The Somme: Revisionists Are Wrong
We couldn’t imagine the fortitude of those soldiers – not all of them young and starry-eyed. The German machine-gun nests were artfully sited, manned by experts and numerous. Everyone knew that, yet still they clambered out of their trenches and leant forward, as if into driving rain, in a doomed attempt to penetrate the enemy wire – which was, in most places, intact.
Post-war memoirs, both British and German, condemn The Somme as the ne plus ultra of abject, senseless warfare; relentless, inhuman, destructive of both body and soul. It was rarely a man-to-man fight. Day and night, howitzers and mortars hurled iron dustbins of high explosive at the opposing lines, on and on. No wonder so many soldiers simply ceased to exist, evaporated by the blast and remembered only as names on the memorials to the missing.
Those who witnessed both say it was much worse than Passchendaele.
After the effusion of anti-war sentiment originated by writers like Barbusse, Remarque, Blunden and Graves reached its UK peak in the 1970s, we have seen scholarly attempts to re-assess the competence of the British high command at The Somme, leading to a more nuanced view of the catastrophe: the generals were, some claim, forgiveably wrong. But I am not so sure.
Haig’s concept of battle was romantically fixed in the 19th-century wars of manoeuvre in which he took part as a young officer. He believed in his heart that decisions were achieved by breakthroughs and that these were accomplished by men and horses. The function of artillery was to soften up the enemy’s positions so that the all-important penetration could take place according to plan. Haig either couldn’t, or didn’t want to, recognise that he was engaged in siege warfare where material strength – the sheer quantity of shells, mines, mortar-rounds and bullets – made the human element secondary, and often irrelevant.
That’s why his artillery plan for The Somme was homicidal. Haig diluted the week-long barrage over far too wide and deep an area, hoping to make way for his cavalry to rush forward and roll up the Germans’ rear lines. This left the wire uncut, the shelters undamaged and the machine-gunners undead.
The British shells weren’t much good. Thirty per cent failed to explode. A whole shipload bought from the USA had faulty fuses. The plan called for the wire to cut by shrapnel – something that can’t be done, as anyone in the front line could see. The plan also assumed that the German artillery would be put out of action. It wasn’t.
So 20,000 Commonwealth troops were annihilated on the first day. Revisionists say that Haig and his colleagues made the best possible plans with the knowledge available to them at the time. It is certainly true that The Somme was organised to an unprecedented level of detail, and this in itself gave the British commanders a high level of confidence in its success. Unduly so, since the basic assumptions were wrong. They didn’t know what they were doing; they should have done.
It got worse. Undismayed by the carnage, Haig pressed on. Learning nothing, he persisted in throwing small-scale, unco-ordinated attacks into well-defended positions which offered no strategic advantage whatsoever. The losses mounted, the weather worsened, German opposition stiffened. Haig changed his tune; The Somme was no longer a breakthrough battle – it was now a battle of attrition. Yet British casualties were twice those of the enemy. Even the Germans were puzzled.
The Somme ground to a halt in November 1916 in a crescendo of protests from British and Commonwealth politicians. Movement on the battlefield was by then practically impossible. The chalk had been pulverised into a kind of sticky quicksand and the clay had been churned into fathomless pools of glue. Morale was at a low ebb; it was obvious to everyone, except Haig, that nothing had been gained and nothing could be gained by persisting.
The Germans learnt a rapid lesson from The Somme and built the Hindenburg Line; they wanted no more close-quarters bloodbaths and concluded that success meant keeping the British at bay. In the spring of 1918 they demonstrated that they had also worked out how to break the deadlock of trench warfare, retaking the entire Somme battlefield in a matter of days.
Haig, though, was obdurate. The intelligent ideas which emerged in 1917 were thought up by Commonwealth generals and British field commanders who had enlisted as volunteers. The final victory in 1918 – if it can be called that – was as much due to the exhaustion of the German army and the destitution of the German nation as to Haig’s acumen on the field of battle. I think the revisionists are wrong. He was a bad general, stubborn and obsessed by antiquated ideas. The evidence is there for all to see in a thousand sad cemeteries on the Western Front.