by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
Published by UNSW Press
Paperback, 358 pp b/w photographs
Reviewed by RNZRSA Historian Dr Stephen Clarke
Modern memory of the Somme offensive is dominated by a few seconds of footage showing infantrymen going ‘over the top’ and disappearing into the mist, supposedly never to be seen again. The dominance of the infantry in the written record is also not surprising when they comprised the bulk of the 432,000 casualties, or about 3,600 for every day of the battle between 1 July and mid November 1916, making it the bloodiest encounter in the long history of the British Army. Australian academics Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, whose previous collaborations include Command on the Western Front (1992) and Passchendaele: The Untold Story (1996), challenge and generally succeed in revising the centrality of the infantry and many other entrenched views relating to the Somme.
The treatment of the opening battle on 1 July is the most striking aspect of the book because it deals with what we know best or thought we knew. Prior and Wilson reveal that contrary to popular perceptions, British troops did not walk across no-man’s-land, shoulder-to-shoulder, only to be mown down by enemy machine-gun fire. The so-called ‘race for the parapet’ is shown as nothing more than a romantic myth that disguises the real failure of the preliminary bombardment as a result of it being spread too thinly over an extremely wide area, according to Haig’s design, to allow for his much overrated and never executed cavalry charge. A major theme of this study, common with their earlier work, is the centrality of artillery support to success on the Western Front.
The titanic scale of the Somme is realised when the New Zealand Division, which went into action on the 15 September and is covered in Andrew Macdonald’s recent 335-page publication receives just three pages here and that is as it should be in a campaign that involved over 50 Divisions.
The Somme is no less a massive feat and the authors assist the reader through the meticulously analysed landscape with a kit of succinct overviews, illustrative examples, excellent maps, and the constant use of summations for those struggling behind the lines.
The Somme is classic military history, no ‘voices from the trenches’ here for the soft human story, the brief is to question and analyse just as historians are supposed to do. Prior and Wilson have been criticised as being as clinical as the official history they dog and the commanders they bemoan, but it is their coolness and clarity that brings into stark relief the stupidity and senselessness of much of the slaughter. The style is nonetheless accessible, and the use of irony as acerbic as if from the mouth of Captain Blackadder. While at times it may seem that the authors enjoy too much the benefit of an ‘armchair’ vantage point and 20/20 hindsight, in general the criticisms are wholly warranted.
So what is their final summation on the Somme? No victory in 1916 or even a platform created for one in 1918, as a result of every German casualty coming at the cost of two British soldiers, for the capture of a mere slither of territory, and no strategic advantage. What of the participants? The long-criticised infantry are rehabilitated, divisional as well as brigade commanders are excused for the consequences of decisions made elsewhere, while Corps and Army commanders are criticised for their failure to learn seemingly obvious lessons and it is a mockery to use the concept ‘learning curve’ in association with the Somme. Worse still, high command is charged with being careless with the lives of their own men. What of Haig? He does not come out well, but not for the traditional reasons of being an unimaginative general who purposely waged an ‘attritional’ war to wear down the enemy. On the contrary, Haig is criticised for possessing too much imagination, constantly attempting to deliver a battle-winning (indeed war-winning) stroke using strategy more in keeping with the nineteenth century than with industrial warfare. The end result is the same: unnecessary wastage. Finally, the guns are turned on the government-dominated War Committee back in London for abdicating responsibility over the strategic direction of the offensive. There is little comfort here for the recent revisionists (or in the long historiography of the Somme the ‘revisionist revisionists’!) who believe that the Somme contributed to the eventual defeat of Germany in 1918. Prior and Wilson’s final assessment is unequivocal: ‘The soldiers who became casualties in their hundreds of thousands fought well in a good cause. But they deserved a plan and competent leadership as well as a cause.’ (p. 309)
The Somme might be an example of classic military history but it significantly challenges the previous classic accounts and much of the revisionist argument as well. In so doing it burns away the mist and mystery that has so long shrouded this campaign.
Somme on NZHistory.net.nz (Ministry for Culture & Heritage)