In this year marking the centenary of the Easter Rising there has been a lot of talk about the Rising as a ‘blood sacrifice’. The truth is the real blood sacrifice of 1916 was not the Rising but the Battle of the Somme which began on 1 July and lasted till 18 November.
The casualty figures are so horrific as to be almost beyond comprehension. Approximately half a million British soldiers, a quarter of a million French and a quarter of a million Germans – a million casualties in four and a half months – and at the end of it all the British front line had advanced six miles! This was called a British victory!!.
On the first day of the battle, in fact in the first few hours when the British forces went ‘over the top’ into a hail of machine gun fire, the British army suffered 57,470 casualties, including over 2000 Irish mostly from one community in Ulster.
To put this in perspective think of the international horror and outrage at the Paris atrocity of last year and at the mass killing in Orlando – horror and outrage that was, of course, completely justified. But on the first day of the Somme more than 100 times as many people were slaughtered, on the British side alone, as died in Paris and Orlando combined and more than four times as many Irish died as in the whole week of the Easter Rising.
Understand also that this was not due to some tragic military blunder or miscalculation. After sending tens of thousands to their deaths on Day 1 they, the politicians and the generals – the ‘Masters of War’ as Bob Dylan called them – went on doing it, day after day, month after month.
Pearse, Connolly and the Irish rebels sacrificed their own lives for the sake of Irish freedom. These people the ruling classes of all the main belligerents – Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary – sacrificed the lives ultimately of millions (16 million died in all ) of others, mostly working class people, including many from ‘the colonies – not just from Ireland but from Australia, India, Africa and elsewhere – who had no conceivable stake in this conflict. And for what?
Actually to defend or extend their respective empires. Britain, of course, was the biggest imperial power by far but all the main warring countries had considerable empires including ‘poor little Belgium’ who the allies were supposed to be defending and whose colonial rule in Africa, the Congo to be precise, was known, since its exposure by Sir Roger Casement, to be of exceptional brutality.
These different imperialisms, above all the British and the Germans, had been engaged in military and diplomatic rivalry for years as they contended for global hegemony. The Germans were seeking to increase their colonies (to get their ‘fair’ share, as it were) while Britain was determined to defend its position as number one imperialist slave holder and every politically aware person in Europe knew for some time that war was coming.
The Kings, emperors, prime ministers, chancellors, and generals plus the banks and corporations that stood behind them were willing to fight to the last drop, the last drop of blood of their respective ordinary soldiers’ blood for their various imperial interests. The imperialist economic basis of the War was powerfully analysed by the leading revolutionary socialists of the time such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky in books that still repay reading today (most famously, Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism). But another way of showing it is simply to look at the biography of one of the main players in the Battle of the Somme, General (later Field Marshall and Earl) Douglas Haig, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front from late 1915 until the end of the war.
Haig was born in Edinburgh in 1861 a few years before James Connolly, but Connolly was born in the Cowgate slum and Haig in privileged Charlotte Square. Haig was heir to a handsome income from the Haig family whisky business.
He went to Oxford and there joined the ‘posh boys’ Bullingdon Club ( Cecil Rhodes was a previous member and Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson more recent ones). After that he joined the British army and served with the British raj in India. After that he was in the Sudan with Lord Kitchener and at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. Then it was on to the Boer War in South Africa and then back to India where he was Chief of Staff. In World War I his ‘favourite’ General, whom he repeatedly promoted, was Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough who organised the Curragh Mutiny in Ireland (against Home Rule).
Incidentally Haig saw himself as God’s servant and was keen to have clergymen sent out whose sermons would remind the men that the war dead were martyrs in a just cause.
In other words Haig spent his entire life in the service of the British Empire and the British crown. After the carnage of the Somme he was made Field Marshall on 1 January and received a note from George V telling him to regard this promotion as a personal New Year’s gift from his king. And far from having any regrets Haig, with the assistance of the abovementioned Sir Hubert Gough, proceeded to do more or less the same thing all over again in Passchendaele in July to November 1917, this time with about 250,000 or more casualties on each side. In all the British armed forces sustained something in the region of 2 million casualties under his command.
What all this involved was the repeated willingness to send thousands upon thousands, ultimately millions, of young, mainly working class, men to their more or less certain deaths for the sake of the Empire. No wonder Field Marshall Haig earned the nickname, ‘Butcher Haig’.
But, of course, this was no peculiar individual characteristic of Haig. The same policy was pursued by the entire British ruling class and anyone who raised their voice against it was condemned as, at the very least, a despicable coward and subject to brutal punishment. And the same policy, the same shameless disregard for the lives of ordinary people, was pursued by all the respective ruling classes of Europe: the French, German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian alike. The casualties on the Eastern Front, especially those suffered by the Russian Tsar’s armies, were even worse than those in the West.
The Battle of the Somme was only one episode in the vast catastrophe of the War as a whole but it serves, as we mark its centenary, to exemplify the essential character of that terrible crime against humanity.
It also serves to remind us that the underlying forces responsible for the slaughter, the struggle of rival imperialisms, are alive and well in the 21st century. The shape of these rivalries may have changed – the US and the EU versus the Middle East versus China versus Russia etc. instead of Britain, France and Russia versus Germany and Austria-Hungary – but their basic dynamic, rooted in the very nature of capitalism, i.e. the competitive struggle to accumulate capital and hence to control territory and markets, continues. Indeed, its potential to claim human lives and threaten the very future of humanity has grown even greater in the course of the last hundred years.