Commemorating the Battle of the Somme: Proportionality in Warfare?

Commemorating the Battle of the Somme: Proportionality in Warfare?

When is a war worth fighting?

Written by: Eirik Julius Risberg

A central tenet in the Just War tradition is that in order to justify a war, the likely cost of the war must be proportionate to the likely gains. This criterion however, has proven perennially difficult to put into practice. The battle of the Somme is a classic example of the difficulty.

British soldiers leave their trenches at the Somme. Photo: 2013 Fototeca Storica Nazionale.
British soldiers leave their trenches at the Somme. Photo: 2013 Fototeca Storica Nazionale.

100 years since the Battle of the Somme

On the 1st of July 1916, 100 years ago earlier this summer, the British and French attacked the Germans at the Somme, a river in northern France. After having shelled the German defence-lines for seven days straight, the British were confident of an easy victory. Instead, it turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of a war that is infamous for the millions of lives that were lost in the mud and grime of the trenches in France and Russia. On the first day of fighting alone, almost 20.000 British soldiers lost their lives, making it the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. Over the course of the next four months, more than a million men were either killed or injured on either side in the Battle of the Somme. In the end, the British and French managed to advance a meagre 6 miles into the German territory.

Proportionality in warfare

Due to the enormity of the losses inflicted on both sides, the battle, as Nigel Biggar writes in his In Defence of War (OUP), has become a “byword for criminally disproportionate military slaughter.” Nevertheless, attempts have been made to defend the necessity of the battle. In an article in The Telegraph (02.07.2014), historian Nigel Steel argues that “the Battle of the Somme did indeed lay the foundations for Britain’s part in the Allied victory two years later.” And even some of the combatants themselves seem to have thought the battle to be justified. Biggar quotes Sergent R. H. Tawney’s account of the battle, originally published in The Westminster Gazette in August 1916:

“We attacked, I think, about 820 strong. I’ve no official figures of casualties. A friend, an officer in «C» Company, which was in support and shelled to pieces before it could start, told me in hospital that we lost 450 men that day, and that, after being put in again a day or two later, we had 54 left. I suppose it’s worth it.”

Just, in spite of heavy losses?

In spite of the catastrophic losses, Tawney believed that it was worth it. But how could one even begin to justify such losses? If one focuses on the 6 miles that the British gained at the Somme, it certainly seems wildly indefensible. But while the general public seems to see the battle in isolation and think of it as the nadir of the First World War, a number of historians consider the losses at the Somme only in the context of the war as a whole. Emphasising the importance of the victory at the Somme, these historians, as Biggar argues, believe it to be an open question whether “the Somme’s gains were ‘outweighed’ by its dreadful losses.” Commemorating the 100 anniversary of the Battle, both points of view seem valuable in honouring and remembering the fallen.

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