To End All Wars

INTRODUCTION: CLASH OF DREAMS

AN EARLY AUTUMN BITE is in the air as a gold-tinged late afternoon falls over the rolling countryside of northern France. Where the land dips between gentle rises, it is already in shadow. Dotting the fields are machine-packed rolls, high as a person's head, of the year's final hay crop. Massive tractors pull boxcar-sized cartloads of potatoes, or corn chopped up for cattle feed. Up a low hill, a grove of trees screens the evidence of another kind of harvest, reaped on this spot nearly a century ago. Each gravestone in the small cemetery has a name, rank, and serial number; 162 have crosses, and one has a Star of David. When known, a man's age is engraved on the stone as well: 19, 22, 23, 26, 34, 21, 20. Ten of the graves simply say, "A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God." Almost all the dead are from Britain's Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the front-line trench they had climbed out of that morning. Captain Duncan Martin, 30, a company commander and an artist in civilian life, had made a clay model of the battlefield across which the British planned to attack. He predicted to his fellow officers the exact place at which he and his men would come under fire from the nearby German machine gun as they emerged onto an exposed hillside. He, too, is buried here, one of some 21,000 British soldiers killed or fatally wounded on the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country's military, before or since.

On a stone plaque next to the graves are the words this regiment's survivors carved on a wooden sign when they buried their dead:

THE DEVONSHIRES HELD THIS TRENCH

THE DEVONSHIRES HOLD IT STILL

The comments in the cemetery's visitors' book are almost all from England: Bournemouth, London, Hampshire, Devon. "Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk." "Sleep on, boys." "Lest we forget." "Thanks, lads." "Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace." Why does it bring a lump to the throat to see words like sleep, rest, sacrifice, when my reason for being here is the belief that this war was needless folly and madness? Only one visitor strikes a different note: "Never again." On a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops—or was it tears?

The bodies of soldiers of the British Empire lie in 400 cemeteries in the Somme battlefield region alone, a rough crescent of territory less than 20 miles long, but graves are not the only mark the war has made on the land. Here and there, a patch of ground gouged by thousands of shell craters has been left alone; decades of erosion have softened the scarring, but what was once a flat field now looks like rugged, grassed-over sand dunes. On the fields that have been smoothed out again, like those surrounding the Devonshires' cemetery, some of the tractors have armor plating beneath the driver's seat, because harvesting machinery cannot distinguish between potatoes, sugar beets, and live shells. More than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, of which an estimated 15 percent failed to explode. Every year these leftover shells kill people—36 in 1991 alone, for instance, when France excavated the track bed for a new high-speed rail line. Dotted throughout the region are patches