It presents the problem as it affected the army as a whole, over periods of battle covering periods of months. The trouble about this method is that it detaches us almost completely from the individual man. We find that, far from sharpening our knowledge this second method leaves us more confused than we were by the first. For while we have a rough idea of a battalion's strength when we are told that on a particular occasion it suffered casualties, say, eighty dead and 170 wounded, we have no conception of the numbers of men engaged on the Somme, where we learn that the army suffered 450,000 casualties. The figures of eighty dead and 170 wounded are, moreover, manageable figures, conveying reality to the ordinary man. The figure of 450,000 is little more than an intellectual conception.

Of all aspects of the war on the Western Front, the prospect of death or mutilation was the one which weighed most heavily on the minds of men. It was a factor of immeasurably greater importance than the transient rigours imposed by cold, rain, mud, vermin, dirt, smell and toil. Such things afflicted men temporarily. They came and went, taking their modest toll, and there was an end of them for the time being. By the prevailing standard of the time they left men little the worse. In prospect men approached them with nothing more than the utmost distaste. In experiencing them they were moved to a greater or lesser degree of physical misery, which was stoically accepted in the knowledge that these things would not last. Such an attitude and philosophy requires no explanation, and can be fully understood by all men by reason of their common experience. But fear of death or mutilation was a different matter altogether, and this fear was always with them. It is not intended to imply that men brooded on it. Healthy young men cannot be said to brood on contingencies which have not yet arisen however speedy and certain their arrival. It is the nature of youth to be sanguine. Outwardly therefore they lived as cheerfully and hopefully as their immediate circumstances allowed, but at the back of their minds lay their apprehensions. The possibility of dying was very often an immediate possibility, often a possibility lying a week away, and, very occasionally, a possibility which approached from a distance of as much as two months. But if it was not actually standing across a man's path, it was approaching, and its approach was inexorable.

I have described what I think are the two most usual ways of handling the subject of casualties for the general reader. There are many other ways, and one of them I propose to set out and explain. It is a method which is very rarely encountered . . . but even in the skeleton form in which I shall present it, it is, I consider, more accurate and instructive than any other in showing the exact measure of the problem as a whole, and the manner in which it confronted the individual. It serves, moreover, to correct impressions gained from dwelling on the figures for disastrous isolated incidents.

It is important, in reading of incidents, to remember that the war . . . continued remorselessly for over four years, absorbing unceasingly its young men, and disgorging unceasingly its wastage . . . Only by reducing the scale to a group small enough to retain reality in our minds, and by seeing what happened to it over a long period, can our ideas on the problem of casualties acquire any sharpness and meaning.

There are no figures that I know of which would enable us to do this with a platoon or even a company, but the necessary figures exist for a large





1914 Le Cateau

Heavy losses

No accurate figures

No accurate figures

1914 The Marne

Losses light

No accurate figures

No accurate figures

1914 Aisne




1914 First Ypres (1st engagement)




1914 First Ypres (2nd engagement)




1915 Second Ypres (1st engagement)

Very large numbers gassed

No figures

No figures

1915 Second Ypres (2nd engagement)




1915 Second Ypres (3rd engagement)

397 total casualties all told



1916 Somme (1st engagement)





Initial strength 615


1916 Somme (2nd engagement)




1916 Somme (3rd engagement)

208 total casualties all told




Initial strength 303


1917 Arras (1st engagement)




1917 Arras (2nd engagement)




1917 Passchendaele





Initial strength 501


1918 The German attack in March




1918 Final Offensive (1st engagement)




1918 Final Offensive (2nd engagement)




1918 Final Offensive (3rd engagement)




number of infantry battalions. I therefore propose to tabulate the recorded figures which show the casualties suffered by a single infantry battalion on the Western Front ... It is not a wholly representative battalion, since it belonged to a limited number . . . some sixty . . . which went out with the original Expeditionary Force in August 1914 and which remained on the Western Front throughout the whole course of the war. It is therefore, to some extent, peculiar in the matter of its having passed fifty months on the Western Front. Proportionately to the number of months it passed on the Western Front, however, I have no reason to suppose that it suffered losses which were either greater or less than those suffered by the general run of infantry battalions. Month for month its experiences can be regarded as typical.

. . . The establishment of a battalion was, as near as no matter, 1000 men, but this was a figure reached very rarely . . . This was due not only to increasing shortage of men to replace casualties, but to the growing complexity of the organisation in the rear areas, which drew an ever larger number of men away from the battalion temporarily on courses, on leave, and on special duties.

There were other encroachments. In active operations, as distinct from static trench holding, it became customary as the war proceeded to hold back a substantial battle reserve, which could be used either for replacing casualties ... or as a framework on which the battalion could be rebuilt . . . The battalion transport which numbered about forty was, moreover, consistently stationed in the rear and very rarely became actively engaged. Though by any normal standard their work was highly dangerous, they were safely placed in comparison with the companies . . .

It will be seen, therefore, that a considerable number of men would be temporarily absent from the companies during periods of contact with the enemy. Since virtually all killings and woundings fell on those actually present in the line, it is necessary to give an average figure for their strength. Here one must be arbitrary. As a rough and ready basis for examination of the table which follows I would suggest that a strength of 500 can be taken to represent the average number of men making up the battalion as it moved into the line . . . and would constitute the element on whom virtually all casualties inflicted by the enemy would fall.

In order to get some rough conception of the extent to which the total of killed and wounded occurred on what I have spoken of as isolated incidents, and to what extent they occurred during the normal daily round of war, I have inspected the battalion records. My inspection has been neither profound nor exhaustive, and the deductions from it are loose and incomplete. They have, however, a certain value, and for what they are worth I set them out. See Table 1.

It appears that there were, during the fifty months, as far as I can find, about twenty days in which the whole battalion was in general and active conflict with the enemy. The losses suffered on these days varied greatly, and, by the standard to which we have through recent books grown accustomed, the losses on some of them do not appear to be great. They would, for all that, represent a shaking experience for those engaged. The information available is gappy. It was, moreover, recorded at the time. The fate of men listed as missing is therefore in doubt. It is impossible to say how many of them were dead, how many wounded how many prisoners and how many subsequently rejoined the battalion after having been cut off, or lost in the confusion.

The low figures of casualties in the last two engagements of the war reflect the impending collapse of the German Army. The two most savage maulings which the battalion experienced in single days appear to have been on its second and third battles on the Somme, where it suffered respectively 335 and 208 casualties, the 208 . . . occurring in a total initial strength of only 303. The third occasion at the Second Battle of Ypres in which 397 casualties all told occurred was a defensive action lasting three days.

These are terrible figures. Nevertheless when read in conjunction with the still more terrible figures in the comprehensive table which follows they raise certain questions. It is true that these battle days were in many cases preceded and followed by days of unusual activity in which high casualties were suffered. But even when one takes this into account, it seems that the general impression that the great majority of the losses among the infantry were caused by a tragic series of immense, bloody and often disastrous battles requires some modification ... it was the war's tireless, implacable march, its unceasing destruction of particles of humanity, its daily hunger and its daily crunch which accounted, over the years, for a very large proportion, if not a majority, of its victims on the Western Front.

The table following sets out the total casualties of the battalion during the fifty months of the war and covers.

1. Numbers who served with the



2. Killed and died of wounds


3. Wounded (including gassed)


4. Invalided to U.K. sick (?)


5. Transferred to Units in U.K.


6. Transferred to other battalions &



7. Commissioned in field and



8. Drowned


9.  Shot by order F.G.C.M.


Notes on table

  1. The figure above under item 4, Invalided to U.K. sick 2066 is suspect. It has been extracted by me as the necessary figure to strike the balance with the total of 8313 who passed through the battalion.
  2. I do not know if those Commissioned in the field (11) are also included in the heading Transferred to other Battalions (896) or not.
  3. 'Wounded' indicates cases of wounding. The man who joined the battalion and was wounded, recovered, rejoined it a second time, and got wounded a second time, would appear twice in the category of 'numbers served' and twice in the category of 'wounded'.
  4. There is no mention in the table of Prisoners of War. I do not know under what heading they appear, nor can I find their numbers, but there is a note which states that fourteen men of the battalion died as prisoners of war. Some of these would, I presume, have died of wounds. If pushed to give an arbitrary figure of prisoners, I would put it at about 250.

The table has, as I have noted above, its flaws, and its information in certain respects is ambiguous. As regards numbers killed and wounded, however, it is definite and precise, and these are to two categories which are of particular interest in our examination.

The battalion was on the Western Front for fifty months. The figures of killed and wounded shows therefore an average wastage in the battalion of twenty-nine killed and seventy-three wounded, a total of 102 casualties each month from an estimated strength of 500 men in contact with the enemy; that is to say approximately twenty per cent casualties from enemy action . . .

In considering these figures we must bear in mind that whereas enemy-inflicted casualties fell on what we have arbitrarily estimated to be 500 men, casualties through sickness and transfer affected the battalion as a whole, which might number about 650. We find therefore that from the 500 who can be taken as normally in the line and in contact with the enemy there were, each month, twenty-nine killed, seventy-three wounded and about fifty . . . evacuated through sickness or by reason of their having been transferred. Reduced to a percentage basis these figures show that from every 100 men among the companies there was, each month, an average casualty toll of six killed, fourteen wounded, ten evacuated sick or transferred to other units, and seventy who survived unhurt . . .

This was the measure of the element of danger as it presented itself to the ordinary infantryman. These were, as far as I can calculate with the material available, the exact dimensions of his prospects of death, wounding or survival. Month in, month out, this wheel of destruction turned.

It is only by understanding this enduring and deadly rotation, this turnover in human beings, that the problem of casualties as it affected ordinary men, as distinct from the manner in which it affected the direction of the war, can be properly understood. These figures explain a situation which is seldom made clear to the enquirer. They explain, as other processes of analysis do not, the continuous erosion which was at work on any infantry battalion on the Western Front.

Survival was never the end of the matter while the war continued, for to survive today usually meant little more than to have to face the dangers of tomorrow. Sooner or later all men knew that they would join the streams which moved slowly or rapidly down one or other of the corridors described in this table . . . The end of the war was something which had no reality. For all practical purposes it could be assumed to be going on for ever. For the men living in the isolated confines of an infantry battalion, the war was a way of life, of day to day acceptances, and of thankfulness for such small mercies as came their way. But it was a way of life which they knew they would not pursue for long. The laws of chance would see to that.

Well that's it: it was not the famous battles, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, that filled the cemeteries, but 1564 days of unceasing war. That is what this now anonymous informant had to say to us, back in 1964, fifty years on from the war's beginning.

Such material is not, I am afraid, much use for Television, a medium which is never at ease with thought. I don't remember that I was able to do much with it at the time, except keep it in mind as a warning. But as a writer of war history I appreciated it very much, and I have quoted some key passages in my book The Smoke and the Fire. I hope you agree with me that it is a remarkable document; by its whole tone and authority it reveals a man with personal experience and awareness of his subject, and by its levelheaded but deeply compassionate presentation it reveals qualities implied whatever we think of matters like 'endurance'. It cannot, I think, fail to enlarge our own 'understanding'—the attribute so fatally absent from the works of some recent writers, but so central to the purpose of the WFA.