Joined: Oct 2012
Double review: The Somme, and Three Armies on the Somme.
These two books offer a good juxtaposition to each other.
The Somme, by a pair of Australians named Prior and Robin, seemed to be a fairly good campaign history, although a highly tendentious one. The authors never seem to tire of vilifying Haig. I prefer a more detached presentation. Even the best generals make terrible and costly mistakes. The 4 volume history of the Overland campaign by Rhea enumerates all of the mistakes of Grant and Lee quite exhaustively, but Rhea's balanced evaluations still accept these two men to be great generals. The fog of war - what Clausewitz called 'friction' - forces us to be generous in our evaluations.
But aside from the rhetorical attacks against Haig, the narrative of events seems very sound, and is quite thrilling. All of the major actions in the campaign seem to be well described: the first major attack on July 1st, the first use of tanks on September 15th, and so on. The use of source material seems good, and gives you a solid feel for the flavor of the battle. It is quite harrowing to read the accounts of so many attacking units that didn't even make it to their own wire!
The best thing in the book, in my opinion, is that he gives you a good feel for the relentless and grinding nature of industrial warfare in 1916. This was perfectly illustrated by chapter 19, "One Division's Somme: The First Division, July-September."
"...by the end of the battle the division must have been quite a different formation from that which had entered. Almost 3,000 of its officers and men were missing or killed, and just over 7,000 were wounded... no less than 50 per cent of the infantry of the division present on 11 July would not have been present on 28 September."
The 1st division was taking casualties like this ("200 on average for every day in the line"), even though they were largely not involved in the big actions of July 1st and 14th, September 15th and 25th. Prior and Wilson then go on to narrate some of the actions that they were involved in, appropriately illustrated by first-hand details from the letters, military dispatches, and battle diaries. It is as good as anything I have ever read in a battle or campaign history.
On the other hand, Three Armies of the Somme is not a conventional campaign history. The author, William Philpott, is more specifically interested in the overall war, and he uses the Somme as a kind of refractive medium, a prism through which to analyze the entirety of the war itself. The meat of the book is a 3 or 4 hundred page account of the Somme campaign - quite in line with the conventions of traditional battle and campaign histories. But this is situated between 150 pages of introductory setup, and an equally lengthy followup. In this supplemental analysis, which includes a fairly detailed account of the entire war in the western theater, the logic behind the generals' decisions, the situation on the various home-fronts, the cultural and political legacy of WWI, and much other insightful material, Philpott is simply outstanding.
Three Armies is by every measure a better book. It seems that historians are still struggling with the nature of an industrial war of attrition to this day. Prior and Wilson are much too hard on Haig. There is no doubt that he had a creepy personality, and it comes through with force in his writings. He continually downplays the contributions of his main ally, the French; he blames the performance of his own men for problems that should more justly be attributed to the command; he seems callous to their suffering; he can't stop dreaming of a big cavalry-driven breakthrough.
But his decisions as general are sound enough. Everyone was grappling with the facts of industrial warfare on this scale. He hoped for major advances, he dreamed of cavalry breakthroughs, but his decisions were mostly determined by the logic of attritional warfare in an industrial age. He stressed to his subordinates that the cavalry should be kept close, in order to exploit a major break in the German lines, should it occur. He knew that it might not occur, but what's wrong with hoping?
Philpott convinces me that Prior and Wilson are much too critical of the Allied command (particularly Haig). The allies suffered from a number of disabilities which I think impeded their performance, and taking account of these, we should be somewhat more forgiving in our evaluations.
I. The fundamentally new nature of war in the 20th century. Prior and Wilson themselves show that the German learning curve wasn't all that steep. As late as 1916, the command insisted that captured positions should always be immediately re-attacked, regardless of the tactical importance of the position. The Germans wasted a lot more troops than they needed to in their defensive struggles at the Somme. If even the Germans were slow to master industrial warfare, we should be more forgiving of their enemies. The next point illustrates why.
II. German society was more militaristic. Of course they went into the war with a certain advantage. Of course their military was better organized and more efficient. France and Britain were much more liberal and democratic, hence they were much less militaristic and authoritarian. Hence, they suffer from a certain disadvantage.
III. The difficulties of managing an integrated command. Prior and Wilson think the British refused to accept the lessons that the French had already learned by 1916. The artillery doctrine of the French was assuredly superior to that of the British, and if they had been more open to French guidance, they would have suffered fewer casualties. I do not doubt it. But, it is often difficult to coordinate the activities of two commands from the same nation (look at the disputes between Lee and Beauregard), let alone from the commands of two different nations. Considering this, I think the united command did an excellent job of working out their separate national differences. Considering the fact that they were fighting against a naturally more unified command, I think their performance was outstanding.
IV. The natural advantage of defense over offense. Some have described the trench warfare of WWI as a "linear siege." At this or that area of the frontline, it was indeed a linear affair. But for the entire nation of Germany itself, it was a traditional siege in which their country has completely encircled. That is why they call Germany and her allies the central powers. Hence they could benefit from internal lines of communication. The besieged always inflicts proportionally more casualties than the besieger.
I don't want to give the impression that Prior and Wilson should be completely dismissed. Although they utilize the earlier judgments of critics like Churchill, Liddel Hart, Lloyd George, they are appropriately critical in their evaluations. They are perfectly aware, for example, of how self-serving these negative evaluations are, as found in the relevant memoirs and whatnot. But still, Philpott provides the more authoritative narrative, with sounder evaluations.