Allan Mallinson

Ce n’est pas la guerre

To coincide with the anniversary of the Somme, five books describe the offensive that left over a million dead. Or did it really help us win the war, asks Allan Mallinson.

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.

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