Mud, blood and misconception, Damien Fenton

First Day of the Somme: The Complete Account of Britain’s Worst-ever Military Disaster 
Andrew Macdonald,
HarperCollins, $40.00,
ISBN 9781775540403

Experience of a Lifetime: People, Personalities and Leaders in the First World War 
John Crawford, David Littlewood and James Watson (eds)
Massey University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780994130013

1 July 2016 marked the centenary of the beginning of the (First) Battle of the Somme. (There was a Second Battle of the Somme in late 1918, but that was a comprehensive Allied victory which is completely at odds with the war poet/Blackadder view of WWI and, as such, is therefore usually completely ignored in popular Anglocentric accounts of the conflict today.) The First was one of the bloodiest battles of attrition fought on the Western Front during WWI. The date is also infamous for being the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. Attacking British forces suffered 57,470 casualties (including 19,240 dead) and failed either to take or hold most of their intended first-day objectives.

The offensive began as an attempt by the British Fourth Army, supported by the British Third and French Sixth Army, to break through the German lines straddling the Somme River in Picardy, hitherto a relatively quiet sector of the Western Front. The Somme River also marked the division between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) controlled portion of the front line (everything north of the Somme River) and the French portion of the front line (everything south of the Somme River).

Despite the failure in the British sector of the battlefield on 1 July, the French Sixth Army actually achieved all of its first-day objectives in the south, and the offensive continued throughout the summer and into the autumn of 1916. General Sir Douglas Haig, the BEF commander, now insisted that, rather than a decisive breakthrough, he had intended to wage a battle of attrition all along, and that the Germans would break with just one more attack, just one more all-out effort, and so the battle rolled on. It wasn’t to be, and although the Germans were pushed to the limit they didn’t break; but nearly 46 British and nine Dominion infantry divisions were fed into the campaign over five months before Haig conceded the point. (Each infantry division was made up of approximately 18,000 men at full strength.) The new attacks waged by these fresh divisions were named battles in their own right, and for the New Zealand Division its turn came with the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (15-22 September 1916). Thankfully, for New Zealand at any rate, the only Dominion unit present on that infamous first day was the Newfoundland Regiment, attached to the British 29th Division, both formations having fought at Gallipoli alongside the Anzacs the previous year.

By the time the offensive ended in November, total casualties for both sides amounted to more than a million men killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner: 420,000 British and 200,000 losses as against 500,000 German losses.

The Somme has since become embedded in Anglocentric popular culture as the battle that, with the possible exception of Passchendaele, best embodies all the WWI clichés: mud, blood, trenches and barbed wire, horrendous casualties in apparently pointless attacks by waves of British infantry across no man’s land, a generation of brave young men sent into a slaughterhouse by “chateau” generals located in comfort miles behind the lines and hopelessly out of touch with the realities of modern industrial warfare – “lions led by donkeys” to quote British politician and historian Alan Clark’s memorable phrase from his 1961 book The Donkeys (a deeply scathing study of British WWI generals).

This view, first encapsulated in the works of the war poets, completed its ascendency to become the dominant public perception of WWI, thanks to a new wave of popular histories by Clark and others, along with the landmark 1964 BBC TV documentary series The Great War, produced to coincide with the succession of fiftieth WWI anniversaries in the middle of that decade.

Of course, the reality is a lot more complicated than that. In recent decades, new generations of mostly military historians have largely debunked this assessment by Clark and his contemporaries as being far too simplistic. But, despite this, their work has made little impact outside of academic circles, and on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme it is very instructive to ask ourselves why this is so and why WWI has, arguably, moved beyond being simply yet another historical conflict, subject to the same rules of historical enquiry and debate as any other, and instead morphed into a cultural touchstone that defies challenge, no matter how well-grounded in historical fact.

I would argue that the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and those 60,000 casualties, marked the point when the conflict escaped all the normal strictures of history and became something much bigger within the Anglocentric world. The key to this phenomenon lies not just in the casualties – unprecedented, albeit only by Anglocentric standards, but in the demographic make-up of those casualties. Because the Battle of the Somme was the baptism of fire for the bulk of the so-called Kitchener Armies, the millions of British men who had responded to the Secretary of State for War’s appeal (and the iconic poster that went with it) and volunteered to join up throughout 1914 and 15 and who, after months of training, were now taking part in their first big battle. These were citizen-soldiers from every city, town and village across the United Kingdom – nearly everyone at home knew someone who was there – and they were also the first British army in which the rank and file were educated and literate enough to describe and record their front-line experiences for posterity in vivid excruciating detail. This also held true for the citizen-soldier expeditionary forces raised by the dominions. The hitherto anonymous ranks of the Thin Red Line that died in their thousands under a British flag at Waterloo or Blenheim, a hundred or two hundred years earlier, would be anonymous no more. Thus, the tragic events of that first day have lost little in their power to shock, upset and anger over the passage of time.

The fact that 1 July 1916 and its staggering loss of life was actually the exception, not the rule, when it came to the BEF’s four-year experience on the Western Front, has done nothing to dent popular fascination with the events of that day across succeeding generations in Britain and her former dominions. Although hundreds of books dealing with the history of this battle have been published since the 1920s, it was Martin Middlebrook’s First Day of the Somme, published in 1971, that hit upon the perfect formula for popular consumption with its skilful blending of personal accounts with a bird’s-eye-view of the battlefield over the first 24 hours of the fighting. Middlebrook was able to conduct his own interviews with Somme veterans, in addition to drawing upon their letters, diaries and written memoirs, and this rapidly fading final opportunity to capture their thoughts played a big part in his motivation for undertaking the project. It remains a classic and, unsurprisingly, has been reprinted to sit alongside the fresh crop of 2016 histories about the battle to hit the shelves in time for the centenary.

In amongst that crop is First Day of the Somme by Andrew Macdonald, a New Zealand journalist turned military historian now based in London. Macdonald’s background as a journalist ensures that the reader is presented with a tightly-structured, lively and well-written narrative of the day in question – effectively presented here as a compelling disaster story – and he has already established his credentials as a military historian with his previous two books, one dealing with the New Zealand Division’s experience of the Somme in September-October 1916 while the other examines the disaster that befell the New Zealanders at Passchendaele a year later. But while the quality of the writing and the research is beyond reproach, one can’t help wondering why Macdonald has chosen such well-trodden ground for his third book.

In his introduction, Macdonald anticipates such criticism and seeks to head it off by arguing that, after 45 years, Middlebrook’s classic is showing its age vis à vis the decades of new academic research on the subject that have followed in its wake, and that there is, in fact, a lot left to learn and discover about the battle – a premise which undoubtedly holds for the true military aficionados out there, but whether the general reader, transfixed by the tragedy unfolding before them, really cares, is debatable. Macdonald also sets out to investigate the German side of the story in as much detail as he does the British, and it is this angle upon which his principal rationale for undertaking the book rests. However, despite his publisher’s claim to the contrary, Macdonald’s book is not the first work in English to attempt this approach: Professor William Philpott (King’s College, London) wrote an outstanding comparative operational history of the British, German and French armies in the battle, Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century, in 2010, while others, such as Jack Sheldon, have covered the German side in its own right.

Macdonald argues that his research demonstrates the overall superiority of German generalship and its officer corps over their British counterparts but, while solidly made, this argument would be a little more convincing if Macdonald had compared their respective performances over the campaign as a whole, rather than just the first day. Moreover, the really interesting question about the battle that, Philpott excepted, remains largely unanswered in English, is why the French succeeded – for a mere 2500 casualties – where the British failed on 1 July for the loss of 57,000. Or, put another way, why did the German defenders of the Somme perform so well against the British that day, but so badly against the French?

So, although the byline makes the bold claim that this book is “the complete account of Britain’s worst-ever military disaster”, it can’t really be justified while the questions posed by the French performance remain unaddressed. But, taken on its own terms, Macdonald’s work certainly provides a comprehensive account of two of the three armies involved and does indeed deliver a worthy modern successor to Middlebrook’s account of the first day of the battle.

Experience of a Lifetime: People, Personalities and Leaders in the First World War, edited by John Crawford, David Littlewood and James Watson, is a collection of 16 essays based on papers presented at a conference held under the same name at Massey University’s Wellington campus in August 2014. Conference proceedings (which is essentially what this is) can often be a mixed bag, but happily not in this case. The authors, an impressive line-up of international and local scholars, have delivered a fascinating series of essays, nearly all focused on the individual experience of WWI. They range from the performance of Esat Pasha, the Turkish corps commander in charge of defeating the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, to Ratu Sukana, a high-born Fijian who circumvented British rules forbidding native Fijians from enlisting by joining the French Foreign Legion instead. The result is an eclectic but absorbing collection of different experiences of WWI that, in addition to telling intriguing stories about the individuals concerned, also manages to shed light on aspects of the war you may never have heard of or considered before.

Dr Damien Fenton is an honorary research fellow in the First World War Centenary History Programme, Massey University, Wellington.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category