MUST READ: A masterpiece rumor of the Great War

By James Carroll | July 10, 2006Â |Â The Boston Globe
THE BATTLE of the Somme was raging in northern France — a clash of armies that would result in more than a million casualties. The Entente and the Central Powers faced each other from trenches arrayed along a stretch of No Man’s Land in the river valley. Periodically, one side or the other would charge, but mainly it was British soldiers rushing out of the trenches, aiming at the great breakthrough of which the high command was always dreaming.

By James Carroll | July 10, 2006Â |Â The Boston GlobeBut the breakthrough assumed the breakdown of German machine guns, and that never happened. Wave after wave of human assault was cut down like so much wheat being scythed. The Tommies, Micks, and Jocks (as the English, Irish, and Scottish soldiers were called) understood soon enough that the order to go “over the top” was a death sentence, but if they tried to refuse the order or desert, their officers in the rear were waiting to shoot them. They had no choice but to be heroes.

By the end of the battle in November, the British line had advanced little more than a few miles across a useless field of mud. With the loss of the cream of its fighting force — and manhood — the British Empire had just committed suicide. The absolute futility of war in an era defined by machines had just been demonstrated, but equally clear was the failure of the leadership to grasp that lesson. The British high command called the battle off only when the ranks of soldiers to hurl into the maw were depleted. The Somme is remembered mainly because of that epiphany — how commanders responded to the sheer meaninglessness of the killing by prolonging it.

It so happened that, under the mud, the soil in that part of France was chalky. The substratum lent itself to tunneling, and, dating back centuries, caverns of various kinds had been carved into the underground. British artillery had been relatively ineffective against the German lines because the defenders had been able to take advantage of the caverns and burrows, expanding them into immune networks of bunkers where they waited out the shelling. When the British advances came, such as they were, some of that tunneled landscape was brought into the contested territory between lines, No Man’s Land. That was a condition of the coming, then, of what historian Paul Fussell called a masterpiece rumor of the Great War.

Word spread among soldiers up and down the trench lines that there was an alternative between death by the futile charge against enemy fortifications and death by being summarily executed for refusing orders. The rumor was that men were living inside the territory of No Man’s Land — and beneath it. They had found refuge in the underground caverns where neither side could get to them. They were, in effect, deserters from both armies who had, at first, fallen into the tunnels and bunkers while making the charge. But they had refused to climb out of their holes, and soon enough had organized themselves into a kind of third force — not fighters any more, but mere survivors, at home in the caverns. Dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. Human beings caring for one another, no matter what uniform they were wearing.

At night, so the rumor said, they came out of their underground warrens to minister to the wounded left behind in No Man’s Land after the daily charge. They were angels, the soldiers told one another ahead of each assault, who would take care of those who fell. The wounded who could do so would then be able to join the deserters in the safety of the caverns. When they recovered from their wounds, they, too, would be angels, emerging at night to rescue the fallen.

What if it were true? What if the Somme were remembered not only for futile violence, but for an alternative? That the mad grip of war continues its lock on the imagination of nations, even after the revelations of the 20th century, is the most chastening fact of the 21st. The worst legacy of World War I was how it made World War II necessary, rescuing the spirit of the Somme’s high command. The rumor of angels — since that’s all it was — carries its own revelation, that to reject the claims, and orders, of the commanders is to take on not only the pariah status of deserters, but the insubstantiality of ghost figures whose desperate ministry can be dismissed as nothing real.



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