“Bloody Victory” or Bloody Stupidity? The Battle of the Somme, by David White

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In 2009, William Philpott published a revisionist account of the Somme entitled Bloody Victory, arguing that what was widely regarded as a disastrous undertaking, in fact laid the groundwork for ultimate victory in 1918. It was the fulcrum of the Great War, a tragic but ultimately worthwhile venture. Susequently the historian, Gary Sheffield, has been one of the loudest and most consistent voices not only upholding this reassessment, but also vigorously defending and attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of the British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig. This revisionism forms a part of a determined effort by numerous commentators, particularly on the political right, to argue that Britain’s participation in the First World War was tragic but noble and necessary. It was, they assert, fought to defend freedom and democracy, and to criticise it as futile is to sully the memory of the millions who sacrificed life and limb. This was the line taken by Michael Gove in an article written for the Daily Mail where he said, “The Left insists on belittling true British heroes.” He castigated the interpretation of futility and disastrous mismanagement as offensive and politically motivated, while dismissing the satirical portrayal of World War I in Blackadder as puerile.

This particular revisionism has so many flaws, it is difficult to know where to start. If criticising British participation is a left-wing project, why is that most right-wing historian, Niall Ferguson, among the most trenchant of critics? Why does it dishonour the sacrifices of  those who died to say they were fighting for a poor cause? Can you only honour your dead if you are victorious? Or morally wholly in the right? Is it distasteful, cruel or even treasonous to suggest that volunteers and conscripts were labouring under a misconception in thinking they were fighting for honour, freedom or some other noble-sounding justification for Great-Power self-interest? Did WWI actually make the world a better place? How worthwhile was ten million dead,  the devouring of massive resources and finances, a peace-settlement based on ethnic divisions creating a tinderbox of hatreds and resentments just waiting to explode, the establishment of a Russian regime which led to the horrors of Stalinism, the arbitrary division of the Middle East into unnatural states whose legacy is even now wreaking mayhem, and last, but certainly not least, conditions which gave rise to the emergence of National Socialism and similar far-right regimes across Europe leading to another huge war killing a further 60-80 million people? If futile is not the correct word to describe that scenario, then what is? Is this modern revisionism inviting us to accept the dangerous and morally fraught proposition of the ends justifying the means? Is this revisionism not itself a politically-motivated project coinciding with an insular, backward-looking anti-EU British nationalism?

The original role of the Somme Offensive, as discussed at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915, was part of an overall Allied strategy to attack the Germans on all fronts. The campaign on the Somme was to be a French offensive with the British playing a supporting role.[1] However, the German attack at Verdun beginning in February meant that substantial French forces were withdrawn to fight there. Of the originally-planned 39 divisions, only 11 were still available by July 1st. The purpose of the attack was now primarily to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun and wear down the German forces.[2]

It might be expected that, with a reduced force, the objectives would be correspondingly moderated.[3] In fact, they were enlarged. Haig set incredibly ambitious goals with targets up to 70 miles behind the front-line, envisaging a scenario where cavalry would break right through the triple line of German trenches and fan out into open country.[4] Despite Haig’s assertion that he was using the offensive to engage the Germans and draw their forces away from Verdun, his plan seems like it was aiming for a decisive war-winning breakthrough. The commander of the Fourth Army which carried out the first attacks, General Rawlinson, did not share his commander-in-chief’s optimism and wanted to gain ground in smaller advances, but deferred to Haig in almost all instances.[5] The French commander-in-chief, Foch, also believed there was inadequate concentration of forces for a decisive breakthrough and was unhappy that the agreed purpose of the offensive was not being pursued.[6]

A second area of defective planning was artillery usage prior to attacks. Both the numbers of guns and the type of shells used were inadequate. Since Haig was proposing engaging the whole German defensive depth in one attack, this meant the length of trenching to be targeted was three times as long as the already massive 20-mile front which was being assaulted, while the second and third lines were invisible to the gunners and spotters.[7] What was not invisible were the preparations of the Allies for a major assault, allowing the Germans to be ready for an attack on one of their strongest sectors on the Western Front.[8]

Gary Sheffield, who has attempted to reassess Haig as a greater general than his historic reputation has suggested, says little about Haig’s planning and starry-eyed view of what was possible at the Somme. He criticises the “mismatch of guns and objectives”[9], a central theme of Prior and Wilson who hold Haig in low esteem, but justifies Haig’s shortcomings by describing the Somme as a “learning curve”.[10] This seems a grotesque interpretation since those who died on that horrendous first day learned nothing. Sheffield, Prior and Wilson agree that the carnage among the infantry was not the result of their own ineptitude nor were field officers to blame for ordering them to advance slowly (largely a myth); it was a failure of operational planning at General-Staff level.[11]

Sheffield’s full quotation says, “The popular image of British military ineptitude in the First World War is very largely drawn from that day, but the notoriety of the ‘First Day on the Somme’ should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that it represented an important point on a learning curve.”[12] It is indeed a rare battle where over 50% of the force committed become casualties in one day – 60,000 out of 110,000.[13] The gain of a mere three square miles for such colossal losses can only be described as a military disaster.[14] If there was learning among the General Staff, then it was very slow, because the inappropriate use of artillery and mass infantry assaults was repeated throughout the 20-week holocaust, albeit on a lesser scale than July 1st.[15]

Sheffield argues that the Somme Offensive was a strategic victory because it made the Germans move troops from Verdun and set in motion a war of attrition which they must lose because the combined Allies outnumbered them. This may be true, but his argument that the type of warfare epitomised by July 1st was inevitable is an unprovable assertion.[16] John Harris contests that even the first argument is spurious because the Germans managed to move large numbers eastwards to defeat the Romanians in September. He further argues that final victory was actually put back because of the losses which had to be made up by bringing in fresh troops who had to learn everything all over again[17] – the opposite of a “learning curve”.

Haig’s planning for the Somme Offensive was overly ambitious, yet simultaneously unimaginative. Throwing vast numbers at a prepared and pre-warned enemy was foolish, especially when essential artillery barrages were spread too thinly. Additionally, he seemed uncertain whether he was tying down German forces, engaging in attritional warfare, or making a bold dash for a glorious victory. Such unclear strategy was a recipe for disaster.  July 1st was an unmitigated catastrophe for the British and a failure of generalship. It is a rationalisation to say that it proved worthwhile because “the BEF gained experience”,[18] since you can make no use of experience when you are dead. The whole Somme offensive was at best a Pyrrhic victory, but July 1st was a defeat as great as anything the British military have ever suffered. For nostalgic British nationalists, this is a reality which is hard to accept.

 

 

[1] Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory. The First World War: Myths and Reality (London: Endeavour Press, 2001), Kindle Location 2979-82.

[2] Douglas Haig, “Sir Douglas Haig’s Somme Despatch.” The Long, Long Trail: The British Army of 1914-1918. 1916. http://www.1914-1918.net/haigs_somme_despatch.htm, Section 2.

[3] Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 49.

[4] Prior and Wilson, The Somme, 50-51.

[5] Prior and Wilson, The Somme, 45, 47, 51-52, 54; John Harris, The Somme: Death of a Generation (London: Zenith Books, 1966), 46-47.

[6] John Harris,  The Somme: Death of a Generation (London: Zenith Books, 1966), 45.

[7] Prior and Wilson, The Somme, 52-56, 62-64; Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3049-54.

[8] Harris, The Somme, 61-65.

[9] Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3047.

[10] Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3117.

[11] Prior and Wilson, The Somme, 116-18; Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3065-90.

[12] Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3115-17.

[13] Geoffrey Norman, “The Worst General.” Military History 24, no. 4 (2007), 34-41.

[14] Prior and Wilson, The Somme, 112.

[15] Harris, The Somme, 117-18; Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3125-26.

[16] Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3412-69.

[17] Harris, The Somme, 119.

[18] Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, 3470.