09/12/06 - soldiers at the front

In today's excerpt - keeping soldiers from retreating from the front in World War I. Previous wars had only hinted at the horrors that awaited soldiers in the trenches of this war, in which tens of thousands would die in single battles and there would be twenty-three million casualties in all. In the excerpt below, British and French officers sent soldiers into battles where they knew of the carnage awaiting them but did not believe any alternative was available. On too many occasions, the officers of each army would keep their soldiers in the fight by pointing their own guns at them:

"The [British] knew nothing of this as they set out. Their inexperience and ignorance of what lay ahead helped to keep their enthusiasm high. They had also been fortified—steadied, dulled—by extra rations of rum. (In some units the men were given as much as they would drink.) To the extent that further motivation was required, it was provided by warnings that any man who failed to advance would be shot by his sergeants. Such practices were common and often backed up with action, though the orders were never put into writing. Nor were any officers foolish enough to put into writing the orders they issued with respect to the taking of prisoners. For a number of the units attacking at the Somme, these orders were simple beyond possibility of misunderstanding: no quarter was to be given. Any Germans attempting to surrender were to be dispatched forthwith. ...

"Meaningless as it was, the last assault of 1916 brought an ominous if largely unnoticed foreshadowing of the year that lay ahead. As they moved forward to the trenches from which they would once again have to throw their flesh against machine guns, the French troops began to bleat like sheep. The sound echoed all around. Baaaa baaaa—the one pathetic form of protest available to men condemned to die. More than the fighting, more than any piece of ground won or lost, this was the sign of what was coming next."


G.J. Meyer


A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918


A Division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2006 by G.J. Meyer


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment