What me? I'm off to lunch

The officer class at the Somme was cruel and stupid. And their modern equivalents can be as disgusting

Share
Related Topics
On Monday 1 July, Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, had lunch at Lancaster House with the President of the French Assembly and spent the rest of the day holding meetings in his office. From there, 80 years ago, he would have been able to hear the artillery barrage that preceded the British assault on the German lines that began on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

He chose not to commemorate that day at Thiepval with the veterans of the army of which he is political master.

Before we condemn him, we should bear in mind that friends of John Redwood, his rival for the Tory leadership, are going out of their way to make us loathe Portillo. They may have fomented this fuss about his non-attendance. Nevertheless, disliking Portillo remains an important obligation for us all - his manner is disgusting, and on this occasion, as on others, he has displayed an extraordinary lack of taste.

For 1 July 1916 was both the most important day in our modern military history and among the most important in our entire history. To make matters worse for the Defence Secretary, this may be the last anniversary of that date for which we can call on living memory. Some Somme veterans are in their hundreds. They will not be with us in 10 years. The next anniversary will not really be an anniversary at all. The event will have passed fully into recorded rather than remembered history.

There is, now, some controversy about how we should judge that first day in terms of military history. For most of the 20th century - from Wilfred Owen to Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder - it has been regarded as a monumental blunder perpetrated by a callous High Command who throughout the war cared nothing for the lives of their troops. It is routinely seen as the supreme condemnation of the British class system. Working-class conscripts, lured by the call of duty and the glamour of escape, were chucked into the firing line by cruel, stupid toffs.

Revisionists now say that, though it was undoubtedly a catastrophe, it was forced upon the generals by the political and military demands of the hour. Subsequently, they learnt their lesson and won the decisive second Battle of the Somme employing considerably more humane and modern methods. And we did, after all, win the war - a victory we seem less disposed to celebrate than that of 1945.

Such a controversy has its place, not least in British self-perception. The idea that we have a criminally or comically incompetent ruling class has been a fixed and frequently debilitating aspect of our politics and our culture since the Great War. We still believe in the failings of leadership, more readily because of the slaughter at the Somme. Perhaps that belief is why I so readily dislike Portillo. But, if the generals were not really that incompetent, then our routine contempt for leaders is based upon a misreading of history, and our national habit of giving moral weight to the mannerisms of class is founded upon a lie.

But that issue becomes almost insignificant, a local matter, when set against the elemental spectacle of mechanised, futile slaughter provided by that first day of battle. It is said that more died on that first day of the Somme than had died in the whole previous century of conflicts in Europe. A hundred years of relative peace had led to this. Human progress would always, thereafter, seem a thin, vain, unconvincing faith. For this was a moment that seemed to come from beyond history, a timeless statement of the perpetual possibility of absolute failure.

In many ways, as the historian and critic Paul Fussel has pointed out, it was an image that created the modern sensibility. The blood and mud of the trenches when set against the mannered civilisation of Edwardian England gave birth to a peculiarly modern form of irony based upon the awareness of the contingent, organic mess that lies beneath the enforced order of society. Order itself became a kind of joke, a desperate, doomed attempt to avoid the abyss.

And it gave birth to the modern sense of the human reality of the masses. As the best poems of the time prove, the patrician officers suddenly saw in those massacred brigades of chums and pals not undifferentiated cannon fodder but men like themselves. Wilfred Owen's clay that grew tall formed not the sensitive, cultivated, suffering poet, but Everyman.

This was a realisation whose importance can hardly be overstated. Leaving aside salvation and the immortal soul, the essential secular message of Christianity is: ordinary people have feelings too. It is a radical statement of the irreducibility and commonality of human experience. It took a while to sink in - about 1,880 years, in fact, the length of time between the Sermon on the Mount and 1 July 1916. But when it did, the shock brought one civilisation to an end and ushered in a modern world in which there can be no ultimate legitimacy but that of mass approval, in which some form of equality, however attenuated, is part of everybody's political predisposition.

This, along with the technology that made mass killing possible, changed the complexion of war itself - though oddly, for the worse. Once the masses acquired a voice to which their leaders had to listen, they also became a legitimate target. The bombing of civilian populations in the Second World War signalled the realisation that armies alone were not the point, people were - both because of what they did and what they felt. So 1914- 18 had not been the war to end wars, but rather the war that broadened the definition of conflict to include us all.

All of which is to say that Portillo should have been there on Monday. This commemoration, for all its vast significance, was still a military event; he was the one politician who had to attend. But, in truth, we should all have been there. Those ancient veterans witnessed a terrible battle, one of the worst in history, but they were also there at the awful birth pangs of the contemporary world. Soon they will be gone and we shall begin, as we always do, to forget.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Wages are on the rise (so long as you skew the figures)

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

It’s two decades since ‘education, education, education’, but still Britain’s primary school admissions are a farce

Jane Merrick
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal