Barbed Wire, Canned Food and Generals Who Should Have Been Shot at Dawn

There’s something to be said for being a sissy under fire.

Today and into spring marks the 100th anniversary of the two battles that shaped all our lives to this very moment.

The World War One mass butcheries known as the Somme and Verdun created Hitler, made Stalingrad and Hiroshima  possible, and led to the secret “imperialist” Sykes-Picot Agreement in the Middle East that’s become the blueprint  or today’s map.  And – this is no stretch – to 9/11, ISIS and the recent San Bernadino massacres.

In 1916 at the French fort of Verdun in 303 days of the longest battle ever fought in history 750,000 French  and German men died, were wounded or simply were pulverised to tiny  bits by shelling from cannon as far away as 17 miles.  (The drones of their time.)  Not far away on the Somme a million British, French and German soon-to-be-dead men likewise were sent into suicidal hails of machinegun fire  by heartless and stupid generals mentally living in yesteryear’s war.  The point was not to win  or lose but as the German commander boasted, “to drain the life blood” of the enemy.

Industrial death was made possible by a new technology, barbed wire, long guns, and canned food.

Even though not a single inch of ground was gained by either side at Verdun, France could claim to  have “won”.  Similarly the British declared a “great victory” at the Somme.  Similarly, most of our top brass routinely report “progress” in Afghanistan or over Syria.

That Great War a hundred years ago and those battles are the Original Sin we live with today.

Could it have been otherwise?

Yes.  If millions of men had declared conscientious objection.  It didn’t happen.

Yes.  If the soldiers had mutinied at the sound of the first barrage.  It didn’t happen…until the war’s last days when half of France’s infantry divisions, influenced by Russia’s red revolution, refused to fight.

Yes.  If there had been mass desertions as spread among Russian troops that sparked their uprising.

But the Allied and German generals were merciless with their deserters.  The French made a big ceremony  of executing absconders drawing up the whole regiment to witness the firing squad  “pour encourager les autres” in case the disease spreads which it did.  (See Kubrick’s magnificent Paths of Glory.)

On the other hand the British behaved as if they were committing an obscene shame, hiding executions in disused abbatoirs and giving the firing party a furlough to get over it.   Many of the executed soldiers were teenage working class volunteers who cracked up with  shell shock or had been previously wounded.

What’s chilling is that men chosen for the execution squad were often the close comrades of the  condemned – and yet uncomplainingly did their duty.  (Although one such soldier, who had to shoot  his best friend in the head as a coup de grace when the man refused to obediently die, himself died  in a lunatic asylum with it on his conscience.)

When word got back to the boys’ home towns that they weren’t honorably Killed in Action but shot after being court martialled their neighbors would scream “Coward!” at the families.  Brutality was not limited to the battlefied.

Altogether 306 British men were shot at dawn.  For decades their families had to live with the stigma, and it was only after a sustained campaign by living relatives that the dead soldiers were posthumously pardoned – over the objections of the Ministry of Defense “not least because of the fear that they might  create unwelcome and unforeseen legal precedents”.  Like shellshocked drone operators over Syria?

Who were these dead cowards?  Shot At Dawn, by Putkowski and Julian Sykes, says “Often in poor physical health, these ill-educated, inarticulate individuals were frequently exhausted from the strains of constant horrific trench warfare which drained their resolve – and ultimately their lifeblood.”

The TV reality show “What Would You Do?” asks my own question.  In the trenches, under fire, what would you do?

Today there’s a Shot at Dawn monument in Staffordshire.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset