Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Long shadows of old wars

A century on from the Battle of the Somme, why should we remember an utter disaster?

Thiepval didn’t make it into the TV version of Birdsong starring Eddie Redmayne. But it did feature in the original novel by Sebastian Faulks about Stephen Wraysford, a Great War soldier who survived the Battle of the Somme. To Wraysford’s granddaughter in the 1970s, it looks from a distance like a sugar beet refinery; close up, as if the Arc de Triomphe had been “dumped in a meadow”. And then, as she stands beneath it, like some modernist monstrosity designed by Albert Speer for Hitler’s Berlin.

In Another World – the novelist Pat Barker’s exploration of the haunted mind of a Somme veteran – the grandson of the old man Geordie likens Thiepval to “a warrior’s helmet with no head inside”. “No,” he adds, “worse than that: Golgotha, the place of a skull,” celebrating not “a triumph over death but the triumph of death”.

For the historian Gavin Stamp, however, Thiepval is simply “one of the finest works of British architecture of the 20th century”.

The 140-foot-high war memorial, atop a chalk ridge at the near centre of the Somme battlefield, has always aroused intense and often extreme reactions – as it did again a few weeks ago during televised commemorations of the Somme centenary. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, Thiepval is a red-brick tower of interlocking arches faced in white Portland stone. Carved across every available facing are more than 72,000 names – as if, to quote Faulks again, “the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes”.

These names are, indeed, footnotes to the most horrific battle in the annals of the British army. Inaugurated in 1932, Thiepval is officially the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, commemorating soldiers whose remains were never found. Lutyens and the then Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) wished to ensure that at least “their name liveth for evermore”.

A century on from 1916, it is right to ponder again why we should “remember them”. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July, was the worst in British military history, when 19,240 men were killed and another 37,000 were listed as wounded or missing in action. Yet 1 July 2016 formed the centrepiece of the government’s programme of commemorative events for the Great War centenary. So, why do we choose to remember what was, frankly, an utter disaster?

Now that we have moved on from the evocative ceremonies of last month, it is perhaps time to consider this question. It raises challenging questions about the morality of war, the responsibilities of government and, above all, about the special place of the two world wars in Britain’s Brexit-shaped national memory. To explore them let’s think first about what we are remembering; then about how has it been remembered over time; and finally about why we are still remembering it now.

***

On the “what” question the answer is not clear-cut. The Somme offensive was months in the making and remaking. Indeed, that was a central problem. It was originally intended as a joint Franco-British operation to which the French army would commit 40 divisions and the British 25, but the plan changed profoundly when the Germans commenced their all-out assault on the French front further south at Verdun on 21 February. Verdun proved to be a ten-month slugging match, the longest battle of the Great War.

Once Verdun exploded, the British became the senior partners in the Somme operation, with the French demanding that it start as soon as possible to relieve the pressure on them. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a cavalryman by training, always hankered after a total breakthrough, hoping even to win the war. Haig’s principal subordinate, General Henry Rawlinson, commander of the British Fourth Army, was more aware of the tactical difficulties of trench warfare – especially the problem of how to shift rapidly from offence to defence in order to hold initial gains against inevitable counter­attacks. Rawlinson favoured a “bite and hold” strategy on the Somme but Haig rejected this as insufficiently ambitious. The planning for the opening of the battle was, therefore, a messy compromise between Haig and Rawlinson. To quote the Somme historian William Philpott, it was not so much “bite and hold” as “rush and hope”.

Compounding the problem was the artillery barrage beforehand – on the face of it, hugely impressive: a week-long, mind-numbing bombardment involving 2.5 million shells in total. But the reality was different. Although Haig employed 1,400 guns, more than the Germans used at the start of Verdun, the firepower was less concentrated because the front was twice as long and many of the shells were “duds” that failed to explode. The British targeted mainly barbed wire and the enemy front-line trenches, so the German guns in the rear were able to keep blasting Rawlinson’s troops. In any case, British artillerymen and their commanders were still only beginning to learn the complex science of the creeping barrage. “For British gunners,” the military historian Hew Strachan observes, “the Somme had come a year too soon.”

It was the ordinary Tommies who paid the price for the strategic snafu and the botched barrage. At 07.30 on a beautiful midsummer morning, the shelling ceased and the infantry climbed out of the forward trenches. They were supposed to walk steadily across no-man’s-land and through the fragments of the barbed wire and take possession of the German front-line trenches, before pressing on to the second line and maybe beyond. Instead, most were mown down in front of the largely intact wire as the ­Germans, alerted by the end of shelling, raced up from their fortified dugouts to man their machine guns.

What happened is vividly evoked in two very different new books: Jolyon Fenwick’s Zero Hour (Profile), which presents 14 hauntingly beautiful panoramas of the British front line today on to which are inscribed the lethal data of 1916 (“enemy front line 150 yards”, “machine-gun 240 yards”, et cetera), and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s richly textured account of the battlefield experience, Somme: Into the Breach (Viking). Some German machine-gunners fired off 20,000 rounds on 1 July, their hands ­often reduced to lumps of burnt flesh from the red-hot MG 08s. One British survivor never forgot those arcs of bullets, sweeping across the ground to brush away line upon line of Tommies like “a glistening fan”.

It was the same story along much of the British line. At Beaumont-Hamel, 780 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment – mostly fishermen and lumbermen – went into ­action at 09.15. Less than half an hour later, as Andrew Roberts writes in Elegy (Head of Zeus), another recent book about the first day of the Somme, “89 per cent of the men who went over the top had been either killed or wounded, including all of their 26 officers”. Today a huge bronze Newfoundland caribou, head thrust high in defiance, surveys the memorial park at Beaumont-Hamel, with orientation arrows identifying the battlefield sites. One points dolefully to the rear: “Newfoundland 2,500 miles”.

A few enterprising British commanders took advantage of the barrage to push their men out into no-man’s-land and closer to the barbed wire. As a result, in some cases the Tommies did win the race against the German machine-gunners. The most successful unit was the 36th (Ulster) Division – mostly Protestant loyalists from Belfast – who not only overran the German front line but also reached parts of the second. By the following day, however, virtually isolated, they were driven back to where they had started.

After the war the survivors and the bereaved built the Ulster Tower on Thiepval Ridge – a replica of Helen’s Tower on the Clandeboye Estate in County Down, near where they had trained – as a memorial to the 5,500 men, roughly one-third of the division’s strength, who ended up killed, wounded or missing on 1-2 July 1916.

Contrary to myth, the First of July was not a total disaster. The Somme front was bisected by the old Roman road from the town of Albert to Bapaume. To the north of the road, the story was grim but to the south the offensive went much better. Much of that sector was in the hands of the French Sixth Army, whose role has been airbrushed out of many centenary accounts. The Sixth Army commander was General Marie Émile Fayolle, who – tellingly – had learned painful lessons from Verdun. “We have understood that we cannot run around like madmen,” he noted in his diary. “Doctrine is taking shape.” In particular, the French ­realised the need to keep the artillery barrage short but sharp to maximise surprise and to redeploy the guns rapidly once the enemy’s forward trenches had been captured, so as to target the second line.

But Fayolle could soon see the writing on the wall. “This battle . . .” he noted grimly on 12 July 1916, “has always been a battle without an objective.” Although apologists for Douglas Haig rightly emphasise that the Somme continued for another 140 days after 1 July, there was little to show for it. Most of the assaults – some 150 in all – were small-scale and poorly co-ordinated. Occasionally, bigger and better-organised offensives did make notable progress but the price was usually high.

The fighting in July and August to secure the village of Pozières on the crest of the Albert-Bapaume road cost the Australians more casualties in six weeks than they had suffered during the whole eight months of the Gallipoli land campaign from April to December 1915. Surveying the devastation from the stump of the Pozières windmill (where a memorial to the 1st Australian ­Division now stands), their official war ­historian Charles Bean – the curator of the Anzac myth – wrote of a ridge “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth”.

“Sacrifice” was the operative word – used then and now in an attempt to give meaning to the slaughter. By the time the Battle of the Somme muddied out in mid-November the British had lost 420,000 men killed, wounded or missing, in order to advance at most six miles. The question now was how this “sacrifice” would be remembered and justified.

***

In today’s world of embedded war reporters and soldier selfies, it needs emphasising how little most British people in 1916 knew about what the Battle of the Somme really was like. The British military were far more secrecy-obsessed than the French or Germans: they kept most journalists well away from the front and had no official photographers until mid-1916. But such was the importance of the Somme (and the expectancy at home about the Big Push) that the army commissioned a special black-and-white, silent movie, with brief intertitles by way of explanation.

Although technically very crude to modern eyes, The Battle of the Somme had an immense impact when first screened in August 1916. Twenty million people watched it in the first six weeks. Again and again, reviews extolled the film’s “realism”. Frances Stevenson, David Lloyd George’s secretary and then mistress, had lost her brother on the Western Front. After seeing the film she wrote in her diary: “I have often tried to imagine myself what he went through, but now I know, and I shall never forget.”

In fact the “realism” was highly contrived: The Battle of the Somme’s only footage of combat, showing soldiers climbing out of a trench into no-man’s-land, was probably filmed later behind the lines. Yet the image of a wounded man sliding back into a trench was recalled endlessly by viewers as one of the most heart-rending moments in the film. Other scenes, such as the (silent) artillery barrage, the detonation of a huge mine, the recovery of wounded soldiers and shots of ruined villages, all conveyed destruction on a scale far beyond anything previously imagined.

The Battle of the Somme did not dent popular resolve. On the contrary; most people seem to have shared the sentiments expressed in lines from the London Evening News that were used in advertisements for the film: “In this picture the world will obtain some idea of what it costs in human suffering to put down the devil’s domination.”

There were dissenters, not only on the radical left, but also at the highest levels of government. In November, as the battle subsided into the mud, Lord Lansdowne, a former foreign secretary and now wartime minister, wrote a memo to his cabinet colleagues imploring them to consider a negotiated peace. “Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss which it has sustained in human beings, and from the financial ruin and the destruction of the means of production which are taking place.” Casualties had already topped a million and the war was costing Britain £5m a day. “All this it is no doubt our duty to bear,” Lansdowne went on, “but only if it can be shown that the sacrifice will have its reward.”

His pleas, however, were brushed aside. Despite its private doubts, the government closed ranks behind Haig and his belated spin-doctoring of the Somme as part of a carefully planned strategy of attrition. Lloyd George insisted to the press that “the fight must be to a finish – to a knock-out” because the “inhumanity and pitilessness” of the current fighting was “not comparable with the cruelty that would be involved in stopping the war while there remains the possibility of civilisation again being menaced from the same quarter”. And in September he told the Times: “‘Never again’ has become our battle cry.”

Lloyd George’s words proved prophetic. After the losses at Verdun and on the Somme, neither France nor Britain could accept a negotiated peace – if that had ever been possible. The body count seemed too high for either side to declare a draw and shake hands; the war “had” to end in a knockout. But as people in Britain knuckled down for more carnage (in 1917 Passchendaele followed the Somme), they seem also to have found solace in the mantra of “never again”. The terrible sacrifice might be justified, if the Great War proved to be “the war that will end war”.

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Those words of H G Wells, promulgated in 1914 as propaganda, became a statement of faith, or at least hope and love, for millions in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the horrors of trench life were exposed by interwar writers – tongue-in-cheek by Robert Graves, in simple but deadly earnest by R C Sherriff – this does not seem to have undermined the widespread conviction that 1914-18 had been a necessary sacrifice in an effort to abolish war. In November 1933 the cover of the British Legion Journal depicted a statue of a mother holding the body of her dead son, with the word “Disarm” on the plinth. Peace, it seemed to millions, would be the sincerest form of remembrance. Hence the passion for appeasement in the 1930s.

That all changed in September 1939. Another conflict against Germany, almost ­exactly a quarter-century after the first, put “the war to end war” in a different perspective. The Treaty of Versailles now seemed like a mere armistice – a pause for breath before round two. And this time it was clearly a “good war” that was fought to the finish, with the knockout blow delivered in the ruins of Berlin as a genocidal dictator took his own life, having taken the lives of millions.

In 1939-45, what’s more, Britain’s war was waged very differently from that of 1914-18: largely in alliance with the United States and the British Commonwealth after France collapsed in 1940. (There was little mention during the Cold War of those once lauded as “Our Gallant Russian Allies”.)

During the two decades after 1945 this British-centred narrative was absorbed into popular culture thanks to a cavalcade of war films from British studios, featuring stars such as Jack Hawkins and Richard Todd as stereotypically English males, tough and determined, yet reserved. Recycled on television ever since, these movies have helped to define our cultural memory of the Second World War.

It was only in the mid-1960s, around the fiftieth anniversary of 1914-18, that the British rediscovered the First World War. In the writings of A J P Taylor, Alan Clark and Martin Middlebrook, in the blockbuster BBC television series The Great War, with its graphic footage and poignant interviews, and above all in Richard Attenborough’s savagely satirical 1969 big-screen version of Oh! What a Lovely War, the children and grandchildren of Tommies encountered the Great War almost for the first time.

But this was now a war in which the language of “sacrifice” had morphed into “victimhood”. Sniping at Haig and his generals, Clark popularised the tag “lions led by donkeys”. Middlebrook’s bravura oral history-cum-Greek tragedy of the first day of the Somme helped turn the spotlight on a battle previously overshadowed in British memory by the hauntingly named Passchendaele. He and others also rediscovered the battalions of “Pals” from small towns and cities, who volunteered en masse in 1914, and many of whom went over the top together on 1 July 1916. In the bleak words of the local author John Harris, in his novel about the Sheffield Pals: “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.” The First of July 1916, hanging at the mid-point of the middle year of the conflict, had become the crucifixed centre of Britain’s Great War.

The 1960s recast the Great War into a mould that is still ours today. Through the cult status in schools of Britain’s “War Poets” (a tiny fraction of the roughly 2,200 men and women who published poetry during the war); through the dark comedy of Blackadder and the vivid prose of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks; and, at a more domestic level, through the passion for family history – we have become used to seeing the Tommies of 1914-18 as victims. Viewed from this perspective, from the bottom of a trench full of mud, guts and excrement, the Great War looks mindless and meaningless: the appliance of science to the dance of death.

Since the 1990s this “Blackadder” view of the conflict has been subjected to counterattack. Revisionist military historians such as Gary Sheffield and William Philpott insist that the first day of the Somme was followed by 140 others in which the German army was irreparably ground down. For them, 1 July 1916 must be seen as the regrettable but necessary start of a “learning curve” that led slowly but inexorably to what Sheffield calls “the greatest military victory in British history”: Haig’s triumphant “Hundred Days” in the autumn of 1918.

Up to a point, I can see what the revisionists are getting at. Their “learning curve” argument reminds me of the dictum attributed to France’s Great War hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch: “It takes 15,000 casualties to train a major general.” In other words, we all learn by our mistakes but for most of us the consequences are merely embarrassing. Soldiers, however, are in the business of death. An officer kills others “efficiently” only after seeing his own men killed and then absorbing the lessons.

That task gets ever more difficult as one ascends from the circumscribed role of a platoon commander to the complex mysteries of supplying, manoeuvring and deploying thousands of men, and especially so in 1914-18, when a general had only the most rudimentary information with which to penetrate the fog of war. And so a “fight to the finish” would inevitably entail thousands of casualties for Us as well as Them.

Yet the phrase “learning curve” sounds clinical and callous. Even if one accepts that Haig and his staff had to learn the craft of generalship at the expense of their countrymen, did such a huge number of British soldiers – 750,000 – have to pay with their lives? Could one ever justify the shambles that occurred on the Somme on 1 July 1916? These questions certainly nagged at the minds of Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery; together, they managed to end up on the winning side of the second war at roughly half that number of British dead.

In our own time, a similar reluctance to accept what we might call the human cost of educating generals prompted a long campaign to rehabilitate over 300 Tommies of 1914-18 who were executed by firing squad for various capital offences, including murder, but also “desertion” or “cowardice”. The Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire was unveiled in 2001. Five years later, the Labour defence secretary Des Browne, a human-rights lawyer, offered these men a posthumous group pardon, describing them all as “victims of war”. For Browne’s supporters, it was belated justice; to his critics, an anachronistic rewriting of the past to fit the different moral standards of our own age.

In his recent book Breakdown (Little, Brown) the historian and film-maker Taylor Downing re-creates the mentality of Haig’s staff in an era long before modern ideas of post-traumatic stress. He shows how the incidence of so-called shell shock soared in July 1916 with the start of the Somme, amounting to a minimum of 60,000 cases in the second half of the year. The high command saw shell shock as akin to a contagious disease, which, if not contained, might cause the breakdown of the whole army.

A striking example comes from the sad story of the 11th Borders, or “Lonsdales”, a Pals Battalion from what is now Cumbria. The unit lost two-thirds of its officers and men on 1 July. Pulled out of the line, the survivors had to sort out the kit of their dead comrades and bury the decomposing corpses, sleeping in open trenches under heavy artillery fire. Sent back to the front line on 9 July and ordered to take 200 yards of enemy trench in a night attack under even more ferocious shelling, many of the men – shaking and disoriented – baulked at going over the top and the attack had to be aborted. The Lons­dales were court-martialled and ritually humiliated. Stripped of their weapons, the 250 survivors were paraded before the rest of their regimental brigade as a “disgrace” to themselves and the army.

Today this story seems appalling. Yet, to a high command stuck at the very bottom of its “learning curve” on the Somme, the epidemic of shell shock that summer posed a crisis as grave as poison gas in 1915. Rejecting one request for clemency for a foot soldier of the Warwickshire Regiment, Haig confirmed the death sentence with almost anguished words: “How can we ever win if this plea is allowed?”

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To recall the “deserters” and not just the “heroes” raises a larger question. Again and again today, the words of the poet Laurence Binyon from 1914 are repeated: “We will remember them.” Yet that simple word, “remember”, needs unpacking. No one now alive in 2016 has direct memories of the war of 1914-18, so this isn’t remembering in any normal usage of the word. Our act of remembrance necessarily entails reinterpretation – seeing their past through the eyes of our present. In other words, anachronism and judgement are almost ­inescapable. And the verb “will” also needs interrogating, because remembrance has become an official ritual, orchestrated at selected moments of our national history for reasons that are not always clear.

So, is the Somme a story of victimhood, to adopt the Blackadder version? Or are we recalling, as Prime Minister David Cameron declared in 2012, “the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation” and, in fact, the “sacrifice they made for us”?

British attitudes to the Great War centenary, it seems to me, quiver uneasily between the two. The language of sacrifice – poignantly meaningful for the survivors and the bereaved in the 1920s and 1930s – comes less naturally to the 21st century. On the other hand, it seems equally clear that most veterans of the Great War did not regard themselves as victims. Although appalled by what they had experienced, they continued to believe in the necessity of what they had done and in the rightness of their cause.

Yet it is also worth noting that the language of victimhood is not entirely anachronistic. It lurked in the minds of those who began the remarkable project of war cemeteries for the soldiers of Britain and the empire. Consider three of these men.

Fabian Ware: an educator and journalist, too old to fight, who volunteered to run an ambulance unit in France and was horrified to see the bodies and bones littering the fields. Almost single-handed, he persuaded the British government to establish a proper programme of graves registration and then induced the French government to donate land for the burial of Allied soldiers. The Imperial War Graves Commission received its royal charter in May 1917.

Edwin Lutyens: often dismissed today as the architect of mock-Tudor country houses or the imperial grandiloquence of New Delhi. Yet Lutyens, like several other eminent architects, spent most of the 1920s designing memorials along the Western Front. It proved to be a deeply moving experience. “I am here doing Graves in France,” he wrote to a client in 1925, “and the magnitude of that host of boys that lie fearfully still, quickens the sense of unspeakable desolation.” For Lutyens, Thiepval was a work of art, and heart.

And Rudyard Kipling: the bard of empire and the troubadour of war in 1914, who never recovered from the loss of his only son at the Battle of Loos in 1915. This was literally a “loss”, because Jack disappeared without trace. It was Kipling who added words to Ware’s vision and Lutyens’s monuments. “Their Name Liveth for Evermore” is taken from Ecclesiasticus and inscribed on the War Stone, designed by Lutyens, that reposes like a secularised altar under the Thiepval arch, and in most cemeteries. And his legend “Known Unto God” on the headstones of unidentified British soldiers, in striking contrast to the stark “Inconnu” on the graves of their anonymous French counterparts. One can see the distinction graphically at the little Franco-British cemetery that slips gently away from the Thiep­val memorial down the hill towards the old British front line of 1 July 1916.

Ware, Lutyens and Kipling: all men too old to fight, yet haunted by what their generation had inflicted on the next. We catch Kipling’s sense of grieving guilt in one of his sardonic “Epitaphs of the War”, first published in 1919:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

For these old men, perhaps, the young Tommies were their victims.

***

The project of the war cemeteries cost over £8m – roughly the cost of two days’ shelling at the end of the war. In other words, burying was a lot cheaper for His Majesty’s Treasury than killing. Even so, the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission represented one the biggest government construction projects of the 1920s, eclipsing the building of the modern stations on the London Underground or the network of new telephone exchanges.

It was also a project for the dawning democratic age. “Tommy” in the trenches and the deserts (and “Tommy’s Sister” in the factories, on farms and in offices on the Home Front) had indeed “done the state some service”. Their reward was the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave the vote to nearly all men over 21, propertied or not, and to women over the age of 30 who owned property. The war had in fact changed the terms of political debate. “What property would any man have in this country if it were not for the soldiers and sailors who are fighting our battles?” asked Sir Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionist leader and former diehard. “If a man is good enough to fight for you, he is good enough to vote for you.” And even good enough (though this may not have occurred to Carson) for you to vote for him. The new slogan “One Gun, One Vote” was rigorous in its logic: the 1918 act denied the franchise to conscientious objectors.

To Ware and his colleagues, the young men who had not lived to vote at least deserved democratic recognition in death. All the headstones were uniform in style: generals just like “other ranks”, the sons of colliers treated no differently from the scions of landed gentry. Rich families were not allowed to repatriate remains to a family plot in some English churchyard. Instead, officers and men would lie together, eternally equal, in “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England”.

Many at home fumed about the “Prussian” attitude of the IWGC but Ware and his fellow commissioners did not relent. Speaking in their defence, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in May 1920 that “there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial to the efforts and the glory of the British army”. He acknowledged “the mutability of human arrangements”, but predicted that “even if our language, our institutions, and our empire all have faded from the memory of man, these great stones will still preserve the memory of a common purpose pursued by a great nation in the remote past, and will undoubtedly excite the wonder and the reverence of a future age”.

Churchill’s rhetoric of 1920, casting forward four centuries, was remarkable: almost a “Their Finest Hour” oration 20 years before its time. Back in the age of the Tudors only the likes of Henricus Rex, Elisabetha Regina and a happy few aristocrats had their names preserved for posterity. But at Thiepval, the Menin Gate in Ypres and many other war cemeteries and monuments, the names of ordinary soldiers of Britain and the empire live on a century after their death. Through the names their stories live on as well.

The visitors’ centre at Thiepval displays a panel of photographs of “600 Missing” whose lives have been painstakingly rescued from oblivion by a Northumbrian couple, Ken and Pam Linge. Their moving book Missing But Not Forgotten: Men of the Thiepval Memorial, Somme (Pen & Sword), tells some of these men’s stories.

What is now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has carried out Ware’s mandate for nearly a century. Under its charter the CWGC’s mission is to maintain the graves “in perpetuity”: as Churchill put it, into an era “as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors”.

That is a heavy burden. Is it, perhaps, a dead weight? In Britain we are preoccupied – some would say obsessed – with our national memory of the two world wars. The headline slogans of that memory-story are clear. 1914-18: over there in Mud and Blood, sacrificing the Lost Generation to win only the Lost Peace. 1939-45: over here, Our Finest Hour, Alone in 1940. Then victory, won in tandem with the English-Speaking Peoples. Two wars enshrined in ways that serve to distance us from mainland Europe – even though both narratives are highly selective.

Across the Channel, however, the story is very different. After 1945 the French and Germans, who had been killing each other for three centuries, managed to kick the habit. Not only were they reconciled but they moved on into what the founding father of the European Economic Community, Robert Schuman, called a “European solution” to the “German Question”.

Yet European integration has not exerted much attraction in the “United Kingdom”. As a country we have been at the very most “reluctant Europeans”; after all, no other member of the EU has held two referendums in four decades on whether to get out. And no one else has actually voted to do so. Of course, both affairs were staged for narrow party-political reasons and the second was a shambolic chapter of accidents from start to . . . well, not “finish”, but shall we say to “the end of the beginning”, which is where we are now. Yet the referendums also reflect what might be called the “Channel of the Mind” between Us and Them, a great divide that was deepened by our ­nationalist narratives of 1914-18 and 1939-45. This, in turn, fed into the Brexit vote of 23 June.

***

Should we keep clinging to our “Glorious Dead”? After all, there are no veterans of the First World War still alive. We are now as distant from the men who marched away in 1914 as they were from the Redcoats who fought Napoleon at Waterloo. So maybe it’s time to let go of the dead? To allow them to vanish quietly into the past? If we did so, perhaps it might be easier to comprehend the Great War as history?

Part of me, the historian, thinks this way. I worry that when it comes to the Great War we British are still stuck in the trenches and trapped in Poets’ Corner. Rather than just evoking myriad individual tragedies on the Western Front, illuminated by a few anguished verses, I would also like us to see 1914-18 as truly a “world war”; to grasp its impact on eastern Europe, India, China and the Middle East – not to mention on politics and society at home – in ways that still affect us in 2016. In other words, not just to “remember” but also to understand.

And yet, as a citizen, I keep coming back to Lutyens and Thiepval. To those names. Carved into the stone and thereby etched into the national memory. Reminding us of their mortality – and ours. As the historian G M Trevelyan mused softly in 1927: “The Dead were, and are not. Their place knows them no more, and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.”

Bodiless names that can spring out of the stone shadows – suddenly alive at a glance or even a touch. I still remember ­being with my son Jim, then ten, when we found his name on the Tyne Cot Memorial, near Ypres. The almost electric shock of ­encountering a “James Reynolds” on the wall of the dead.

Or perhaps, dare one say it, of encountering a “Blair” or a “Cameron”, or even a “May”. I do not imagine for one moment that any democratic leader lightly sends men (and now women) into battle, knowing that it may be signing their death sentence. This is the moral loneliness of leadership. Power brings with it an inescapable burden of guilt because politicians, no less than generals, learn from their mistakes.

The Somme centenary reminds us of this. So does the excoriating Chilcot report into the Iraq War, published on 6 July. For all the differences of time and place, here are two essentially similar stories. Simplistic assumptions; inept planning; sloppy intelligence; duplicitous spin. It is tragically apt that, having reflected on the first day of the Somme, five days later we were pondering “Mission ­Accomplished” in Iraq.

I believe that every political leader should visit the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. To touch the names and feel the pain. To “learning-curve” the human cost of going to war. That is why for me, ultimately, Thiepval matters. Why we should not forget 1 July 1916. Why, a century on, and however hard it now may be, we should remember them.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the Twentieth Century” (Simon & Schuster)

For details of events visit: www.1914.org

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq