November 7, 2016

At the weekend I was reading a book¹ that reviews the activities of some notable physicists during the First World War in order to highlight how it shaped their later careers.

During this section of the book there’s a passage that brought home to me the horrors of trench warfare and the industrialisation of death. 19-year-old Henry Williamson (later the author of Tarka the Otter) describes the Battle of the Somme in July 1916:

“I go forward with them … up and down across ground like a huge ruined honeycomb, and my wave melts away, and the second wave comes up, and also melts away, and then the third wave merges into the ruins of the first and second, and after a while the fourth blunders into the remnants of the others.
We come to wire that is uncut, and beyond we see the grey coalscuttle helmets bobbing about … and the loud cracking of machine gun fire changes to screeching as of steam being blown off by a hundred engines, and soon no one is left standing.”

—Philip K Lawrence (Modernity and War: The Creed of Absolute Violence)

This Friday is Armistice Day. This year is the 100 years anniversary of the Battle of The Somme and it seems wholly appropriate to take some time to reflect on the sacrifice of those who took part in war and were killed or harmed (including invisible injuries). Thankfully I was born at a time and place where young men were not conscripted and made to fight wars on this scale.

[1] The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.


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