The word Somme has become synonymous with obscene. This July 1, 2016 marks the hundredth anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme—the worst single-day experience in British military history. The World War I bloodbath saw over 20,000 British and imperial troops killed or never accounted for, and another 35,000 wounded—all in just the first few hours of a head-on assault against entrenched German lines near the Somme River in France. After Zero Hour on July 1, the British fell at the rate of eight men per second. Andrew Roberts notes that “By 8:30 a.m. just under half of the 66,000 British soldiers who had attacked in eighty-four battalions were casualties.”
The centennial of the nightmare this year has already birthed a series of commemorative analyses, which, in the custom of the last century, still seek to make sense of the surreal. Why exactly for 141 days did the British Expeditionary Force, along with its French allies, so unimaginatively continue to batter well-entrenched German positions? When the months-long battle wound down in mid-November, the Western Front in northern France was pushed back eastward only about six miles, along a line less than thirty miles long—at the price of a million Allied and German soldiers killed or maimed.
After Zero Hour on July 1, the British fell at the rate of eight men per second.
Over the last century, even the revisions of the Somme have been revised. Along with Passchendaele and Verdun, the battle almost immediately seemed to define a European lost generation, whose leaders had supposedly sacrificed the old order for little more than dynastic rivalries. We still tag the Somme with a variety of consequences and legacies: supposedly callous château generalship, the catalyst for postwar modernism in art and literature, the end of patriotism, the anti-war poetry and prose of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, the reactive birth of Blitzkrieg, later British and French appeasement, and the Allied postwar emphases on air power—but most always with the annihilation of British manhood for ostensibly nothing.
The distinguished British military historian and biographer Andrew Roberts’s anniversary take is more nuanced and empathetic. His succinct treatment is confined to the battle’s first day and entitled Elegy, at first glance a misnomer given the usual vocabulary—disaster, catastrophe, outrage—associated with the battle. But tragedy, not melodrama, is Roberts’ commemorative homage to the bravery of hundreds of thousands who did their duty, fought, died, or were maimed—and mostly failed to achieve long-term British objectives. Roberts is adamant that the dead were not betrayed by their generals, at least not deliberately and callously so, and that ultimately they contributed to the Allied victory.
Roberts does not seek to wade into the detailed acrimony and controversies of what went wrong with the battle plan, or to offer even a systematic and continuous narrative of the day’s events. Instead he notes that the British never really articulated what was to follow strategically should the attackers break through and thus were never quite sure what the point of the later twenty weeks of carnage were all for. Instead, as the title implies, Roberts mostly offers first-hand accounts of the killing (enriched by his own exploration of the terrain of the Western front), collated from a variety of memoirs, contemporary news accounts, and official reports, with chapter headings organized in rough sequential order from pre-battle planning (“Strategy,” “Tactics,” “Preparations”) to the day’s battle itself (“Zero Hour” and “The First of July”) and final assessments (“Aftermath,” “Lessons Learned,” and “Conclusions”).
Many of the primary source accounts make graphic reading of shredded bodies, excrement, rats, and vaporized soldiers (“Others might have been old or young. One could not tell because they had no faces and were just masses of raw flesh in uniforms.”). Irony abounds. General Haig’s idea of unleashing an artillery barrage, unlike any seen in military history, to soften the German lines up certainly seemed practicable during the week before the battle. His artillery corps fired 1,627,824 shells along the Somme front. As one German survivor of the barrage described what in the end turned out to be an ineffective storm of shrapnel, “Tomorrow evening it will be seven days since the bombardment began. We cannot hold out much longer. Everything is shot to pieces.” Before Zero Hour even the British gunners felt sorry for the targeted Germans, who nonetheless were quick to emerge from their dug-outs to slaughter Tommies in withering machine-gun cross-fire: “I could not resist feeling sorry for the wretched atoms of humanity,” one British artillery gunner remarked of his own bombardment, “crouching behind their ruined parapets, and going through hell itself. Modern war is the most cruel thing I ever heard of.”
In truth, the artillery barrages (which were responsible for about 60 percent of all combat deaths in World War I) were woefully inadequate—given the expansive front and the extent of the German labyrinth of trenches. The shelling started too soon before the battle and tipped off the Germans of the big push to come. They for most part retreated deeper into the earth and to the rear within their superior subterranean networks, and simply waited out the barrage. Too many British shells were duds. There were too few guns to target German batteries and to stop counter-artillery fire against the attack. Despite elaborate British efforts to bury phone lines, communications with the advancing front ranks were too sporadic to redirect artillery fire into German machine-gun positions. Their murderous cross-fires wasted thousands of British troops, who plodded through the mud with over sixty pounds in their backpacks.
What does Roberts, the historian and memoirist, make of it all? He notes of the dead and wounded, “Sometimes it can be hard to visualize such huge numbers. To get a sense of the extent of the slaughter, roughly the same number of Britons (and Newfoundlanders) were killed and wounded on the first day of the Somme as there are words in the main body of text in this book.” His assessment could be best called “balanced” and comes to conclusions similar to at least four of the most recent biographies of British commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir Douglas Haig, that dispense with the idea that British generalship was out-of-touch, self-serving, uncaring, and in the end tactically imbecilic: “Often depicted as a heartless butcher, Haig was in fact anything but.” By the same token, Haig’s German counterparts were likewise professional and occasionally astute. Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, who commanded the targeted German Sixth Army, was no rigid Prussian militarist. By all accounts, he was sensitive to the quandary of the Western Front and one of the few German royals who deserved his high command on the basis of talent and preparation rather than connections.
Haig’s German counterparts were likewise professional and occasionally astute.
If Haig’s plan to blast open the German trenches and march through to open countryside was unrealistic, given British limitations in follow-up artillery, supplies, and manpower, he may have been at least on the right track in preferring that the Somme attack should have been launched on a narrower front with more intense and shorter bombardment. In Haig’s defense, Roberts in various ways makes the argument that by summer 1916, for good or evil, there were not very many alternatives to expelling the German army—the finest and most feared land force in the world on the eve of the war—from Belgium and Northern France: “If there was a way of fighting the First World War that did not involve trying to smash frontally through formidable enemy defenses, neither side discovered one. This was Haig’s dilemma.” Certainly sitting in fetid trenches would not relieve the beleaguered French to the south at Verdun, who were reeling under weeks of concurrent German offensive hammer blows. On other fronts, the Russians and Italians were also wearying under the Central Powers’ pressure. Blasting a hole in German lines along a northern front, then, was not just Haig’s idea of saving the fragile Entente and putting an end to the misery of trench warfare, but had been agreed on by the Allies at the 2nd Chantilly Conference of December 6–8, just months prior.
Perhaps nothing short of outright victory and the end of the war could justify such horrendous sacrifice. But that said, did anything good come out of the Somme? Roberts, who acknowledges British lapses both in preparation and operation, goes somewhat further than most historians, in noting that the meat grinder at the Somme probably eased pressure from the French effort at Verdun, and by implication saved the very existence of the French Army as a fighting force. British tenacity and courage shocked the German General Staff. Previously, they had hardly imagined that a maritime power like Britain could slam it out in an infantry offensive against the imperial Germany army. That reality of a permanent slugfest began to force the Germans to look elsewhere for victory, such as unrestricted submarine warfare that proved catastrophic for the Central Powers by bringing in the United States.
Tactically, after the Somme, the British army gradually refined its operational doctrine and learned how to slice more deeply through German lines. Firepower had to become more narrowly focused, with artillery barrages synchronized far better to the actual time and progress of the infantry advance, and, when possible, spearheaded by hundreds of clumsy tanks along with air support. Those lessons from the Somme finally bore fruit in late summer 1918 when the final big Allied push shattered the German army.
Slaughter on the Somme was tragically unavoidable.
The succinct Elegy is not one of Roberts’s signature comprehensive histories such as his World War II history The Storm of War or biography Napoleon: A Life. But it is similarly elegantly written with his characteristic good sense and keen analysis. It succeeds well in reminding us that war is far too complex to sum up as a story of fools and geniuses, villains and heroes, although such Manicheans often play prominent roles in the course of conflicts. Perhaps the book’s message—given that Roberts repeatedly juxtaposes memoirs of the surreal slaughter to anecdotes of the unshakeable morale and discipline of the British soldier—is that some 400,000 British youth were in history’s wrong place at the wrong time, and yet managed by their heroism to help prevent a general collapse of the entire Allied cause. And from their sacrifice at the Somme came a weakening of imperial Germany, reassurance for a tottering France, and the tactical knowledge for an eventual victory:
Slaughter on the Somme was tragically unavoidable. The Allies were forced to try to liberate Belgium and northern France from the Germans in a war that could not have been fought in any other way than a series of attritional battles on a continental scale. That is the dreadful, inexorable truth, and part of that steep learning curve had to evolve through trial and costly error.
1 Elegy: The First Day on the Somme, by Andrew Roberts; Head of Zeus, 320 pages, $29.95.