When farmers in this part of Northern France plow their fields, they unearth relics of the war that ended here just over a century ago: shell casings, gas masks, skulls. The tranquil landscape, as flat as the plains of Kansas, belies the memory of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, when 21,000 British soldiers died charging across a few hundred yards of shell craters, weeds and barbed wire into German machine guns. That futile offensive raged until the following November, when death had claimed 1.5 million lives on both sides of the trenches. The war's architects had not envisioned such slaughter when they mobilized young recruits in August 1914 on promises of an easy victory.
The historian Christopher Clark depicted the statesmen who led Europe into the Great War as men walking blind in their sleep through an open window. In his magnificent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Clark wrote, "The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded." That had not been the intention, any more than the treaty ending the war was supposed to produce another cataclysm 20 years later that would claim a further 60 million lives.
Trudging along mud pathways near the River Somme recently, I passed remnants of shell holes and trenches barely camouflaged by fresh spring grass. Thousands of youngsters lie buried where they fell in a landscape resplendent in monuments and cemeteries. A plaque in one graveyard reminds visitors, "The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still." The lads of the Devonshire Regiment, like their comrades from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, Canada and the rest of England, left behind young widows, children and inconsolable parents. Was it worth it?
Shows of Force, Preludes to War
Wars rarely turn out as their authors predict. For the United States, this has been true of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The same may be said one day of Iran if U.S. President Donald Trump's deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a strike group of warships and bombers to the Persian Gulf leads to violent confrontations. The objective of the exercise, in the words of national security adviser John Bolton, is to "send a message" to Iran. Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who happened to be cousins, sent similar messages to each other in the summer of 1914 through the mobilization of their armies. That show of force did not prevent war. It started it.
Wars rarely turn out as their authors predict. For the United States, this has been true of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The same may be said one day of Iran.
The First World War presents those willing to learn with many lessons. As well as the stupidity of the static war of attrition on the Western Front, there were examples of destructive sideshows in Africa, the Balkans, the Arab world and, yes, Iran. Iranians remember, if Westerners do not, that allies Russia and Britain occupied their neutral country in 1914. (They would do so again in 1941.) The British sent what today would be called a "special operations" detachment across Iran to rally tribesmen to prevent the Ottoman Turks and their German allies from seizing the oil of the Caspian Sea. In December 1917, the War Office assigned Maj. Gen. Lionel Dunsterville to lead a "Dunsterforce" of 450 men. Dunsterville's friend Rudyard Kipling had already immortalized him as an imperial hero of British India named "Stalky." The colorful Dunsterville was fluent in nine languages including Farsi and Chinese — good if insufficient preparation for the task in Iran.
The Dunsterforce crossed the Shatt-al-Arab waterway from British-occupied Iraq into Iran in early 1918 en route to Baku, the oil capital of Azerbaijan, which the Russians had abandoned following the revolution that took Russia out of the war. The going in Iran was harsh: snow blocked mountain passes, and local militias attacked. The nationalist Jangali Movement mauled the Dunsters before they reached Baku, reducing their strength and slowing their movement. Dunsterville attempted to win popular approval by preventing grain merchants from hoarding wheat, but this move backfired when the Jangalis accused him of poisoning the people's flour. Rival claims for leadership by the Jangalis, local Communists, Islamists and Christians complicated matters for Dunsterville. Many of them changed sides more than once, depending on whether the Ottomans or the British looked likely to win. Part of the Dunsterforce reached Urmia in Iranian Azerbaijan, but its presence exacerbated the mistreatment of local Christians who had identified with the Allied cause. By war's end, the Christian population of Urmia had been reduced from 40 percent of the city to almost zero.
In Baku, Dunsterville organized defenses against an Ottoman assault. The battle began on Aug. 26, 1918. Artillery devastated much of the city, forcing Dunsterville to evacuate his force aboard two ships across the Caspian on the night of Sept. 14. Azeri gangs in the city then massacred about 8,000 Armenians. Lt. Gen. Lionel Marshall, the British commander in Mesopotamia who had called Dunsterville's campaign a "mad enterprise," disbanded it two days later.
Same Risk Now as Then
Invading Iran was a risk in 1918, and it remains a risk today. Ships in any part of the Persian Gulf are within range of Iranian coastal defenses. Any mistake or exchange of fire may result in the deployment of, as The New York Times reported, 120,000 U.S. troops. Trump's response to the Times' report sounded more like confirmation than refutation: "If we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that." The United States, like the Kaiser, the czar and the King of England in 1914, insists it does not want war. "The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime," Bolton said, "but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian units." The nature of the American response to any perceived infraction by Iran will determine the future of the United States, Iran, the Mideast and all the countries that import Persian Gulf oil for years to come. Will it be worth it?
Siegfried Sassoon, who won Britain's Military Cross for rescuing a wounded comrade under fire on the eve of the Somme battle, concluded his poem, "Suicide in the Trenches":
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.