The Magazine

Horror, 1916

The price of victory in mechanized war.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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The Somme

Heroism and Horror in

the First World War

by Martin Gilbert

Henry Holt, 332 pp., $27.50

The Somme

by Peter Hart

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 502 pp., $32.95

The Somme

by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson

Yale, 368 pp., $35

In late 1916, Lord Lansdowne, a former British cabinet minister, circulated a letter to his onetime colleagues calling for a negotiated peace with Germany. He felt that the human and material costs of the war were ripping apart the social fabric of the country. Lansdowne was dismissed by most of his colleagues as a tired old man, yet his was a logical reaction to results of the just-ended Battle of the Somme. In a f our-month campaign, 419,654 British soldiers were killed or wounded, along with nearly 200,000 French, in and around the Somme River in northern France. This butcher's bill was paid for seven miles of occupied French soil.

Lansdowne was prescient about how history would judge the battle. The Somme has a secure place in the collective memory as the representative event of a singularly tragic war; a generation of young Englishmen sent to their deaths by unthinking, hidebound generals. The horrors of July 1, 1916--the worst day in the long annals of British arms--lend all the support that is necessary. On that first day of the battle, 19,240 British soldiers were killed and another 38,230 were wounded. The troops were newly volunteered from all parts of the empire, and raw, when they were sent over the top at 7:30 that sunny Saturday morning.

The tales of their heroism and sacrifice remain mortifying after 90 years. The commonplace view of their being "lions led by donkeys," originated in the war memoirs of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, and the popularizing works of J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart, was first challenged in the 1960s, but 40 years of scholarship has done little to dislodge its place in the popular imagination.

The Somme offensive was the fruit of long preparations. In December 1915, with the war entered into its second year, the Allied commanders decided that the best hope of victory lay in concerted attack at the earliest possible moment in 1916. The French and British would make a full effort on the Western Front, the Russians would attack on their northern front, and the Italians would push forward into the Isonzo against Austria-Hungary.

War on all sides would bring the Germans and Austrians to crisis and capitulation. Britain's role in the war had been limited by the tiny size of its army--two corps in the field in 1914 compared with France's 21. Herbert Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, predicted that it would be a long war and began the recruitment of Britain's first mass army. Hundreds of thousands immediately volunteered, overwhelming the government's ability to train and equip them.

The Western Front, as it had deadlocked in 1914, offered offensive possibilities in three sectors: Artois, Champagne, and on the Somme. The former two had been tried in 1915--Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, Loos, Vimy Ridge, Main de Massiges, Tahure--at a cost of hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties. New ground was needed, as the extended artillery duels of battle quickly churned the battlefront to impassibility. The Somme was the logical choice. The Germans knew it, too, and had been fortifying the area since late 1914. The plans changed radically in February when the Germans attacked at Verdun. France was plunged into a life-or-death struggle that consumed her whole army. By May it was feared that, if the German assault continued, France must capitulate. No longer would the Allies be going on the offensive to defeat Germany but, instead, to save France.

The British commander in chief, Douglas Haig, had been hoping to wait until August to commit his inexperienced army, but succumbed to French pressure for an offensive by July 1. General Brusilov took the Russians onto the attack on June 4, and the Italians struck on August 6. The attack on the Somme would no longer be a French-led offensive with British help, but just the opposite. The time had come for Britain, and its huge new army, to bear its share of the fighting and the casualties.

In his memoirs, Churchill implied that attacking on the Western Front was an unnecessary sacrifice, that the huge casualties were predictable and the strategic gains negligible. He believed there was an "indirect approach" to victory and dreamed of campaigns in the Baltic and the Dardanelles. But such fighting could simply not affect the outcome of a war being waged by the power of Germany. Only by directly confronting the main body of the Germans--that is, fighting in the trenches--could the British and French win the war.