What is it about the Battle of the Somme that still has the power to send a shudder down our spines a whole century later?
There is of course the sheer horror at the scale of the casualties. There is too, a narrative of innocence betrayed; the failure of the preceding artillery barrage which left the infantry on that fatal first day, to march, unready, into a hail of machine gun bullets. The inexorable march to their deaths is like something from a nightmare. It is as if we feel, even now, that we could shout ‘stop!’
But I believe there is something deeper which makes the word “Somme” resonate still in our national culture. The battles of 1914 and 1915 were largely fought on the British side, by professional soldiers. These were tough, hard-bitten men for whom soldiering was a way of life. But the Somme was dominated by the men of the largest volunteer army the world has ever seen. This was an army of shopkeepers and miners, schoolteachers and day-labourers. Ordinary, everyday men with ordinary, everyday aspirations.
Indeed, before the battle, one of the great ‘unknowns’ of the Somme was simply this; could they take it? Or would they turn and run? We know the answer to that question now. They proved themselves braver than anyone could have imagined.
What drove them to such heroism? We must never forget that many were driven by deep moral convictions that made their actions a duty they could not refuse. This was more than just standing up for little Belgium against the bullying arrogance of the Kaiser, it was an existential fight for right.
‘I felt that it was a struggle for our very existence… that we were fighting to overcome the greatest curse to humanity, namely the wicked spirit of militarism.’
This is not the bragging of right-wing patriotism, a Farage or a Trump. They are the words of George Edwards, a socialist, and leader of the Union of Agricultural Workers, born into grinding rural poverty not far from my own constituency in Norwich.
We speak now of the ‘military covenant’, the idea that those who are asked to risk their lives for their country deserve a special recognition. I believe that what was born on the bloody fields of France was a deeper social covenant, a bond of respect that demanded a different kind of world, based on justice, peace and fairness. It was why men who had been in those battlefields themselves, men like Harold Macmillan, an officer and a tory, still spoke up for the miners 70 years later during the great strike of 1984. “The men who beat the Kaiser” he called them, deliberately invoking the ghosts of the Somme, unable to contain his tears at their treatment. He was mocked as a sentimental old fool by the Thatcherite right but – to me – he was a living connection to a deep current of our national story that I know speaks to a better future, a current that I know has not gone away.
Politically the new social covenant failed. Lloyd-George’s valiant attempt to build a ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ was betrayed by Conservative backbenchers who pulled the rug from under the National Government, a victory they celebrate to this day in the name of the 1922 Committee. Instead of social solidarity and a peace built on the firm foundation of justice, we got the vengeful Versailles Treaty, Geddes Axe, austerity, and 25 years of war and recession, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
But ultimately that covenant was fulfilled, in 1945 by Clement Attlee. Without any embarrassment the Labour Party proclaimed their determination to build a New Jerusalem, a land founded on a deep sense of national solidarity and mutual respect. That understood that if we really wanted to be able to say ‘never again’, we had to build fairness into the basic fabric of our society. That without justice, all peace is temporary and we are always haunted by the ghosts of war and mutual contempt.
As we saw last week, for many in this country, there is a deep sense that we have lost our national togetherness and that loss is felt as a deep wound. After 30 years of greed-is-good economics, we are a nation divided against itself.
Today I will stand in front of that great glowering monument at Thiepval as Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary. And I will honour those who, with such nobility, so freely laid down their lives for their cause; that of freedom, justice and peace. I will honour the social covenant they shed their blood to create and I will recommit myself to build that covenant again.
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