The 90th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme falls on 1 July. Several books mark it; it made a scar on the nation’s memory that is still severe, and it is still often called the day when the army suffered its worst casualties. Strictly, this is not true, for General Perceval in Singapore surrendered 80,000 men to a smaller force of Japanese on 15 February 1942. But on 1 July 1916 the army did suffer its worst total of dead on a single day: 19,240, and nearly 40,000 more were wounded or went missing. It was the first major action in which Kitchener’s new armies fought; whole battalions of ‘Pals’ from northern industrial towns were almost wiped out.
There is an unhappy mismatch between the view military historians nowadays take of the battle and the picture of it which is held in popular memory and regularly perpetuated in the news media. School-teaching in England now normally includes a spell on the British effort on the western front in France and Flanders in 1914-18, which — based on the poems of Sassoon and Owen and the prose of Blunden and Graves, all of them admirably literary icons — presents it as a story of glum heroes marching forward to be massacred to no good end. It was all a great deal more complicated than that; try explaining that to a school teacher who has just taken your class to see Oh, What a Lovely War!
Christopher Duffy has written a most original, illuminating book about the Somme, based on study of the ground and research among German army archives; he presents the battle as the Germans saw it, through the British prisoners they captured and interrogated. He summarises the mood of all ranks of the British army as one of ‘morose optimism’. Over and over again, his account makes clear what kept going wrong. On the first day, the vast artillery preparations had not silenced the enemy after all; row upon row of well-aligned soldiers were shot flat in the open by machine-guns. But the British persevered. Troops would make serious inroads into the strong German positions, but lacked the enterprising leadership on the spot to exploit sudden opportunities, and had no means of calling up more ammunition and more help when they needed it. Almost universally, early in the battle captured sergeants and corporals complained that their junior officers knew nothing of combat, and had been of no use to them: not a view reflected in many British accounts. Duffy also makes clear how fast the British learnt to fight as the battle went on.
Moreover he explains how severely the Germans were shaken by Haig’s stolid succession of assaults; he has instances by October of whole German units refusing to leave their trenches when ordered to take part in counter-attacks. An aspect of the Somme battle which remains to be cleared up is the impact that it made on German army morale: the Germans had hitherto taken for granted that they were the world’s leading soldiers, and became uneasy at the readiness of amateurs to take them on and beat them.
Gavin Stamp’s book is devoted to a single one of the thousands of memorials that now dot the battlefield, Lutyens’s stupendous arch at Thiepval that records the names of over 73,000 British and South African soldiers who were killed on the Somme but have no known graves. As a piece of architectural analysis, it is impressive; it takes its military history from Alan Clark and Joan Littlewood.
The tireless Sir Martin Gilbert, best known for nearly a score of volumes on Churchill, has written also more than a score of other history books, and adds one more on the Somme: a day-by-day account of the fight, triumph and tragedy hand in hand, with tragedy predominating. He includes plenty of horrors, and plenty of instances of courage and self-sacrifice, rounding out most of his harrowing tales with word of where those who achieved them are buried or commemorated. Churchill in retrospect thought Haig (who had failed to promote him to brigadier-general) a stick-in-the-mud: indeed the mud of the Somme became proverbial. Gilbert does not seek to overturn Churchill’s verdict.
The last word may be left with Sidney Rogerson, who fought on the Somme himself, and survived to write a brief account of a few days up the line as a company commander in the West Yorkshire Regiment in November 1916. It came out in 1933, and is well worth reprinting: though full of horrors, it shows how readily men endured them, because they believed in what they were doing. Rogerson concludes that ‘terrifying as they sometimes and uncomfortable as they often were, the war years will stand out in the memories of vast numbers of those who fought as the happiest period of their lives.’