We watched a really moving documentary yesterday about and archaeological expedition to try to uncover a German dug-out that had been occupied by the poet Wilfred Owen during the Battle of the Somme. Owen lead a platoon into No Man's Land to try to occupy an abandoned German dug-out near the village of Serre. Life in the trenches was hazardous enough, but crossing No Man's Land under bombardment was tantamount to suicide. Owen later recalled in his harrowing poem The Sentry how the Germans knew they were there, and kept them under constant attack:
We'd found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew, And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Owen survived the hell of the dug-out and a bout of severe shell shock, only to die in action a week before Armistice Day.
Inevitably, the archaeologists discovered human remains during their excavations; two British soldiers and one German, distinguishable only by their metal buttons. It isn't much to show for a life, is it? All that remains of your short but precious life are some buttons, a comb, a broken mirror, and the lid of a polish tin that reminds you of home.
I'm certainly not the first to say it, but the Battle of the Somme (in fact the whole of the First World War) was such a monumental waste of life. In the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 British soliders were killed and 40,000 injured on the first day alone. Men went over the top and were immediately cut down. The statistics are mind-numbing; a total of 420,000 British casualties, 195,000 French and 650,000 Germans, all to move the Front 5 miles.
I'm not sure that you can say that either side won the war, rather that the Allies were the last ones standing. We were the 'winners' so we could afford headstones for our war dead, while the Germans could only manage wooden crosses. But they all ended up as countless identical monuments in a fieldâ€"a whole generation wasted.