Comprehensive study of the battle of 1916 that would kill and wound a million combatants.
Since the 1960s, writes Hart, director and oral historian of London’s Imperial War Museum, the Battle of the Somme has solidified in the popular imagination as a byword for senseless trench warfare commanded by generals who thought nothing of sacrificing soldiers by the battalion. There is truth in that view, but a “more sympathetic perspective” allows that the British commanders, particularly Sir Douglas Haig, believed that war by attrition was the only way they could wear down the huge German army on the Western Front. That soldiers were arrayed in trenches thousands of miles long was an outgrowth, Hart observes, of the British government’s abandonment of a strategy that many imperial servants would have preferred, namely to keep to the high seas and prey on German shipping and German colonies, avoiding at any cost a continental land war. Couple that with Haig’s view that any decision was better than no decision and any action better than inaction, as well as his recognition that defeating Germany was a matter of steadily improving the Allied position, and carnage was bound to ensue. It certainly did. On the first day of the battle, Haig’s forces suffered 54,470 casualties, “the worst disaster ever to have befallen the British Army in its entire history.” The battle saw numerous innovations, including the first—albeit ineffective—use of tanks and a regime of walking artillery fire that left the fields of France full of metal that is still grinding plows today. Remarked a British soldier of one particularly savage corner of the fighting, “I wonder what the people at home who say, ‘We will fight to our last drop of blood!’ would think if they were taken up that trench. For 500 yards it is paved with English dead.” Yet the war would continue for almost two more years, with millions of dead to follow.
An eye-opening study, in keeping with the best of John Keegan, S.L.A. Marshall and B.H. Liddell Hart.