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11-08-2015, 16:21


In his brilliant novel of World War I, The General, C. S. Forester explored the thinking of one of the small group of men who commanded tens, then hundreds of thousands of soldiers in France. When Forester's fictional General Herbert Curzon first encountered the trench lines on the western front in the spring of 1915, he was struck by how fragile the enemy's defenses seemed to be. Looking past the barbed wire, "there was a strip of mud pocked with shell craters, more barbed wire beyond, and then the enemy's front line. ... It was hard to believe that a wave of disciphned men could not sweep across that frail barrier." i The seemingly endless slaughter on the western front has become the most potent image of World War I inherited by later generations. But this view of meaningless and undifferentiated carnage needs to be augmented by a consideration of individual encounters to get an accurate view of how and why the war proceeded as it did. The Battle of the Somme, for example, demonstrates, among other things, the extraordinary ferocity and human cost of the war by mid- 19 16. This bloodbath shows as well why no single decisive military action was possible. It further reminds us of the truth in the cliche that commanders who did not understand the conditions and tools of modern warfare wasted their men and invited disaster—a fact that takes on human form upon an examination of the role of General Douglas Haig. Similarly, the Nivelle offensive gives a specific instance to support the commonplace, albeit accurate, view that politicians could barely control the generals who were their nominal subordinates. This tragic attack of April 1917 at the Chemin des Dames likewise illustrates how and why the war's battlefield calamities proved more than some armies could bear.