On 1 July 1916, along a frontage of 18 miles, 100,000 British infantrymen — considerably more than the entire strength of the British army today — climbed out of the trenches to begin the great offensive that would become known as the Battle of the Somme. By nightfall there were 60,000 casualties, 20,000 dead or dying. No appreciable gains had been made, and there was no prospect of the breakthrough for which the commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, had assembled three cavalry divisions, some 30,000 horses. No one very senior would be sacked; the scapegoats were regimental officers not judged to have pressed their attacks with sufficient determination in the face of machine guns and uncut barbed wire.
It was inconceivable that the offensive be called off. Haig didn’t know the true extent of the setback, writing in his diary the following evening that casualties were ‘over 40,000 to date’, adding that ‘this cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked’. Besides, the idea was to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. That was why he had accelerated his plans for the big push. And so the battle would continue until the middle of November, with a final butcher’s bill close to half a million British, and a quarter of a million Germans.
Four and a half months of continual fighting, six months’ preparation and a century’s reflection bring very different accounts in the books under review, though their common theme is tragedy. The most original and visually arresting is Jolyon Fenwick’s Zero Hour, a memorial to the first day. Its originality is in the admirably simplified maps and present-day fold-out panoramic photographs taken from the same spot, at the same time and in the same weather as on that day when 142 British battalions (and one of the Newfoundland Regiment), many of them raw troops, men who had answered Kitchener’s call for volunteers, advanced in the expectation of a walkover. For the German trenches were to have been obliterated by the greatest artillery bombardment in history. Unsurprisingly, given his name,
Fenwick’s special attachment is to the men of the Durham Light Infantry and the Northumberland Fusiliers. Courage was common currency that day, but he cites in particular the unwavering bearing of Pipe-Major John Wilson of the 20th NF (Tyneside Scottish), observed by a man of another regiment ‘marching erect, playing furiously, and quite regardless of the flying bullets and the men dropping all around him’. Wilson survived, but his uncle, in the same battalion, didn’t: ‘I did see poor “Aggy” Fyfe,’ recalled another Tynesider; ‘he was riddled with bullets and screaming. Another lad was just kneeling, his head thrown right back. Bullets were just slapping into him knocking great bloody chunks off his body.’
It is what revisionist historians are pleased to ascribe to ‘the learning curve’.
Sixty thousand casualties, most of them in the space of a couple of hours: ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ But what were the next four-and-a-half months all about? Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach — a curious title, for there was no breach — attempts to explain the often inexplicable. His narrative has the fullness of the official history with the added colour of eyewitness accounts. If he is not always conversant with the technicalities, referring to Fourth Army as a ‘unit’, for example, or with the customary phraseology, writing of soldiers ‘manning the divisions’, or with the parlance of the platoon, referring to details in a burial party as ‘workers’, his account is detailed, conscientiously thorough and certainly not parti pris. He says nothing particularly new, but it is the most extensive of the lay narratives.
Peter Liddle has long been one of the most respected historians of the first world war, if not the most widely known. He founded the Liddle Collection of documents and memorabilia at Leeds university, where he taught for many years, and his much admired 1992 The Somme: a Re-Appraisal has been republished, with considerable revision, as The Somme Reconsidered. He recounts the four-and-a-half months’ battle in digestible form, from a humane but unsentimental perspective, and at times very lyrically. Why did men endure the losses and the conditions? Liddle says the social context of the battle is all. Indeed, his book is a constant reminder of context, not least of the times. And he is adamant: ‘In 1916–17 terms, a British victory was won on the Somme.’
The strategic context of the battle was global, and there were others on the Somme as well as the British, not least the Dominion troops. It was an Anglo-French offensive, although because of Verdun the original French effort had been pared right back. And of course there were the Germans. So in The Battle of the Somme, with its foreword by Sir Hew Strachan, who is described not immoderately as ‘the leading World War 1 scholar’, the editor, Matthias Strohn, a lecturer at Sandhurst and reserve officer in the Bundeswehr, has assembled an international team to consider these wider aspects, including the battle’s impact since on military thinking. It is, perhaps, the ‘Whig interpretation of military history’. Not everyone will be able to share its conclusions, but it is erudite, and because of its different authors’ styles and subjects it is also thoroughly readable.
If, however, there comes a desire to get away from both the chateaux perspectives and the bloody work of the bayonet, to get some feel of how things in the British Expeditionary Force just were — the soldier’s life — Andrew Davidson’s The Invisible Cross is instructive. Colonel Graham Chaplin, commanding officer of the 1st Cameronians during the Somme, had the distinction of being perhaps the longest-serving field officer in the trenches. As a company commander he heard the first shots at Mons in August 1914, and was not promoted out of the battalion until September 1917. He wrote almost daily to his wife, and Davidson weaves extracts from these letters into a narrative based on the battalion’s war diary, adding his own succinct commentary. Chaplin had to wait a long time for a brigade — until Passchendaele had taken its toll. In one letter he writes:
Padre McShane [the brigade RC chaplain] says the reason I was not given a Brigade [earlier] was for being so outspoken at Loos [another bloody offensive, in September 1915]. He said that if that were so, I wear the invisible cross of military glory.
It is indeed Chaplin’s uncompromising stance towards both superiors and subordinates, as well as the candour of his letters, that make this book so compelling. Besides history, it is a timeless lesson in the art, practice, rewards and perils of command, and of the nature of morale in battle.
So was the Somme futile? Sebag-Montefiore, Liddle and Strohn point to advantageous outcomes for the Allies: the guts torn out of the German army (‘attrition’), the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, pressure on the French at Verdun relieved — and that ‘learning curve’. Yet if Marshal Bosquet had lived to witness it, he would surely have said: ‘C’est tragique, et ce n’est pas la guerre.’