I was puzzled why a work about climbing Everest featured the Great War so prominently at its start. Yet when I read it, the section on the Great War was what interested me most.
The story of Everest, with 16 pages of historic photographs, is magnificent, but the subject of the Great War is a real eye-opener. For the first time I could see the Battle of the Somme as it really was. I felt certain it was the truth. And I was appalled.
The Battle had taken six months to plan. After the debacles of 1915 every British hope lay upon one massive offensive that would break the German line and change the war from stalemate to one of movement.
The Fourth Army was poised for the assault. Three hundred officers worked under Haig, far behind the lines at his luxurious chateau at Montreuil. The British would outnumber the Germans by seven to one.
Haig planned an initial bombardment of three million shells. More guns would be fired in one week than the total fired by the British in the entire war so far. In the first seven days 20,000 tons of steel would blast the German lines, then the men would attack, with 66,000 in the first wave. Victory would be assured, though there would be heavy casualties.
Indeed the British guaranteed such casualties by the tactics they chose.
The generals did not trust the men as soldiers, or their own ability to control the field once the battle started. Communications were primitive. 'Wireless' was only just beginning and the phone lines and cables would soon be destroyed by shellfire. An order from headquarters to a frontline regiment would take six hours to arrive and often do more harm than good, because circumstances changed, but the changes would be unknown to the distant staff.
The men of the regular army, known and trusted to the Generals throughout successful British wars in many parts of the world, lay dead on the fields of Flanders. The men they had now were wartime civilian recruits, and volunteers ('the flower of British youth'). But they were not soldiers. Commander in Chief Douglas Haig had his doubts about them. Six of the eleven divisions had no experience of combat.
Haig's solution was to treat the entire battle as though it were merely a training exercise under live fire. Just a drill. There would be no attempt at surprise and the advance would be carried out at walking pace. The men would be carrying a huge weight of equipment that would press their feet down into the wet and now vibrating earth. The officers would have only revolvers, and would not fire these – their job was to lead, not fight.
For the first week, the sky at night and all during the day rained down steel on the German lines. Even the air at Hampstead Heath in London throbbed. It was felt all over the south of England. Nothing like this had been known in the whole history of war. The thunder of the shells, though it deafened them, filled the British troops with hope. It was hope that would be cruelly betrayed.
The vast majority of the British guns fired shrapnel – which could not penetrate the ground where the German trenches lay and would not cut the barbed wire.
What is more the German trenches were dug 40 to 60 feet deep.
And 30 per cent of the British shells were duds.
And Haig, inevitably, because of the way he worked, had chosen for the point of attack the strongest part of the entire German lines, where there were successive rows of defences on rising ground, well beyond the range of the heaviest British artillery.
Add to all this, the Germans, unlike the British, had great faith in machine guns. They did not bother to aim these guns – no need – but simply fed belts of ammunition into them and sprayed the walking British soldiers with a cruel hail of lethal bullets. The Germans could not believe what the British were doing, it was such crazy behaviour.
On the afternoon of 30 June, General Haig, who for four years was head of the largest army the British had ever placed in the field, cut a fine figure, riding his favourite horse, escorted by his Lancers, their saddles and tack waxed to a sheen and horses groomed to perfection. He led them at a trot through the trees that surrounded his chateau, as he did every day, miles from the front.
He would not break this routine, the highlight of his day, for he greatly enjoyed the illusion that the world was a place for gentlemen, that war was an exercise in lustre and glory.
He never once saw the front, or any part of the terrain where his men were to fight.
His army suffered 2,568,834 casualties in France and Belgium alone. But his horse was beautifully groomed. Machine guns? What use are they? Now, as for cavalry …
So why did the War feature at the start of this fine book? Because it was in that war that every one of the climbers was forged.
John Hazzlewood was apprenticed for four years as a journalist in Yorkshire. Just before this ended, war was declared on Germany. Within a week he had volunteered to join the RAF. After training as a Wireless Operator he was sent to India where he spent five years engaged in the war against Japan. He also edited and contributed to a magazine for all Signals personnel in the Command and produced a Wall Newspaper, and near the end of the war a four page daily newspaper for all personnel. Upon his return to England he became editor in London of the weekly magazine for British printing, then Sales Director of a printing company and finally, until he retired age 72, edited various magazines from home, including Forward for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. He still writes a lot, including his Memoirs. He was 97 in February.