This review is taken from the November 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.
The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War
by Martin Gilbert
(Henry Holt & Co., 332 pages, $27.50)
Over 90 years ago, British, French, and German troops began a five-month battle in northeast France near the River Somme. Some two million men participated in the contest, which saw the first widespread use of tanks, along a 30-mile front.
In an interview about his earlier, definitive work, The First World War, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert remarked: “All wars end up being reduced to statistics, strategies, debates about their origins and results. These debates about war are important, but not more important than the human story of those who fought in them.” In his latest book, The Somme, Gilbert again, through use of remarkable firsthand literary accounts, brings readers’ thoughts to dwell on the human — personal, if you will — side of war.
There is the story of Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien, a 24-year-old signals officer on the Somme. Sixty or so years later, in the introduction to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien would write of the “animal horror” of the trenches and how, “It seems now often forgotten that to be caught by youth in 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
There is the story of the German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, also 24 years old when he made his first kill over a nearby French battlefield on September 17, qualifying him for the award of a silver drinking goblet with the inscription “To the Victor in Air Battle.” A year and a half later, with a record of up to 80 downed British and French aircraft, the Red Baron was shot down over the Somme battlefield. He was buried in the cemetery at Bertangles near Amiens. Six Allied airmen with the rank of captain — the same rank as Richthofen — served as pallbearers. An honor guard fired a salute.
Or the story of a British sergeant, 27-year-old Frederick Coulson, in peacetime a Reuters correspondent. Coulson had refused an officer’s commission on the grounds that he preferred to “do the thing fairly. I will take my place in the ranks.” He was fatally wounded during an October 7 attack on the Transloy Ridge.
Or the story of Captain Harold Macmillan, the future prime minister, who was badly wounded in the battle for the outskirts of Lesbouefs on September 14. He survived the better part of a day lying in a shell hole reading his pocket edition of Prometheus Bound in the original Greek. He was eventually evacuated from the battlefield, but later admitted to his biographer that once he was again alone “grim fear set in.”
“Bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride,” Macmillan said, “because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend.”
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.”
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:
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.
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.