Introduction from The Mad Game

December 22, 2013

Behind The Scenes and Research

Bazentin Ridge 3

The Great War was a defining moment in world history. There is little doubt that its catastrophic impact on humanity was significant then and indeed, is significant now. Apart from the population demographics, cultural and social inheritance, the emotion and feeling of the Great War is very evident, even to this day. Modern history reflects on the war as being a desperate, attritional and ultimately futile endeavour, fought by imperialists’ worker subjects in order to define map lines and satisfy the inflated ego of nationalist fervour. That in itself is not unique to that war. The uniqueness is the timing in history of the outbreak, coming at the dawn of a truly mechanised age. Ten years before was the age of the redcoat, or the bluecoat, with rifle and cannon then being the pinnacle of mechanisation. The ultimate deterrent still being the cavalry charge, a weapon of terror, it was usually decisive.
The Great War saw the immediate deployment of the machine gun. Operated by a trained team of men, it could lay down fire that savagely and mercilessly took the lives of the enemy. Coupled with the refinement of larger artillery, the bodies of soldiers stood little chance in fields of flying metal. Indeed, the odd transition from old to new can be seen in the photography of the time. Gun limbers charging headlong around Hellfire corner in Ypres, artillery still drawn by horses. Mules dragging artillery from the Flanders mud and the tank accompanied by mounted troops as the cavalry evolved into the tank regiments.

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The generals have often been vilified for their wasteful, profligate conduct in the war. Historians, politicians and the mothers and fathers of lost men at the time, did not necessarily hold this view. The war was all-consuming and simply too great for a simple, common sense solution. The failures of the politicians and the willingness of the imperial classes to continue the war, were equally culpable. Indeed, the returning generals were oft feted and held in the highest regard. It is quite clear that they were aware of the losses, felt them deeply, but the tools to hand were cruder and clumsier than today. Trenches were safe, but for any chance of victory, men had to leave them to attack and this meant losses. The generals were perhaps being realistic, rather than careless. Far from being remote, billeted in beautiful chateaux, over seventy British and Commonwealth generals were killed in the lines, from brigadiers leading a trench attack, to generals blown from their cars or hit by shrapnel near the front.
For every soldier killed in modern wars, a news item accompanies the loss, amplifying the effect, rightly, in the minds of the population. At the peak of hostilities in the Great War, the British and Commonwealth were suffering in excess of 40,000 casualties a week. The scale is almost inconceivable from the viewpoint of modern sensitivity. Indeed, this sensitivity can shield other realities of the Great War.

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There is, of course, much evidence of pride being taken in having served. The treatment of legitimate conscientious objectors in some communities, understandably, but not necessarily correctly, was harsh and brutal. This may have amplified the positive impact of service and army service had many perks to offset the probability of injury or death. It is always interesting to compare the experiences of Great War soldiers with those of the Second World War and of modern veterans. The positive impact of service is possibly linked to the legitimacy of the conflict in some regards, as well as the fighting conditions. The horrors of the trenches were very real and words alone, in any modern context, cannot convey the experience and certainly not from one hundred years hence, with the survivors no longer with us.
The tactics of the war evolved, albeit desperately slowly, from lines of riflemen behind a barricade, to the dug-in positions of the trench system with the cavalry charge, to the creeping box barrage with tank, aeroplane and observer communications perfected, after stuttering starts on the Somme. The desperate push to advance precipitating a poorly planned premature deployment. When walking the battlefields, it is still unbelievable to see the shallowness of the advances on the Somme after almost five months of fighting. The tactics of the first day of that battle have become the symbolic paraphrase of the entire war. The Great War conjures up images of soldiers going over the top, walking very slowly (fifty yards per minute, with five yard separation) and straight into a merciless wall of bullets. Perhaps some Flanders mud added, but that is the image of the war on the Western Front. Tactics changed rapidly after the first day of July 1916, and the Somme thus continued as a series of smaller engagements, focusing on each line of defence in turn. Perhaps the hesitancy of launching large battles was borne from the residual shock of the unimaginable losses, due to the opening day underestimation of the strength of enemy defences and overconfidence in the success of the artillery barrage.

Bazentin Ridge 2
The tactics, however conceived, were still rooted in Victorian values. Officers holding an authority often disproportionate to their skill, training and experience. Junior officers are regarded sympathetically, as being leaders of men into actions over which they had little discretion or control. The more senior generals viewed as preferring to field men in numbers, to offset any weakness of planning. The use of poison gas, mines and flamethrowers were all greeted with outrage at the time. Men were also vaporised by shrapnel, cleaved in two by trench-maces and traumatically disfigured, but these were more readily accepted as consequences of war. Even today, some struggle with the concept of a war with rules, as surely anything goes? It is total war isn’t it?
The involvement of civilians as non-combatants first became an issue in the Great War. Zeppelin raids, initially on coastal towns, took the war to the home front. This marked a significant departure for the families at home limited to reading official accounts of battles in Southern Africa, or the sub-continent, over breakfast. The politics of the prosecution of war and the rules of belligerent nations were tested in the extreme during this part of our history.

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The concept of Special Forces operations formally emerged during the Second World War. Of course, ancient history is littered with good examples of underhanded and sneaky tactics, from the Trojan Horse, to the use of biological weapons (firing plague victims over the walls of castles with a trebuchet). In the Great War, behind the lines was considered out of bounds for operations. Spying was one thing, but fighting that way was an alien concept. Apart from the communications, equipment and training required, the probability of success was deemed too low. The rules of war also created an appetite for frontal fighting as being the preferred strategy.
In researching this book in particular, rather than for general professional interest, I have visited the battlefields twice, riding my motorcycle to the most inaccessible military cemeteries to say thank you, to capture the geography and the scale of the conflict. I wanted to work out the finer details of the true events, to make the book plausible in every detail, even though the story is fictional. But in doing so, I never imagined some of the outcomes, nor expected the impact of the war on me, one hundred years later. Visiting Caterpillar Valley cemetery, I felt myself in conversation with the rows of gravestones, showing off my bike and asking forgiveness that I have intruded on their rest, as they garrison the valley forever. The fact that there were so many stones caused a deeper impression on me, as in fact these stones represented the soldiers who were actually recovered from the field. There ought to be more, but the churn of the battles took away the dignity of burial from many thousands more – who would otherwise be here. The monument at Thiepval, being their battlefield commemoration.

Nomansland looking up to Lochnagar Crater - dense casualties
I walked the path of the 34th Division from La Boisselle towards the higher ground that they took on 1 July 1916. Around me were farm vehicles and the sounds of a busy farming community. Always accommodating and incredibly respectful, the farmers told me that every day, literally every day, something is uncovered from the war. From a bullet casing, to clothing and unexploded ordnance. In fact, to prove the point, I kicked around in a field at Bazentin-Le-Petit and uncovered a dud shrapnel shell and a mills bomb, with the fuse pulled. I photographed them and left them, as we must. At my most recent visit in October 2013, I discovered the distal end of a human tibia (shin bone), exposed after ploughing, in Caterpillar Valley. I buried it out of sight from the surface, with care.

Caterpillar Valley
However we view the Great War, it was a war fought by young men. Nations put at risk their future generations, their greatest assets, with terrible and lasting consequences, echoing through the ages even to this day. These young men aspired to marriage, fatherhood and a life of productive work at home. The richness of literature, letters and pictures laying eternal testament to men who thought of home, of sweethearts, mothers and a future when the war was over. These men, though, had their destiny cast as soldiers. Men needed to be capable of unspeakable brutality through necessity, with millions never returning to their homelands.
We can never know the true feelings of men going to fight, or the true nature of the battlefield at that time. Standing in High Wood today is eerie, but peaceful and quiet, very quiet. Hill 60 is surrounded on three sides by new housing developments and playing fields. It is impossible, even with informed imagination, to rewind to the days of the war, but it is imperative that the memory is passed to later generations, if only to ensure that humanity is retained, even if the will is weak.

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