Anyone interested has probably noticed that I haven’t had much to say about the Western Front lately. At the risk of repeating myself, that’s because everyone else is doing it for me, but today is Bastille Day, I’m sat here in France, and 14 July 1916 marked a watershed for both the gigantic battles taking place in France – so I’ve found something to say that’s at least vaguely concerned with Verdun and the Somme.
Just northeast of Verdun, the latest big German attack had ground to a halt on 12 July, within sight of the town itself but with little prospect of getting any further article source. It would prove to be the limit of German progress. On the Somme, the British made one more effort to match limited French successes to their south on 14 July, before calling a temporary halt to attacks and bringing the battle’s opening phase to an end. By the end of the day a pause for breath was in progress along the front, albeit more apparent to posterity than to contemporary eyes.
Posterity can also identify the full horror of the military situation in France by mid-July 1916, and has no trouble pointing the finger of outrage at massed armies locked into a mechanised, virtually motionless, apparently unending and unendingly expensive death struggle – but spotting this basic truth was a little more difficult at the time.
Despite noisy pockets of dissent and anger – from socialists, pacifists and fringe religious groups, among others – Western Europe’s civilian populations generally accepted the disastrous state of the War in 1916 without significant protest. This was largely thanks to the power of propaganda, a dark art thoroughly mastered by modern states during the increasingly literate century after the Napoleonic Wars. Citizens were told a pack of lies and part-truths, coupled with diagnoses and speculation that went way beyond the bounds of optimism into fantasy, and on the whole they believed them. Even when time – sometimes, as in the case of the Somme Offensive, a mere few days – exposed something close to the real truth (maps showing no territorial gain after days of ‘success’ tended to do the trick), propaganda providers in Western European democracies could get away with the kind of retrospective rationalisation that makes their audience look stupid now.
A captured wood or hill possessed enormous, if hitherto unmentioned, strategic value… the enemy had been softened up for the ‘big push’, as planned all along… the enemy had been forced to throw vast resources into desperate defence or counterattack, cancelling out reported successes but crucially weakening his strength on other sectors or fronts… and, more stridently in 1916 than ever before, the enemy was being worn down by attrition and couldn’t take much more of it.
Attrition was a buzzword in 1916, and not quite the byword for failure it is today. It was used by German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn to justify the attack on Verdun (at least in concept, though his exact wording is open to questions of translation), and the idea that an enemy could be bled to surrender by simply killing enough of its troops soon caught on among British and French generals, if not as a preferred plan of action then as a way of making deadlock look like some kind of positive progress.
And there’s the rub. Falkenhayn, shrewd desk general that he was, is widely suspected by historians of having hedged his bets around Verdun. Bleeding the French Army white wasn’t what he or any other senior commander wanted. Like their Allied counterparts, German commanders wanted to smash through enemy lines, march on enemy capitals and end the War in glory – but though the Allied failures of 1915 hadn’t by any means dispelled the illusion of breakthrough, they had taught politicians and military leaders on all sides that they might need an excuse if glorious victory failed to materialise.
Dangling a prospect of final triumph through attrition, describing failure as part of a planned long game, meant that simply winning the body count (or claiming to win it, or claiming that your casualties mattered less, in percentage terms, than the enemy’s) offered a chance to declare a victory. So by the summer of 1916 attrition – good for military careers and, crucially, seen as good for public morale on the home front – was being presented to the the folks back home as a form of success.
It’s not hard to see why civilians in 1916 were willing to be convinced by attrition, endless unproductive successes, demonisation of the enemy and all the other illusions peddled by the press, and by the armies of writers, film-makers and intellectuals hired by their governments. The instinct to grasp at hope in time of trouble was (and clearly still is) fundamental to mass psychology (and therefore politics), while human capacity for faith in the improbable has always started high and been inflated by the wheezings winds of ignorance – and by our standards most British, German and French citizens were stranded in ignorance during the First World War.
Rapid long-distance communication – by telegraph or telephone – was still the province of what we’ll call the officer classes in 1914, and international travel was about as likely as a trip to the moon for ordinary Europeans not living near land frontiers. India, Mesopotamia and Belgium were all almost equally exotic in the British public mind, and so it went for most French and German civilians. That left them completely reliant for information on government-sponsored output, rumour and, above all, mass-circulation newspapers. And mainstream newspapers, while perfectly willing and able to cut loose with the political criticism, stuck firmly to the morale-boosting, upbeat, illusory official line in all matters pertaining to the actual course of the War.
Major newspapers, their editors and owners nurtured propagandist fictions because – in an age of culturally separate nation states, when patriotism was a more basic, less controversial emotion – they accepted maintenance of popular morale as their duty. The need for massive national commitment to the supply of total war had made home front morale seem an ever more important priority, and so journalistic propaganda was genuinely regarded as helpful to front-line fighters.
This orthodoxy was so well established that journalists embedded with front-line troops, faced with the reality of warfare and living with its victims, didn’t on the whole even test their editors by attempting to report the truth. This wasn’t because they were all happy to peddle fiction – front-line reporters from all three countries would later describe the self-disgust involved – but because shattering the illusion would be letting down the troops. One of the Western Front’s small, sad ironies is that reporters’ propaganda, intended to sustain fighting men in the field, helped create a morale paradox that contributed to the psychological problems suffered by so many troops away from the front.
As the one social group that was never going to fall for propaganda’s upbeat take on their misery, front-line troops found themselves in an information vacuum whenever they returned to civilian life. Burdened, angered and often maimed by their grotesque experiences, but surrounded by people incapable of acknowledging the horror, many veterans became sceptical about and isolated from the societies they had served, a situation that stored up a mess of personal suffering and social unrest for the post-War period – and that isn’t entirely unfamiliar today.
Which brings me to the point. This has been a very generalised chat about propaganda at a time of extreme societal stress. I’ve done scant justice to those moments – like the British Shell scandal, or Keith Murdoch’s exposé of conditions in Gallipoli – when journalistic patriotism overtrumped propaganda. Worse, I’ve glossed over or ignored a wealth of important differences between the home front experiences of British, French and German citizens – but I’ve done it to highlight something we all have in common today: a tendency to assume that the lessons delivered so painfully by the First World War have been well and truly learned.
Modern transport and communications have made the Middle East (for instance) feel as close to home, if not closer, than the Western Front felt to most British people in 1916, yet for all our iPhones, Internet and analysis, who among us has the faintest idea of the real military situation in Iraq or Syria? So it could be we’re no less vulnerable to the illusions and social divisiveness of propaganda than we were a century ago – and that’s seems worth mentioning while we look back at the carnage of 1916 in the comforting belief that we couldn’t possibly make the same mistakes again.