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The First Battle of the Twentieth Century

by William Philpott

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-26585-2
Publisher: Knopf

A staggeringly comprehensive look at the significant battles of the River Somme during World War I.

Philpott (Military History/King’s Coll., London) brushes aside traditional mythmaking by Winston Churchill and Basil Liddell Hart for a fresh appraisal of this four-year “massacre of the innocents” in the northwest French countryside. Deemed a national tragedy for the British, the author calls it “a victory, if an unappreciated one.” Although the Battle of the Somme usually signified the massive Entente offensive of 1916, the engagement of the three big armies—France, Germany and Britain—actually occurred several times over four years, from September 1914 to August 1918, and ensued largely as a battle of attrition. After initial engagements between the French and the Germans in the summer of 1914 across the frontiers, the French dug in at the Somme. Napoleonic-style fighting—openly advancing formations—was abandoned in favor of trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat, and the “war of flesh was going to become a war of steel, of weaponry and machinery, science and technology” The British imperial army, led by Secretary of War Lord Kitchener and commander-in-chief Douglas Haig, was “something of a wild card” when it reached the Somme, and it was prodded into action by the erosion of the French reserves at Verdun. In contrast, the Kaiser’s army was at the top of its game, and only “a breakdown in German morale” could precipitate its defeat, which the French and British delivered in a coordinated strategy by 1916. Moreover, full mobilization at home was expanded, the war arsenal was replenished—the British employed tanks for the first time in battle, with mixed success—and a long, slow slog against the Germans prevailed. Philpott does a fine job of dovetailing comparative sources in this impressive account.

A knowledgeable, all-encompassing dissection of this supreme example of “the consummate killing power of the machine age.”