There are fewer figures given such vitriolic treatment in history, and indeed in war poetry. To begin with, while most soldiers were barely getting by on their ruined boots and rations, the higher grades had tents to keep out the cold, clean water, and an adequate meal most days; most of them were miles and miles away from the front, and quite a few of them avoided fighting simply by the method of being elsewhere when their soldiers were going over the top. In the game of the Western Front, the officers were the chess-masters, and the soldiers the pawns, which might explain why over 700,000 soldiers were killed in action over the course of four years, and a great deal more injured, or reported missing. This is not taking into account civilian casualties; this is purely the amount of war wounded, the youngest of which was only 14 years old at the time of his death.
With bumbling tactics, shoddy plans, and a stunning lack of awareness for the mired thousands, it was no wonder that the higher command in British offices received such treatment and attitudes in poems written by soldier-poets – Siegfried Sassoon lambasted the generals in his poem ‘The General’, for example, and a prominent biographer wrote, Captain B.H. Liddell, wrote, “He [Haig] was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple—who, to his overweening ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his ends by the trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal.”
On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties. Nearly 20,000 of these were either dead already or would die of their wounds, many of them lingering for days between the trenches, in no man’s land. The attacking forces did not gain a single one of their objectives.
Even so, a staff colonel had the cheek to write: “The events of July 1st bore out the conclusions of the British higher command and amply justified the tactical methods employed.”
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and architect of the battle, evidently agreed. On the day after the debacle, stating that the enemy “has undoubtedly been shaken and has few reserves in hand,” he discussed with subordinates methods for continuing the offensive.
Which he did, with a kind of transcendent stubbornness, for another four months, until winter weather forced an end to the campaign, if not the fighting. By then, Haig’s army had suffered more than 400,000 casualties. For the British, in the grave judgment of noted military historian John Keegan, “the battle was the greatest tragedy…of their national military history” and “marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.”
The idea of generals and shoddy leadership was one that Sassoon worked into most of his poetry. In ‘Song Books of the War’, he wrote:
Some ancient man with silver locks
Will lift his weary face to say:
‘War was a fiend who stopped our clocks
Although we met him grim and gay.’
And then he’ll speak of Haig’s last drive,
Marvelling that any came alive
Which explains the treatment the soldiers faced, and their life expectancy during the war. Haig was also infamous for clutching onto his belief that the horse and an ordered march would win over the machine guns and the artillery of the British army, and thus soldiers were instructed to march towards the guns. This is No Man’s Land, a miles-long stretch of mud and mire, which usually led to so many casualties that German machine-gunners would stop their guns out of pity and horror.
Base Details follows this same line of criticism. It is a short, scathing poem about the inadequacy of British leadership during the First World War, and an indictment of the same system that allowed underqualified men into positions where they commanded great numbers of troops. It is well worth remembering that higher ranks were only available to men of some means and money who could afford to buy the uniform; therefore, the British army was primarily composed of the poor at the bottom, and the rich at the top, where the rich were mostly useless at leading troops.
Analysis of Base Details
From the very start of Base Details, which you can read in full here, Sassoon makes no secrets about his opinion about the higher ranks. He opens with: ‘If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath, / I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,’ – thus showing a distinct distance between the majors and the soldiers that they commanded. His description of fierce, bald, and short of breath, indicates an aging gentleman, while ‘scarlet’ could tie into the idea of drunkenness – it was considered a rich man’s game, in the 1900s, to drink as much as one could afford. It is probably likely that Sassoon had a specific general in mind when he wrote Base Details, though it would be difficult to tell due to the generalization of the ideas.
He continues with ‘And speed glum heroes up the line to death.’ Make no mistake, Sassoon doesn’t believe in any glorified notion of Fate, in this poem; as far as he’s concerned, the majors are to blame for the death of the soldiers. They are no better than murderers and overgrown children playing at war – ‘puffy petulant face’ – while not quite aware of the huge sacrifices that involve the soldiers they are commanding. Note that while the war is going on, the Major is ‘guzzling and gulping in the best hotel’, usually miles away from the Front, unaware of the true nature of the war so long as they were set there in command.
The ‘Roll of Honour’ was a list of names of the people who died while performing military service. Notice, however, how the Roll of Honour, in this poem, takes on a manner much like a piece of engrossing fiction – their only comment to the names on the list is ‘poor chap’, and a realization that they knew him. Sassoon dehumanizes his soldiers through the reaction of the army to their dead. There is no emotion in Base Details – a far stretch away from Sassoon’s usual way of writing – and through that lack of emotion, he shows how callously the Majors and the Generals and the higher-ranking men treated the privates and the soldiers. Even the use of the word ‘scrap’ – when put into the context of a battle such as the Somme, or Ypres – shows a ridiculous lack of respect for human life.
In the end, Sassoon bitterly describes how his soldier toddles on home – as unaffected by the war at its end as he was at the start – only to die in bed. The finality of the last line – ‘I’d toddle safely home—and die’ is shocking when compared to the rest of Base Details. It is such a selfish, sharp poem; such a bitter expression of human misery, hidden within the complete lack of emotion given to the amalgamation of the higher ranks.
Out of the approximate 700,000 military casualties suffered by the British during the First World War, only around 78 of those were of the higher ranks of general and above.