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A Day Such as This

Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century

By William Philpott
Knopf, 2010

Sentiment both enshrines and obscures the great events of our history, and nowhere is this stronger than in war. Benjamin West’s General Wolfe expires with lamb-like serenity; George Armstrong Custer, golden locks flowing, dies valiantly firing his six-shooter into hordes of screaming savages; Gordon calmly dies facing his attackers at Khartoum. Many thousands more have known “The Charge of the Light Brigade” than ever knew anything about the Charge of the Light Brigade. This is the singular power art has over reality – a fact well-known to dictators since the first sneezing, sniffling man had scribes call him a god in Egypt.

This phenomenon represents a grave danger to the truth, of course – it sets up an alternate, more attractive truth in place of the stuff derived from facts and figures. This is the battleground on which history is fought, and the warring parties, those smaller dictators known as historians, are as wary of the dangers of that battleground as they are susceptible to its allure. The great events – often the literal battlegrounds – draw them in their contentious multitudes. Some seek to enshrine and obscure; the pleasure their works can give is sharply mitigated by the caution against ‘greatest generation’ sloganeering. Others seek only facts and figures, but they require a cautious approach as well; they’re often blind to the power of myth.

It’s not surprising that one of the lodestars of this perilous allure is the five-month-long Battle of the Somme. In 1916 marked the pinnacle of slaughter in the First World War and that forms the subject of William Philpott’s absorbing, utterly masterful, and extremely contentious new history Three Armies on the Somme (titled a bit more revealingly in the UK Bloody Victory). For almost a century now, those five months have been known by their first day only, a day of such stark and horrifying unrealities as even bloody-minded Tennyson never dreamed.

The Somme offensive had originally been planned as the staging ground for the ‘one big push’ the allied high command – French General Ferdinand Foch and Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force – hoped would break through the German defenses in occupied France and bring the stalemated conflict to a properly businesslike end. And this purpose had held its place even when its point and urgency were reshaped by the sheer magnitude of the French losses at Verdun, when suddenly the allied powers also saw some large, concerted action on the Somme as a way to draw German forces away from the bloodletting further south. In hindsight it seems a kind of lunacy to attack along one point on an extended front while suffering a butchery at another point on the same front – and not only in hindsight: the German chief general Erich von Falkenhayn at first dismissed reports he had of a British build-up in the region of the Somme as impossible.

But that build-up was real, and on the 24th of June the British 4th Army under General Rawlinson opened up an immense artillery bombardment of the German entrenchments – over a million and a half shells were lobbed across No Man’s Land, with the aim of pulverizing German resistance and destroying the miles and miles of barbed wire defenses. This bombardment lasted until the first of July, and then, at 7:30 a.m on a hot, pretty summer day, the shells stopped and the young men of “Kitchener’s Army,” most of them minimally trained civilians enjoying their first taste of warfare, went ‘up and over,’ clambering out of their trenches and marching in calm and orderly fashion toward the German positions around 900 yards away. These men had been assured by their commanders that the previous week’s shelling had broken the German’s line – they were told they’d have at most some light mopping-up to do before they walked on to Bapaume, a few miles from the front, and then on to Cambrai and final victory.

But the Germans had had more than a year to fortify their positions overlooking the Somme valley. Some of their trenches were so deep no shell could disturb them; many were concrete-reinforced; many had electricity. The German high command had been shocked by the severity of the shelling, true, but these front line soldiers weren’t hastily-drafted ingenues – they were experienced and battle-hardened, and when the shelling stopped, they hauled their machine guns and rocket launchers up from the trenches, dusted them off, and turned them on the large, orderly crowds of men walking and laughing toward them. The folly of marching unarmored men toward entrenched firing positions had been gruesomely attested in the American Civil War even before there had been machine guns and rocket launchers. The results that morning on the Somme were an order of magnitude worse.

Men feel in sheets like sleet. Whole companies vanished in an instant. Wards, neighborhoods, entire villages of young men staggered, were ripped ragged, crumpled. By the end of that day, the BEF had 57, 470 casualties, including close to 20,000 fatalities – and the world had a solid new chunk of mythology. Day One of the Somme became a shorthand for all military folly, with theory-spouting generals ordering an entire generation of innocents to its death in a pointless struggle for an anonymous scrap of ground. The nightmare came to symbolize the entire reality of life at the front in the First World War.

William Philpott’s exasperation with that symbol is understandable. Most so-called ‘histories’ of the Battle of the Somme spend 90 percent of their effort on Haig’s build-up and then the horrors of that first day, usually with only a cursory glance at the four months and twenty-nine days that came after. They assure themselves and us that they don’t need to dwell much on that remainder, since it was trench warfare at its most stultifying, with so little ground gained or lost that historians have cavalierly maintained you need a magnifying glass just to find the contested area on a map.

In contrast to that majority of Somme historians, there has always been a school of thought – and Philpott’s book is now the ornament and sacred text of that school – that said otherwise, that find some worth in all that incremental bloodletting. Military historian John Keegan, by no means sympathetic to this alternate view, sums it up like this:

A new generation of young military historians has taken to re-fighting the battles of the British Expeditionary Force with a passion more understandable in survivors of the trench warfare disasters than in posthumous academic analysts. An underlying theme is that, dreadful as the experience of the early offensives was, it provided a learning process through which the survivors and their successors won the eventual victories of 1918, an argument akin to the thought that Dunkirk was a valuable rehearsal in the amphibious operations for D-Day.

Quarrelsome snark like this is typical of the sniping between these camps, but perhaps that sniping will be quieter now, since Philpott’s big book is neither winsomely lost in theory nor wrong-headed in its marshaling of facts. His contention is that armies are organic things, and that when they’re confronted with new situations, they grope and recoil much as living things do. He does indeed assert that the immensity of the Somme provided a learning process by which its survivors could win the war, but his zealotry doesn’t stop him from covering the entire theater of the war, and his insights are as vivid and thought-provoking on that wider field as on the specifics of the battle and its aftermath. The American edition of his book carries the subtitle “The First Battle of the Twentieth Century,” and in many passages he tallies its ghastly innovations:

The First World War was a war of invention, where scientific-industrial complexes competed with each other to produce more efficient or deadlier weapons for the fight, increasing the killing potential, if making little impact on the stalemate. Gas, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers, sub-machine guns, trench mortars and cannon, fighter and bomber aircraft, tanks and self-propelled artillery all made their battlefield debuts between 1914 and 1918, in many forms and variations.

He’s also quick to dispel the easy nationalistic reductions that have plagued the war from its first day, and he does so brilliantly:

Germany is traditionally credited with the initiative when it comes to the development of appropriate infantry tactics for the industrial battlefield, but all armies were engaged with the same problems, and worked out similar solutions. “Storm-troops,” infiltration tactics, combined arms tactics, heavy support weapons, infantry specialists and small-group formations are all identified in the paeans to German military skill. But all were employed by the French army on the Somme in 1916.

Two other skills of all good military historians he possesses in abundance: first, he can draw a quick sketch of his characters without hampering his narrative, as when he quips of German General Fritz von Below, “Although he has not left much of a mark on history (he did not live long enough to write his memoirs and is only a shadowy presence in those of others).” And second, he has an easy command of the mountain of first-hand accounts that come down to us and without which no modern military history is complete, as in the memoir written by Private Robert Cude of the 7th East Kent Battalion:

A day such as this, one feels a keen joy in living, even though that living is to say the least of it very precarious. Yet men are racing to certain death, and jesting and smiling, yet wonderfully quiet in a sense, for one feels that one must kill, and as often as one can.

“Only when studied in the round,” Philpott tells us, “does the Somme’s significance emerge.” That significance is not pretty, since Philpott is very much of the school that maintains the floundering slaughter of that storied first day and the grinding anticlimax of the following five months were vital components in the allied forces winning the war. “The Somme battle continued until mid-November,” historian Hew Strachan writes, “with its purpose oscillating between attrition and breakthrough according to the nature of the latest success or the audience to whom reports were directed” – implying that Haig and the battle’s other architects were too proud (or too addicted to bloodshed) to admit its failure as either breakthrough or attrition, that men died for the sake of mere momentum. John Keegan summarizes with what he clearly hopes will be a self-evident finality:

The simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare is that the massing of large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped, against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and provided with rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in very heavy casualties among the attackers.

Philpott’s contention is that all such a summary of the Somme is wrong in its implications. Yes, such a strategy will result in very heavy casualties among the attackers, but if carried out with preliminary bombardments and ongoing covering fire, such attacks can result in very heavy casualties among the attacked as well. And very heavy casualties among the attacked can be a legitimate goal when facing an enemy whose forces are stretched to the limit fighting a war on two fronts. Even so august an authority as B. H. Liddell Hart, writing eighty years ago, can make offhand reference to “the failure of the Somme offensive,” but even in those first few days the French, attacking the German line further south and backed up with more heavy artillery, gained ground and repulsed the Germans. British night attacks took Bazentin Ridge, Mametz Wood, and Contalmaison. The British XIII Corps captured Montaunban – indeed, both flanks captured territory, towns, and the initiative.

 

It doesn’t look like much of an initiative, it’s true. In the popular imagination, “Somme mud” became a handy metaphor for futility – even Philpott can’t resist the requisite digression on the subject (with a final line that provides one of the few smiles in this grim book):

Mud assisted the defence in other ways, too. The bombardment lost some of its potency. Shells falling into this swamp would not explode. The near-miss is a staple of soldiers’ memoirs, and those of autumn 1916 describe shells landing with a splash in the many shell-hole pools that dotted the landscape, or plopping into the liquid ooze at their feet, rather than exploding on contact with hard ground … Mud would coat the long skirts of the French service overcoat to such an extent that the men found themselves restricted in their movements by the extra weight. Many Scottish regiments marched out of the battle with bare legs. Such conditions did nothing for the men on either side.

But mire was not the final word on the attrition tactics of the Somme, and those historians who claim the attack should have been called off after the frightening losses of the first few days are failing to see the forest through the triage. It’s invidious to cite meager ground gained as a sign of failure if gaining ground was never the highest object. Haig and his colleagues would have been happy with a breakthrough and a walk to Cambrai in beautiful summer weather, of course. But the Germans were dug in and heavily fortified on the ground they’d stolen – allied bombardments were only going to do so much. The rest would have to be done through the ghastly calculus of attrition.

Final numbers are difficult to tally, but the allied forces suffered approximately 614,000 casualties in the Battle of the Somme, 420,000 of them British. The German total is always maddeningly given as anywhere from 465,000 to 650,000, owing to the fact that German casualty returns were written up only every ten days, and there’s an argument to be made that they excluded large numbers of lightly wounded men who were then sent immediately back to the front. For the period of January to October 1916, Der Weltkrieg, the official German history of the war, indicates that the German army suffered 1,400,000 irreplaceable casualties, 800,000 of them from July onwards. This has always raised the possibility that the Germans were misreporting their wounded and dead on a wide scale in 1916, and a wide scale isn’t even needed for the discrepancies to be significant. As heartless as it sounds, a German casualty total at the Somme of even 675, 000 would tell a story very different from a stalemate that should have been aborted. The Germans were fighting a war on two fronts against enemies who were themselves steadily gaining strength – a massive offensive like the Somme wouldn’t need to cover Patton-style miles of territory to be catastrophic for them.

And as Philpott puts it simply, it worked. In February of 1917, two months after the Battle of the Somme had officially ended, the Germans fell back all along their front lines in the west, bled white and scrambling for men and materiel, far closer to suing for peace than they would have been if the Somme really had constituted a failure.

“Above all,” Philpott writes, “one unfortunate month on one section of the Somme front is not a valid yardstick against which to judge the battle, let alone the attritional strategy of the war as a whole.” His book has made the most knowledgeable and comprehensive case to date for just such a claim. No serious reader of military history should miss it.

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A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.