December 26th 2009

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EDITORIAL: A reflection on Christmas

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BOOK REVIEW: BLOODY VICTORY: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the making of the Twentieth Century, by William Philpott

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BLOODY VICTORY: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the making of the Twentieth Century, by William Philpott

News Weekly, December 26, 2009

Was there no alternative?

The Sacrifice on the Somme and the making of the Twentieth Century

by William Philpott
(London: Little, Brown)
Paperback: 736 pages
ISBN: 9781408702246
Rec. price: AUD$35.00

Reviewed by Michael Daniel 

In the popular mindset, the World War I Battle of the Somme, which took place on the Western Front between July and November 1916, was an unmitigated disaster. Badly conceived and poorly planned, it not only failed to break the German army, but resulted in huge and unnecessary losses of life for only a few miles of territory gained.

William Philpott, senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, Kings College, London, challenges what has become the standard view of this battle, arguing that it was the turning point of the Great War. He contends that many of the assessments of the Somme have been based upon recollections of participants, such as Winston Churchill, who focussed on the terrible losses and sufferings of ordinary soldiers, but overlooked its tactical impact.

Planning for the Somme commenced late in 1915 and was a joint Anglo-French initiative. With the German attack upon Verdun and the resulting attrition of the French Army in the first part of 1916, a major offensive, principally by the British, became increasingly imperative. Poor planning and execution of the initial phases of the battle are examined in Philpott's work. Many critics blame the British and French because they attacked a well fortified and defended German sector of the line. However, Philpott points out that the Germans had successfully fortified most of their front line; hence, an attacker would have faced similar problems wherever the attack was launched.

The high casualty rate was partly the consequence of insufficient Allied bombardment that failed to dislodge German troops from the trenches and to destroy the wire entanglements and other defensive measures.

However, what is all too often overlooked by historians is the inexperience of British troops compared with their French counterparts, a contrast that is clearly reflected in the different successes of the respective allies on July 1, 1916. Unlike the British, the French had by then acquired extensive battle experience that had taught them more effective attacking tactics, including more effective use of artillery.

Similarly, unlike the French and German armies, which were largely comprised of conscripts who had undergone compulsory military training, the bulk of the British Army in mid-1916 consisted of enthusiastic but under-trained volunteers led by over-promoted officers and NCOs. The result was that the French army on the southern sector of the Somme battle line achieved many of their objectives on July 1.

By contrast, while the British and Dominion armies had been involved in engagements in 1915, this was their first involvement in a major one; hence, not only did British troops lack the battle experience of their French counterparts, but their leaders did not use artillery fire as effectively as did the French. The result was the tragedy, on that first day, of almost 20,000 deaths and another 40,000 wounded. However, the figures tell only part of the story. Given the fact that many units were locally raised, the virtual annihilation of regiments such as the Newfoundland meant that significant proportions of young adult males from specific localities were killed.

Notwithstanding the casualties of the first day of the battle, Philpott notes that in the next four months, the British army underwent a steep learning curve that enabled it to attack and secure limited objectives, as well as successfully fend off counter-attacks, particularly in September. However, many of these strategies were not fully realised until 1918.

Much of the criticism of the Somme, as Philpott notes, is based on hostile attitudes towards attrition as a strategy, that is, defeating the enemy not so much by conquest of territory, but by eliminating his troops and materiel resources, so that he can no longer fight, because such a strategy involves high casualties.

Integral to Philpott's analysis is the thesis that the English and French had no other means of defeating the Germans other than a war of attrition fought by huge numbers of troops with advanced weaponry over relatively narrow stretches of land. Philpott draws the parallel between the Somme and other major engagements of World War I and the Battle of Stalingrad, which, like the Somme, was the turning point of a major conflict and which was also a battle of attrition.

Another overlooked aspect of the Somme is the German response to and assessment of it. As a battle of attrition, the Somme, broadly speaking, realised many of its objectives. The German army suffered heavy casualties, such that it had to call up younger classes of troops and older men hitherto exempted.

More significant still, after the Somme, the Germans fought a war of defence, rather than attack, retreating strategically to the Hindenburg Line, an elaborately constructed defence system. In desperation, Germany renewed her submarine offensive, hoping to starve Britain into submission before America could enter the war.

Some German analysts, such as General Falkenhayn, realised in light of the Somme that Germany could not win the war. It was not until March 1918, when Germany was able to deploy troops released from the Eastern Front in the wake of Russia's capitulation, that Germany was able again to mount offensive operations on the Western Front; but these were short-lived.

While Bloody Victory focuses on the 1916 Battle of the Somme, it also makes reference to other battles fought over Somme territory, particularly those in both world wars.

Overall, the book is an extremely well-researched and well-examined analysis of one of the most significant campaigns of the Great War. Such an assessment, considered from the perspective of the three major armies Â- British, German and French Â- is long overdue.

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