First draft of review of two books on the Somme for the Society of Army Historical Research. Going to have to be some extensive cuts, so here’s a place to get it all out. Another review, by Nick Lloyd at the Centre for First World War Studies in Birmingham, here.
Peter Hart, The Somme (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005); ISBN 13 978 0 297 845705 8, 589pp, £20.00; Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2005), ISBN 0 300 10694 7, 358pp, £19.95.
It might seem extraordinary to suggest that there is anything new to write on the Battle of the Somme. The British have been so obsessed with their first encounter with the realities of industrialised total war that they have been discussing it compulsively since 1916. Yet that very quantity of discussion has obscured much of what actually took place in the summer and autumn of that year under a thick accretion of myth and misunderstanding. Here are two new books which attempt – in different ways – to clear away the silt of incomprehension and explain the battle afresh.
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have previously co-written on the career of Sir Henry Rawlinson and on the Third Ypres campaign of 1917. Their latest book, based once again on deep archival research at the National Archives, moves back to the titanic battle of the previous year. Prior and Wilson are at their best when subjecting strongly held beliefs about the battle to critical analysis. For example, they refute the idea that every – or even most – British battalions on 1 July advanced ‘as if they were on review at Aldershot’, in straight lines, shoulder to shoulder. They demonstrate that in fact, British units employed a wide range of different solutions to the tactical problem of crossing No-Man’s Land. That so few met with success was a matter of inadequate artillery preparation and support, not lack of infanteer’s skill. A fascination in the historiography with the pace and form of the British advance on 1 July has been misleading. As Prior and Wilson state, concentrating on infantry tactics obscures the basic fact that it was quantity, concentration and direction of artillery fire that was the crucial factor in deciding defeat or victory on the Western Front. This, of course, is a point they have made before. Similarly, these authors have not contented themselves with making the same assertions about length of service in the lines, based on the memoirs of Charles Carrington, as almost every other writer. Instead they have returned to the original documents and built up the data for themselves – in this case, for the experience of 1 Division. Elsewhere, they argue that just because the horrific breadth of loss on 1 July went unrepeated does not mean that the British had instantly ascended a learning curve. The success of 14 July – widely held as a counterpoint to the disaster of a fortnight before – was as much a matter of luck as judgement. Their final assessment of the performance of those in control of the British war effort at all levels is devastating: ‘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.’ (309).
All of these factors make Prior and Wilson’s The Somme a thought provoking and a useful book, particularly as a partner to more positive interpretations of the British performance on the Somme. Sometimes, however, it is unclear quite whom is the target of the authors’ fire. They are eager to dispel popular misconceptions of the Somme. But they are also writing in reaction to what they seem to perceive as a triumphalist note in recent British military histories. Triumphalist these texts may have been, but they have been far from triumphant: their impact on popular belief about the war has been limited. The reader who is familiar with newer writing is less likely to believe that every battalion marched over the top in straight lines, but is perhaps more likely to purchase this book. The result of this compromise is a volume that can feel disjointed or insufficiently directed.
One target of Prior and Wilson’s wrath is obvious: the much battered form of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Yet blaming Haig sometimes takes the place of understanding him and his army. Without doubt Haig took poor decisions in 1916. His command style was inadequate to the task it faced. The objectives he set his army often seem to fly in the face of any retrospective suggestion of a ‘learning curve’ or a battle of attrition. But identifying these faults is not enough. Why did he take those bad decisions or give those poor orders? What was the coincidence of intelligence, organisation, experience, military culture and personality which led to them? The authors may feel they have addressed these questions elsewhere. Here, they too often go unanswered.
Again, it is a useful corrective to be reminded of the logical incoherence of some of the orders Haig issued to his subordinates. But this reader was left wondering whether close textual analysis of selected Haig quotations is really a step on in the historical method. British military historians have been trading such quotes from each side of the No Man’s Land in which Haig sits since at least the 1960s (and arguably much earlier). Prior and Wilson supply those who wish to denigrate Haig with some new quotations. But they do not follow up their interpretation of their incoherence with a clear demonstration that his subordinates either found them so, or were confused by these orders rather than by the rapid pace of change and the tempo of battle. Was there, amongst the ranks of British generals, a better alternative? Given the utility of other parts of the book, the sections dealing with Haig are something of a disappointment.
Peter Hart’s massive The Somme sometimes abdicates historical responsibility in the same fashion, for example when Hart writes that: ‘The collective failure of generalship within the Fourth Army can never be adequately explained or excused.’ (262). Excuses or not, explanation is surely the task of the historian. But this is a different book to Prior and Wilson’s, one aimed much more clearly at the popular market. It is based predominantly on material produced by those who were there at the time. This is an approach which has been taken before – notably by Martin Middlebrook and Lyn Macdonald – but Hart’s work is superior to both these predecessors. He presents an analytical account of the battle, based on an incredibly broad range of sources and a mass of secondary scholarship, which does not shrink from dissecting command decisions. This is far more than anecdotal history. The contemporary sources Hart uses are frequently fresh and striking in their intensity. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Maxwell’s accounts of the fighting for Trones Wood and Thiepval – new to this reader – give an excellent impression of the difficulties of battalion command on the Somme: a level which has too often been ignored. There is here a Rankean exploration of ‘what it was actually like’ – a feeling for the problems of those who were there at all levels – which occasionally seems absent in Prior and Wilson’s volume.
Hart sometimes employs a rather ‘Boys’ Own’ style in celebrating the achievements of VC winners and heroic leaders such as Maxwell. But he is sensitive enough to point out that most men could not reach these heights of courage, and indeed stood rather in awe or in terror of those who could. He does an excellent job of laying out the battles which made up the Somme campaign, and of recapturing the experience of a broad range of soldiers on the British side. The major criticism of his book must be that the reader is usually left to work out the vintage of the source. Hart is a discerning historian with a deep awareness of the problems posed by different sources – be they official report, contemporary diary, letter home or subsequent oral history interview. He has doubtless assessed each carefully before including it. But he owes it to readers – even to the popular audience at whom this volume is aimed – to allow them to make up their own mind about the quality and reliability of his witnesses. In the era of the dodgy dossier, full disclosure and acknowledgement of the difficulties of historical writing are a requirement even for the ‘trade’ writer. We might also wonder whether a closer edit was necessary. The purpose of an appendix describing ‘trench life’, after five hundred pages which have often described just that, is unclear. This either needed to be part of the main body of the text or excised.
Taken together – but only together – these books represent a major step forward in the study of the field. It is noticeable that Prior and Wilson rely on material in the National Archives, whereas Hart concentrates on those held in the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum. This separation of sources, if nothing else, demands that these books be read in combination. Neither book, it is a shame to say, is able to treat the battle as an interaction between British, German and French troops. Both would be more accurately titled The British Army and the Battle of the Somme. But they do represent important ranging shots for the barrage of books that will doubtless descend before July 2006 (let alone the follow up attack of July 2016). Perhaps most significantly, both emphasise that if we wish to lay blame for the suffering of the Somme, we have to look beyond the generals to the politicians and the people who elected them. This may be an early step away from a near-century in which the British have avoided taking responsibility for their participation in this terrible battle.