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And then there was the young German corporal who wrote: “At the end of September 1916, my division moved into the Battle of the Somme. For us it was the first of the tremendous battles of materiel which now followed, and the impression was hard to describe — it was more like hell than war.” Adolf Hitler was one of the approximately one million casualties of the Battle of the Somme.
Another strong impetus for Gilbert in formulating these more personalized war histories was his discovery as a young man that tens of thousands of men had died anonymously, their bodies often unable to be recovered. Their names are now memorialized in shrines along the border between Germany and France. Gilbert masterfully employs a haunting refrain to end all too many of The Somme’s chapters, like some ancient chorus: “His name is now inscribed on the Thiepval memorial to the missing.”
AT THE BEGINNING of Gilbert’s account, he briefly gives the back-story for the battle: the French were being pressed severely at Verdun, and the British were persuaded to launch an offensive on the Somme to relieve their ally. Gilbert includes some discussion of British battle planning and logistics. But, all in all, it was a most simple plan: send hundreds of thousands of men forward against entrenched positions, hope the Germans run out of bullets before the British run out of men, and tear a hole in the lines wide enough for a cavalry penetration.
However, despite British hopes of a breakthrough, between the first and last day of the Battle of the Somme — July 1 and November 21, 1916 — the deepest penetration of the German line was less than six miles. The British front line was still three miles short of Bapaume, which it had been hoped would be captured within a few days of the July 1 attack. By the final day, no gap large enough for cavalry had been made. No German communication or supply lines had been disrupted. No French town had been liberated. Yet the Somme and Verdun together saw an average of more than 6,600 men killed each day.
Already by August 1916, Winston Churchill had openly criticized the tactics: “We have not conquered in a month’s fighting as much ground as we were expected to gain in the first two hours. We have not advanced three miles in the direct line at any point. We have only penetrated to that depth on a front of 8,000 or 10,000 yards.”
Churchill was convinced that it was a mistake to continue the Somme offensive. “The retention of Verdun at least would be a trophy — to which sentiment on both sides has become mistakenly attached,” he wrote. “But what are Peronne and Bapaume, even if we were likely to take them? The open country towards which we are struggling by inches is capable of entrenched defense at every step, and is utterly devoid of military significance.”
Gilbert, who is also Churchill’s official biographer, points out in summary that “[t]he battle had become a struggle for the possession of woods, copses, valleys, ravines and ruined villages; for the possession of pulverized fields and a dense array of shellholes.”
THE MILITARY ARCHITECT BEHIND the British war of attrition was Gen. Douglas Haig. Gilbert nicely chronicles the general’s attitude toward troops under his command through the use of his own diary entries. For example, failure to take a key German trench on the River Ancre in early September caused Haig to comment: “The units did not really attack, and some men did not follow their officers. The total losses of this division were under a thousand! It is a Territorial division from the West Riding of Yorkshire. I had occasion a fortnight ago to call the attention of the Army and Corps Commanders (Gough and Jacob) to the slackness of one of its battalions in the matter of saluting when I was motoring through the village where it was billeted. I expressed my opinion that such men were too sleepy to fight well, etc.!” Later in the month, after combat southeast of Gueudecourt, Haig wrote in his diaries that “[t]he casualties for the last two days’ heavy fighting are just 8,000. This is very remarkable, and seems to bear out the idea that the enemy is not fighting so well, and has suffered in morale.”
The following month, in criticizing a Canadian regiment for failing to hold a key German trench, Haig wrote, “I think the cause was that in the hope of saving lives they attacked in too weak numbers. They encountered a brigade of the German Marine Corps recently arrived from Ostend, and had not the numbers to overcome them in a hand-to-hand struggle. They (the Canadians) have been very extravagant in expending ammunition! This points rather to nervousness and low morale in those companies which are frequently calling for a barrage without good cause.”p>While there were isolated incidences of cowardice and desertion — the British executed 60 men for related crimes — for the most part these men went “over the top” of their trenches and into No Man’s Land knowing full well they would likely never return. They performed feats of bravery, they fought to exhaustion, and they died in the most frightful of conditions trying to save their fellow soldiers. Though Haig retired with distinction, criticism of all he represented about the war continued, even after his death. In a November 1928 obituary for the general in Pall Mall magazine, Churchill wrote: br> /p>
He does not appear to have had any original ideas…. No one can discern a spark of that mysterious, visionary, often sinister genius which has enabled the great captains of history to dominate the material factors, save slaughter and confront their foes with the triumph of novel apparitions…. He appeared at all times quite unconscious of any theatre but the Western Front. There were the Germans in their trenches. Here he stood at the head of an army corps, then of an army, and finally of a group of mighty armies. Hurl them on and keep slogging at it in the best possible way — that was war.br> That was the Great War when examined from the perspective of tactics and strategy, maneuvers and statistics — and arguably even underlying causes and justifications. But fortunately Gilbert provides his readers more: the hearts of the brave men who gave all they had in their generation’s epic struggle.
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