The Battles End, Killing Continues

British ‘Wastage’ and Charges of Cowardice

Special to The Great War Project

(21-26 November) It may be that only the great battles of the First World War get named and garner the focus of history.

But as historian Adam Hochschild notes, “the air above the Western Front was also filled with bullets, mortar rounds, shrapnel bursts, and deadly clouds of poison gas even when no named battle was raging.”

“The toll from these constant skirmishes,” writes Hochschild…

“was part of what British commanders chillingly referred to as ‘normal wastage’ of up to 5,000 men a week.

For soldiers, minor engagements, never mentioned in a newspaper, could be every bit as fatal or terrifying as a major battle.”

Hochschild points to the events “during the frigid predawn hours of November 25, 1916 (precisely a century ago) in a supposedly quiet sector of the front,” to the north where the battle of the Somme is drawing to a close.

One of the numerous craters that litter the battlefield of northern France.

One of the numerous craters that litter the battlefields of northern France.

At this moment, the front line runs through a place the British troops call King Crater. In the middle of that night, a century ago, a British officer is inspecting front line trenches. Almost immediately the officer and a small patrol run into a company of German raiders.

The Germans open fire on the British, who retreat, some calling out, according Hochschild, “the Huns are in King Crater.” Some of the British troops are terrorized. They panic, running toward the rear, some screaming, “Run for your lives, the Germans are on you.”

“It was easy to imagine the complete terror the troops must have felt,” writes Hochschild,

“as the darkness suddenly rang with German voices, bursting grenades, and the screams of the wounded.” Several of the soldiers come unhinged. Some just sit down in no-man’s land. Others throw down their rifles.

“Panic in the eyes of those in command,” writes Hochschild, “was no excuse for a soldier’s casting away his arms and running away from the front line, according to the formal charge” against one of the troops.

A monument in England to all those "shot at dawn."

A monument in England to all those “shot at dawn.”

Several British soldiers thus face court-martial for the events that night. The penalty against some is death.

The commander of British troops in northern France has the power to commute death sentences. So the decision rests with Sir Douglas Haig. At this moment in the war a century ago, three condemned are waiting to learn of their fate, whether the British commander will commute their sentences.

Writes Hochschild, “Haig made it clear that he felt there were times when the supreme penalty was totally justified. But approaching December 1916, Haig has not yet made up his mind about the soldiers thus charged.

The Battle of Verdun is also nearing its end. It looks like it will end almost precisely where it began ten months earlier.

“In triumph,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “the new French commander General Nivelle told his men, ‘I can assure you that victory is certain.’”

The dead at Verdun.

The dead at Verdun.

But one of the historians of the Verdun battle has written, “with greater truth and no little bitterness born of deep study: neither side “won” at Verdun.”

“It was the indecisive battle in an indecisive war; the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war.”

“The battle that had no victors in a war that had no victors.”