Now obviously in the light of last week’s column I did try to find a subject this week which had to do with something other than war. But then I looked in the schedules and saw that there was one documentary on about the Somme and another about the city of Benares, and that was my plan stuffed, basically.
I spend much more time reading about the second world war than I do about the first world war and I think this is partly down to what you might call superstitious empathy. What I mean by this is that, whenever I read about real historical lives, I like to identify with the people I think aren’t going to die or be horribly maimed, and the odds when you’re reading about the second war (barring the Holocaust) are generally more favourable than they are with the first.
The Somme (Channel 4, Monday) was a drama-documentary based on the diaries and letters of those who’d taken part. Which of these characters, if any, would survive to the end of the programme? I suppose, had I been cleverer, I might have twigged that Sgt Richard Tawney would go on to become the Labour politician R.H. Tawney, who helped devise the Welfare State. But the rest was educated guesswork. You’d hear someone describing what it was like to be wounded and think, ‘Oh good. He’s probably going to make it, then, because if he’d been killed how would his description have survived? Then you’d hear another chap’s poignant letter to his loved one on the eve of the offensive and think, ‘Well, that’s him stuffed, then.’
Of the 60,000 men who went over the top in the first hour, half were killed or wounded. The casualty figures are so terrifyingly huge that it’s tempting to explain away the horror by persuading oneself that maybe people didn’t feel things as strongly back then and therefore didn’t suffer as much.