LONDON -- You might think London a curious locale from which to celebrate July 4th, or Independence Day as we say. But the city abounds with British citizens who admire our country. I spent the evening of July 4th in the vast and glorious edifice that is the English-Speaking Union, observing the 90th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of all time and certainly of World War I, the Battle of the Somme.
"July 4th," one of the assembled Brits remarked, "it is the 230th anniversary of one of your happiest moments. Tonight we are observing one of our most unhappy moments, the Somme." Well, at least my interlocutor had no hard feelings about Independence Day, though to hold a grudge after 230 years one would have to be a Serb or an Islamofascist. In fact, as I left the English-Speaking Union I noticed the Stars and Stripes flying from its facade.
What brought us together the other night was a reception for my friend Sir Martin Gilbert's new history of this terrible battle, "The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War." The book should be out in America shortly. Gilbert has written 78 books, beginning with his seven-volume life of Winston Churchill. He is the great man's official biographer, and just last year his history of Churchill's long relationship with America was published, "Churchill and America." Gilbert is also one of the English language's greatest living historians. So you can be sure his work on Churchill and America is well worth reading. He is also a very great lecturer, and as such, he prepared a brief lecture for a reception room that was packed, not only with members of the general public but also with fellow historians of note and with Lady Soames, Churchill's surviving daughter. She is a very nice woman, unassuming, quite pretty for 80 or so years, and no cigar clamped between her teeth.
The Somme was misbegotten from the start. Britain's allies, the French, were engaged in a brutal struggle against the Germans at Verdun, and they prevailed on the British to mount a second attack on the Germans at the Somme. The British were dug in on one side, the Germans on the other. Prefatory to Brits' infantry assault they laid down a withering artillery barrage. Unbeknownst to them the artillery was not effective. In the respite between the artillery assault and the rush of the British infantry from their trenches and across the open field to the German positions the Germans set up their machine guns. The consequence was slaughter.