Review of Martin Gilbert's "The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War"


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
Review of Martin Gilbert's "The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War"

Most of the book reviews I've done have tended to focus on books dealing with the Battle of Verdun... as seen with the recently finished series on Alistair Horne's The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. This time, though, I'll move on to the other big battle on the Western Front of 1916, the Somme and Martin Gilbert's The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. I've had a copy for awhile, and I've enjoyed his histories on First and Second World Wars as a whole, so I figured... why not?

My review will go in much the same way I've reviewed the various books on the Battle of Verdun and will go chapter by chapter and providing my thoughts at the end. Anyone who wishes to add their opinion is welcome.

Prelude: "Chewing barbed wire"

Gilbert opens with the start of the war in August 1914 and the confidence each of the powers had. Austria felt confident that it could avenge the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Germany with its ambitions on France's industrial regions felt confident of dictating terms in Paris, just as they'd done in 1871 (and would do again in 1940), and their army traveled by train with slogans "On to Paris" written on them. The French were equally confident as they went to war, confident that they could drive the Germans back, with soldiers being cheered, "to Berlin!" Britain entered on August 4 with the confidence that its small but professional army could help drive the Germans back.

In the east, the Russians felt they could support their French and Serbian allies while gaining the support of many of the Slavic peoples in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. The Germans felt confident that together with the Austrians they could force the Russians out of the war, claim Warsaw for a puppet state and add the Baltic States to their empire. But all this early optimism was dashed. The German attack in the west was foiled on the Marne and by Christmas 1914, the Western Front had settled into a stalemated system of trenches that ran from Belgium, near Ypres, to the Swiss border...

And this stalemate would represent a longer war, that just about every general history of the First World War mentions, and as Gilbert moves from the rundown of events that start the war he then begins to turn specific events that would play a more direct role in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. And this relates to the formation of the New Army as the British Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener foresaw that Britain's small army wouldn't last long from the beginning and put out a massive call from volunteers which would then lead to a meeting in the War Office on August 19, 1914 with General Sir Henry Rawlinson on how those volunteer drives were to be handled.

(Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War in 1914 who called an additional 100,00 volunteers as the war began)

(General Sir Henry Rawlinson a future commander in the field on the Somme who made the suggestion that men would volunteer if they could serve with those they knew)

The idea was to essentially recruit men together. Men that knew each other were seen as likely to join units if they knew the others joining that unit. Rawlinson started with a request to a friend, Robert White to raise a battalion from those who worked in London and had two hundred volunteered in a matter of hours and had the "Stockbrokers Battalion" of 1,600 men in six days. The Earl of Derby would put together a recruiting drive on August 28 and would have 1,500 men volunteered by the end of the day. It would be Derby who would first refer to these newly recruited units as a "battalion of pals."

(Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby who coined the reference often made to the units formed in 1914 as a "battalion of pals")

This recruiting drive continued and picked up added speed. On August 30, 1914 Reverend W. Youard gave a sermon calling on young men to enlist and would soon have the aid of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the recruiting efforts.

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes who added his voice to the recruiting drive in 1914)

And in fact, Gilbert directly quotes comments Doyle made to local volunteers in 1914...

"If the cricketer had a straight eye, let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb, let him serve and march in the field of battle."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking to volunteers in 1914

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 3
The success of these drives saw formation of various "Sportsman's battalions" that were often tied to their local areas. They would include well known athletes at the time along artists, authors, big game hunters, clergymen and oarsmen. And it continued into a national effort as towns and organizations throughout Britain with many of these newly forming Pals Battalions taking on names that reflected that status. Students from Grimsby would take on the name the "Grimsby Chums." Some towns even filled multiple units, with Hull filling out four.

And this zeal in recruit bread its own confidence as a unit raised in Scotland and filled with footballers and other athletes would soon have at their head a former MP for Edinburgh East in Sir George McCrae. It would be for him that the unit, the 16th Battalion, Royal Scots would get it's nickname, "McCrae's Battalion." And many had their confidence in him with some saying, "If McCrae's are going out, the Germans haven't got long to live."

(Sir George McCrae, former MP from Edinburgh East, and commander of a Pals battalion that would bear his name)

All of these units represented what Kitchener wanted and would be nicknamed "Kitchener's Army" or "the New Army." And while it meant that in some cases that some army standards would be lowered, Kitchener remained keen to make sure the men were trained and prepared for combat and weren't thrown in piecemeal or as a complete force before they were ready. Which would require plenty of training and preparation, as by the end of 1914, there were half a million men to be trained, five times what Kitchener originally asked for... and the recruiting would not only be in Britain. Canada and Newfoundland would also see extensive recruiting efforts.

And while all this recruiting was going on, the war at the front continued and went in a way that killed a lot of the early optimism. The Germans had dug deep trenches that had held off Anglo-French attempts to liberate northern France and restore Belgian rule to Belgium. Barbed wire dominated the landscape and much of it was cratered by shell holes as both sides proceeded to bombard the other. The British tried to punch through in March at Neuve-Chapelle and again in September at Loos in 1915. Gilbert notes these failed offensives as great in human cost with little to no military gain with casualties at Loos being 61,000 total casualties and 7,760 killed. It created the opinion to look for alternatives to what Winston Churchill called, "chewing barbed wire in Flanders."

One such alternative opened with Turkey joining the war on the side of the Central Powers. There was the thought to defeat Turkey, either by landings to lead toward Constantinople or to land closer to Syria and cut the Turks off from the rest of the Middle East and supporting British landings made near Basra in modern Day Iraq in October 1914. In March 1915, under a plan devised by Winston Churchill, the Royal Navy tried to force the Dardanelles. It would boil down into a ground campaign at Gallipoli. It lead to 34,000 British (and Empire) killed, some 10,000 French dead, and 80,000 Turks killed... But after nine months, the Gallipoli Campaign was abandoned. Kitchener would remain in the government as he prepared for the New Army's deployment while Churchill was forced to resign from his position and would actually volunteer for the army. Churchill would head to the Western Front as a Lieutenant Colonel with a Scottish Battalion posted just south Ploegsteert Wood.

(Winston Churchill in World War I, after his fall from grace after Gallipoli's failure)

Among the troops evacuated from Gallipoli would be another future British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. The evacuation would go without a hitch and would ultimately free up many men for service on the Western Front and other theaters...

(Clement Attlee - in the center - during World War I)

And as the Gallipoli campaign failed for the Allies, the Austrians with German help launched a successful campaign against the Serbs, who had repelled the Austrian attacks in 1914. The Allies tried to come to Serbia's aid with landings at the Greek city of Salonika, but any and all help came too late as the Serbs were overrun and forced to retreat. The Allies were soon pinned down on what became the Salonika Front and would also be facing diplomatic issues with the Greek King regarding their mere presence on Greek soil. It all showed that there would be no quick and easy victory and that any hope for it... would have to come from the trenches on the Western Front.

And to prepare for these coming battles, on October 14, 1915 the British would create the Machine Gun Corps to train machine gunners for every battalion, all equipped with the new Lewis Gun. Invented by Isaac Newton Lewis, the weapon was an improvement on the older Vickers gun, and only needed a crew of two, which was half that needed to crew the Vickers. And these crews would soon become chief targets of enemy fire for what they could do and Gilbert ends the chapter with the inscription for the Machine Gun Corps Memorial in Hyde Park in London, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands."

(Isaac Newton Lewis, inventor of the Lewis Gun)

(Australian Troops training with the Lewis Gun)

CHAPTER STRENGTH: It provides a good background on events leading up toward the Battle of the Somme with a particular focus on the development of the New Army that has become such a key part of the narrative on that battle. Some of the summaries of the military events may not directly relate to Somme, but they are brief and would reinforce a point that the initial optimism that everyone went to war with in 1914 was not going to last... And essentially reinforces Kitchener's expectations at the start of the war.

CHAPTER WEAKNESSES: 1) The mention of Clement Attlee... While he did serve in World War I and would ultimately serve on the Western Front... according to his biography on Wikipedia... he wouldn't do so until the end of the war in 1918. In this it comes off as a weakness that Horne frequently had in "The Price of Glory" in simply identifying people that we know more for their later service, either in the military or government, and not for their service in the war... or in matters that will ultimately relate to the book's subject.

2) Not actually referring to the actual training of the New Army. While Gilbert does provide a lot of information on the raising of units and makes the mention that Kitchener wasn't going to deploy them until properly trained... there is actually little to no real reference to what the New Army would go through with regard to its training...

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... Gilbert provides a great deal of detail with regard to the establishment of the units that Britain would employ on the Somme in 1916, and in this provides a good connection between the events in 1914 and 1916. As the army that fought in 1916 was raised in 1914 and the way in which Gilbert presents it does show on how the efforts rapidly became a national effort that would surpass what Britain had before the war...

Gilbert could have made some mention on the actual training of the Pals Battalions... though given that this prelude is essentially starting the book and setting some background information, there could be time to address the training of these units...


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter one...

Chapter One: The prospect: 'To break through and win victory'

Gilbert opens chapter one with the hopes of those looking for victory outside the Western Front being dashed by the withdrawal from Gallipoli and the forced return of attention to the Western and Eastern Fronts. This includes the discussion of the Chantilly Conference to dictate Allied strategy for the coming year on December 6, 1915. Chaired by France's supreme commander, General Joffre, it was also attended by high ranking officers of all the warring nations on the Allied side, including the BEF commander at the time, Sir John French.

(French General Joseph Joffre, Commander of the French Army and the chairman Chantilly Conference)

(John French, 1st Earl of Ypres, British representative at the Chantilly Conference)

The plan, as agreed to by the Allies at Chantilly would be to launch offensives on all fronts as simultaneously as possible in order to prevent the Germans and Austrians from concentrating on any one front. The Russians agreed to launch two offenses on the Eastern Front, one in the north against the Germans and one in the south against the Austrians. Italy pledged to attack across the Isonzo River. France and Britain agreed to attack on the Somme. These offensives were hoped to break the German lines and provide a means to win the war...

And as these measures played out, the chain of command with the British changed, as on December 19, 1915, Sir John French was replaced with Sir Douglas Haig.

(Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, BEF commander during the Battle of the Somme through to the end of WWI)

Though the promotion for Haig would put him in a position to lead the British armies in France, Gilbert notes that it was actually events in London that did more to determine how the British forces were to be used. On December 28, 1915, the British government under Prime Minister H. H. Asquith officially accepted the terms reached at the Chantilly Conference, though, not without protest and opposition. A. J. Balfour, the First Lord of the Admiralty since May 1915 protested that the German lines in France were too strong and would only lead to a slaughter if followed. This soon lead to an argument with Kitchener over Balfour's protests with Kitchener raising the points that if the Germans were not forced back, they may be able to impose a peace that would allow them to keep those gains and that if any offensive was delayed, Britain would risk exhausting its resources.

(Herbert Henry Asquith, British Prime Minister during of the Battle of the Somme and accepted the terms agreed on at Chantilly)

(Arthur Balfour, First Lord of the Admiralty during the Battle of the Somme and argued with Kitchener over an offensive on the Western Front in 1916)

With the agreement to attack on the Somme in 1916 reached by his superiors, Haig would soon begin the planning and preparation for the coming offensive and had some optimism in its success, even as more debate continued in London over whether or not to have the offensive at all. This became a bigger issue for Kitchener as another figure in the British government came out against the offensive, fearing that one ought not to be launched until Britain was truly strong enough and favored offensives anywhere but the Western Front in David Lloyd George.

(David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions during the Battle of the Somme, and opponent of the plan to attack)

This soon meant further arguments between members of Parliament and Kitchener and other military officers, including the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir William Robertson over the proposed offensive. Haig would respond to what letters on this debate that reached him with the report that he wouldn't be looking to attack before May or June at the earliest and only on a fourteen mile front. When the British War Committee met again on February 22, 1916, they accepted the offensive on the dates that Haig provided.

(General Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during WWI)

Gilbert then pauses to provide some history on the area around where the British Army would be fighting in 1916. The Romans under Caesar fought through the region and a Roman road linking the cities of Albert and Bapaume still stands. The Vikings raided through the region in the ninth and tenth centuries. English soldiers would march through Picardy during the Hundred Years War against the French, and during the reign of Henry V, British troops marched through Beaumont-Hamel, where their decedents would fight in 1916. In the early seventeenth century it would be the forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Fighting in the 1600s would see a chateau at Querrieu destroyed, though it would be rebuilt to become Rawlinson's Fourth Army headquarters.

The French and Germans had also fought in the region before 1916. They fought in various locations during the Franco Prussian War, with a monument commemorating victories won by General Faidherbe against German forces on December 23, 1870 standing at Pont-Noyelles. There was also extensive fighting between the French and Germans in the region in 1914 as the Germans advanced toward Paris. And while the front would grow quiet through the winter of 1914/1915, that doesn't mean all activity ceased. German troops under General von Wundt would fortify various locations in the region, including what would hard to take in 1916, the Schwaben Redoubt and the Leipzig Redoubt.

(Lieutenant General Theodor von Wundt, commander of the 51st Reserve Infantry for the Germans on the Somme... engineered at least some of the German defenses on the Somme)

Neither was the lull in the fighting after 1914 meaning that the region was without its periodic bouts of shell fire and other actions of the war. Gilbert even goes through the death of a young British officer in January 1916... But with the decision made at Chantilly to go, that would mean that the region would soon become the site of a major battle and the British army was soon tasked to prepare for this purpose. Pals battalions, many of whom from northern England would begin to journey to the battlefield, along with Rawlinson taking command of the fourth army.

And as the army prepared for "the big push" there was still a lot of work to be done, and a lot of it would be the routine basics of any army. Marches, inspections, work detail, and so on. The more critical parts of this work would relate to getting communications ready for the attack and by March 6, 1916, Rawlinson would lay orders for phone lines to be run to every division commander and that they would be dug six feet deep to protect them German artillery fire. Orders were made for the deployment of all other possible means of communication including the use of some 22,000 carrier pigeons during the battle, along with lamps, flags, klaxons, and signal flares.

Haig also put in instructions for the various preparations for what he expected would be needed for the Somme Offensive, trained cavalry divisions. The intention would be that they would exploit the breaches made by the infantry that was being gathered from both the New Army, Territorial units, and from those evacuated from Gallipoli. However, these plans and preparations on Haig's part were soon frustrated when the Germans put into action plans that threatened to topple the entire Allied plan for 1916. On February 21, 1916 German units at the command Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn began the attack against the French at Verdun.

(Erich von Falkenhayn, German Chief of Staff, who's offensive at Verdun in 1916 put added pressure on the British to accelerate their plans for the Battle of the Somme)

And the fighting at Verdun would result in pressure being put on the British regarding their operations on the Somme. On March 28, 1916 French political and military leaders put pressure on Kitchener and Robertson, which included airing their concerns over the losses they'd been taking at Verdun. This was in turn, reported to Haig, though at the time he stood firm behind his intent to wait for the army to be trained and prepared to attack. And Haig even warned them that, "I have not got an army in France really, but a collection of divisions untrained for the field."

And while these debates over the pressure Verdun had would continue, other preparations also went forward. This included preparations for treating the wounded and making sure that they could be moved to areas where they could be safely treated. This included rail links to the main hospitals used by the British during the war at Etaples, Rouen, and Boulogne. A clearing station would be set up on April 1, 1916 at Heilly and ten more would be set up in less than two months.

There was also the need to see that the troops were able to get water and other supplies. This would include bringing large scale water tanks up to rear areas, along with piping to bring water to the front lines. Means were even taken to make sure that even damage to the pipes could be handled easily with metal bandages. And miles upon miles of additional railways were also added throughout the region. These served not just to supply the men but would also improve the care for the wounded and getting them quickly to the hospitals behind the lines.

And as preparations continued to move forward, Haig looked to new weapons as a means to look toward victory, the tank. He was told by its developer, Colonel Ernest Swinton, on a visit to London on April 14, 1916 that 150 tanks could be ready by July 31.

(Mark I Tank, introduced in 1916, Haig had hoped that these would be ready for the start of the Battle of the Somme, but none would be ready until September)

(Ernest Swinton, one of the figures leading in the development of the tank)

Haig felt the timing would be rather late, but in any event, the first tanks wouldn't actually be ready for combat until September 1916. And while Haig continued to prepare for the offensive on the Somme, the German shelling of Verdun continued and brought with it its own surprises. On May 4, 1916, Georges Clemenceau, chairman of the French Senate Military Committee visited Haig at his headquarters at Montreuil. While there had been pressure from other French politicians to attack and relieve pressure on Verdun, Clemenceau actually urged Haig not to attack until fully ready.

(Georges Clemenceau, French Chairman of the Senate Military Committee in 1916, who visited Haig and urged a restraining hand when dealing with Joffre)

And for the time being, Haig was content to wait until he was ready, both Verdun and disagreements within his own command soon became troublesome. Within the British command, Haig was soon forced to debate with Rawlinson and his officers over the nature of the British attack, whether it would be to break through the German lines or progressively attack in way that would take one trench line, hold it while the artillery is brought up and then repeat the process in a slow manner. Haig favored the attempt at a breakthrough...

At the same time, the fighting at Verdun was continuing to wear on the French. By May 10, 1916, the French had suffered 115,000 casualties there and Robertson had the suspicion that French losses were actually higher than was indicated and that the French estimates for German casualties were too low. It would also mean that as the French fought to defend Verdun, their contribution on the Somme would become much lower. For while they would still have troops on the Somme, it would not be the forty divisions that was originally expected. But the pressure was building and the French needed relief. And eventually after debates between Haig and Joffre, the "big push" would be moved up to a proposed start date of June 29, 1916.

Though as that date approached, disagreements began to appear between Haig members of the British government over his plan. Primarily over his intention of using cavalry formations to exploit the breaches in the German lines that it was hoped that the infantry would force. Haig's plan had always been ambitious, but at times it seemed as though the use of cavalry in the plan was a step too far. Since the start of trench warfare in 1914, the cavalry had been an unused weapon, as in the winter of 1914, at Neuve-Chapelle and Loos in 1915 the infantry had unable to breach the German lines and thus no cavalry exploitation of that breach could be attempted. Haig, however, was optimistic that the Somme would be different in that the infantry would force the breaks in the German line and mark a clear German defeat. Yet, Asquith was still skeptical over the maintenance of cavalry units and on May 23, 1916, Winston Churchill, returning to Parliament from the trenches of the Western Front, voiced concerns that could be considered critical of a how Britain's war in the trenches was actually fairing... Though these warnings were drowned in calls of patriotic fervor.

It could reflect in many ways the exchange between Ernest Shackleton and Mr. Sorlie, the manager of a British whaling station at South Georgia in which when asked if the war was over, Sorlie replies, "The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad."

And this madness continued as the British continued to build up for the big push. At sea, the British would engage the Germans off the Danish Jutland coast. The resulting Battle of Jutland (see: Battle of Jutland - World War I - for reference) would see neither side destroy the other, much to the disappointment of admirals on both sides, but it did force the Germans back to their ports, and from which they would not emerge. This allowed the British to continue to bring men and material to France without the major risk of losing them to German warships.

And with this build up continued, selected troops would be pulled from line to special training camps behind the lines where troops would be taught how to dig trenches, vault over them, and learn to use their bayonet at disemboweling straw sacks. Among those sent back was a British Second Lieutenant, Siegfried Sassoon.

(Siegfried Sassoon, British soldier and poet and veteran of the Battle of the Somme)

Gilbert notes that the bayonet training seemed to have some effect on Sassoon, with his instructor's rantings on the matter. Many of them were detailed in terms of how to bayonet someone and urging students to kill every last German they could find, and Gilbert directly quote's Sassoon's own remarks on this:

Man, it seemed had been created to jab the life out of the Germans. To hear the Major talk, one might have thought he did it himself every day after breakfast...

-Siegfried Sassoon Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 30
But Sassoon was already a decorated veteran in 1916. And Gilbert ends the chapter with the comment that many of those that would return with him to the Somme battlefield were not and that the Somme would be their first battle.

CHAPTER STRENGTH: The chapter is amazingly detailed with the overall strategy for the Allies developed at Chantilly in 1915 and how the development of the plans for the fighting on the Somme progressed. In this, Gilbert provides his readers with just about everything they'd need to know with regard to just about every step in the preparation stages for the battle.

CHAPTER WEAKNESSES:1) Poor organization... The information that Gilbert provides is excellent and I don't have any factual issue with what Gilbert presents. However, the manner in which he presents it is a bit disjointed. He jumps from point to point and at times it seems like he's even jumping forward and backward in time, as he starts with the Chantilly Conference in 1915 and instead of a smooth transition through the start of the Battle of Verdun as something that might interfere with the planning of the Battle of the Somme, he'd continue on into events in the British build up to the Somme only to come back to the start of the fighting at Verdun later. That sort of jumping back and forth... really doesn't help with the flow of the book and thus weakens the overall presentation.

2) Distracted references... While the mention of the Somme's lengthy history of warfare is interesting, it really isn't relative to the fighting in 1916. Yes, other armies had fought there... but it's doubtful that the armies of Henry V had any real connection to the armies of George V fighting in WWI other than that they were English (largely). Gilbert didn't need to use up as much space as he did with the reference to these earlier conflicts in the way that he did...

The reference to Jutland toward the end of the chapter works, but then one must also remember that that reference is used to then reinforce points that will directly relate to the buildup to the Battle of the Somme. The earlier Ancient, Medieval, and Modern era references that Gilbert uses doesn't have that beyond the mention that Rawlinson would use one of those locations as his own HQ... The rest seem only to be used because they just happened to be in the same area as the Battle of the Somme...

3) Not really picking up on the training of the British troops... And this should have been something to include, given all the Pals Battalions essentially coming straight out of civilian life with little to no prior military experience. The mention of the training camps and how even veterans like Sassoon could be sent to them to get a refresher course was good... but the New Army, who's recruitment in the prelude would have needed more training than what is described in the chapter.

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... I would think that Gilbert has tried very hard to put together an informative chapter that shows not just the broad development of the Allied plan for 1916 on the whole but also the British plans for the Somme in particular. And the detail that Gilbert does provide is extensive... and in a way may overcome many of the chapter's weaknesses, particularly with weaknesses 2 and 3. The problem is that the chapter's disjointed flow of time can come off as confusing and difficult to follow... which weakens the effectiveness of the chapter.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter two...

Chapter Two: June 1916: "There is much in the wind"

Chapter Two continues to cover the events building up to the beginning of the battle as the British army and government prepare for the offensive intended to break the trenches of the Western Front. This included the building of "cages" that were to house the expected German prisoners when the battle began and would mark the biggest British action on the Western Front since the Battle of Loos. And there was a lot to this preparation that went beyond that...

Both sides traded sporadic artillery fire and there were the various trench raids carried out to either weaken the German trenches or the belts of barbed wire between them. The biggest and most extensive work was the mining operations that were intended to blast holes in the German lines. These operations were to that point in time among the most extensive mining operations used by any of the armies of WWI, and Gilbert provides specific mentions on how these tunnels were dug and how the British tried to keep the Germans from detecting them. In this, he refers frequently to the official British war historian, Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds.

The methods that were reported to be used included using an auger to bore out a hole and then fill that hole with vinegar, which would then soften the chalky soil to the point where it could be more easily scraped out. Other measures included making sure the men working in the tunnels worked barefoot and with the floor of the tunnels carpeted to help muffle the sounds of their digging. All of this to set up a series of mines at points near locations known as "Cassino Point," "Tambour" opposite Fricourt, La Boiselle, and Beaumont-Hamel. And while it's stated that the British lacked the manpower to do more, what was done was impressive given what the intent of these mines would ultimately be for.

But as the start of the battle began to approach, and the troops moved forward toward the "big push," there was also the continued need to entertain the troops before the battle began and let them pass time. This included various activities that today might be considered less than savory... including the visiting of brothels in places like Amiens. In fact, Gilbert even points out that Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister's son enjoyed visiting such establishments...

(Raymond Asquith, son of H. H. Asquith and enjoyed many of the things seems to be typically enjoyed by the soldiers of any army)

Theatrical performances behind the lines were also presented behind the lines, and Gilbert even describes the path one entertainer, Captain Basil Hallam Radford took to join the BEF and bring his stage performances to the troops. He had volunteered for the infantry in 1914, but had been rejected due to a steel plate in his leg from a former injury. However, by 1915 he was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps and by 1916 was deployed to France to Number 3 Army Kite Balloon Section. He brought his act with him, and many troops enjoyed his "Gilbert the Filbert" act, which Martin Gilbert quotes...

"I'm Gilbert the Filbert, the Knut with a 'K'
The pride of Piccadilly, the blasé roue
Oh, Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert, the colonel of the Knuts."

-Basil Hallam Radford's "Gilbert the Filbert"

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 33
However, the entertainment of the troops didn't put a stop to the war and couldn't hide that something was being planned. British munitions workers received notices that planned time off in June was cancelled, which would have to alert them that something big was being prepared in France that would require their continued effort. At the same time, the War Council in Britain had not yet reached a decision on approving the plan of attack on the Somme in 1916. Pressure on the British was still being made by the French over the fighting at Verdun, and this included reports from Phillippe Petain, the French commander at Verdun that stated that the French could not hold past June 20.

(Philippe Petain, French commander at Verdun and among those putting pressure on the British to attack on the Somme)

To make matters worse for the decision of the war cabinet as these sorts of reports came in was the fact that on June 5, 1916, the Minister of War, Lord Kitchener was killed on a trip to Russia when his ship, the cruiser Hampshire, struck a mine and sank off the Orkney Islands, just as the last of his New Army units crossed to France. Kitchener's death was troublesome as no one else in the government really had the experience with military matters and this left the rest of the British War Cabinet to face pressure from their allies to make an offensive. Pressure came not only from Petain, as Lloyd George met with his French counterpart, Albert Thomas, who Lloyd George found "rattled" by the pressure the French were under at Verdun and the lack of British activity on the Somme. And in this atmosphere, Lloyd George, who Gilbert has already noted as being against the Somme offensive, reported to his British colleagues that they would have to go... if only to aid and assure their allies.

(Albert Thomas, French Minister of Armaments in 1916 and urged Lloyd George to encourage the attack on the Somme)

By June 7, the British War Cabinet began to move more firmly behind the plan of attack on the Somme and in support of Haig who was also in contact with his French counterpart. Haig told Joffre that he would try to be ready to move by late June, though he would prefer August 15 as the start date... Joffre replied that July 1 would be "soon enough."

A lot of this, I think is to try and show just how much the British efforts on the Somme were being influenced by events elsewhere. The French were feeling intense pressure at Verdun and felt the need for relief for their forces there and that they were clear in trying to pressure the British into accelerating their plans. And with Kitchener lost at sea and most of the rest of the British government not having real military experience, this pressure was bound to have an impact, especially when one considers that Gilbert has already argued that Lloyd George was opposed to attacking on the Somme from the beginning, but yet by early June would begin to accept the need to attack. It serves to demonstrate that much of what people have criticized Haig for with regard to the Somme could apply to more than just Haig...

And while the arguments over strategy continued in the background, preparations for the "big push" continued. This not only included the arrival of men, but of ammunition and other logistical needs. The first ammunition trains began arriving behind the lines on June 8 and troops were soon practicing their attacks in the rear areas before they moved up to the front lines. And all of this carried some importance at higher levels, as one of the criticisms that was made with regard to the fighting at Loos was in the lack of armaments and in 1916, there was great hope to avoid that.

And by 1916 there was some reason to believe that lack of shells wouldn't be as much of a problem as it was a year earlier. On June 21 Lloyd George reported to the cabinet that his munitions plants had produced 140 to 150 heavy guns a month and were producing enough shells to be able to fire 300,000 a week. To those in the government, this seemed like a great increase, though intelligence warnings did come that whatever advantages the British had in numbers were at best marginal and on June 22 General Robertson even reported that while he thought he had more men than the Germans, he also felt he had fewer guns. Which an astonished AJ Balfour would comment, "On the whole our superiority was great except in the one thing that really mattered."

But in the end, the progress that was made was deemed acceptable and the decision to go ahead was made. On June 23, the troops began to move forward toward the front lines, with the expectation of a major offensive soon coming... And one that would be further heralded by the opening bombardment, which opened on June 24 and would go for a week. The barrage had many great hopes behind it... that it would damage or destroy German defenses and at least weaken German morale. However, the German defenses were quite strong, and Gilbert will even report later in the chapter that what few prisoners the British took in trench raids before actual attack began would report that German morale had not been damaged by the barrage.

However, that does not mean that the barrage was not without effects that could be considered more successful as there was some impact that it did have on the Germans that impressed at least a few of them to a degree... Gilbert even quotes a German medical officer Lieutenant Stefan Westmann on his impression of the British bombardment on the Somme.

"The drumfire never ceased. No food or water reached us... men became hysterical and their comrades had to knock them out, so as to prevent them from running away and exposing themselves to the deadly shell splinters. Even the rats panicked and sought refuge in our flimsy shelters, they ran up the walls and we had to kill them with our spades."

- Lt. Stefan Westmann on the British bombardment prior to the Battle of the Somme in June 1916.

- Quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 37
And while the end effect would not be as successful as hoped for before the battle, it should be remembered that when the bombardment began, the British could not know for sure how successful the bombardment was. They could only continue the bombardment and hope that the alternation between shrapnel shells and high explosives would do damage to the German bunkers. In some cases, German soldiers were killed in the bombardment, but many dugouts were 30 to 40 feet underground and some even had concrete reinforcement that would protect against even a direct hit. All they could do is wait for the attack to come.

But the bombardment of the German lines was not the only action that occurred before July 1, 1916. There were trench raids to be carried out to take prisoners and cut holes in the barbed wire and the Royal Flying Corps had missions to keep the skies clear and scout the effectiveness of the bombardment... And this one that was highly important as Morane biplanes took to the air with photographers to catch the images of the battlefield to guide the gunners.

(Morane-Saulnier BB, a French made observation plane used by the Royal Flying Corps)

And these flights could be helpful in determining the flight of the shells and improve the bombardment's accuracy and some pilots even reported huge explosions at German ammunition dumps at Longueval, Montauban, Mametz Wood, and Pozieres. However, the flyers like Cecil Lewis often had to confront issues that would limit the ability of their aircraft to fly.

(Cecil Arthur Lewis, a flyer in the Royal Flying Corps at the Somme in 1916)

And that issue was rain... On June 26, 1916, heavy rains came in essentially grounded the Royal Flying corps as they couldn't move through the mud. But the war did not stop because it was raining. The bombardment continued and the British continued to make raiding efforts to clear paths for their men to follow in he main offensive. During the night June 26, Newfoundland units attempted a series of raids with Bangalore torpedoes and wire cutters. The first torpedo took out the first line of barbed wire, but the Newfoundlanders found a second line of barbed wire, which hadn't been destroyed. A second Bangalore torpedo was brought up, but it failed to detonate. And by that point the Germans were alerted and the Newfoundlanders were forced to withdraw.

And as the men went through the issue of trench raids and enduring the bombardments, the British command continued to go over direct tactical plans regarding the offensive. On June 27 Haig received suggestions on tactical moves to be made in the attack by subordinate generals including Rawlinson and General Gough, the commander of the Reserve Army.

(General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough, commander of the Reserve Army in 1916 and made suggestions that even Haig found overly optimistic)

These suggestions were rather conflicting. Gough is reported to have suggested attacks that would essentially leave his lines open to counter attack near Bapaume, and Haig did give him warning on that potential danger. Rawlinson, meanwhile, seemed to suggest a more conservative attack in which the British forces were to secure the front German line and then consolidate it under the shelter of artillery fire before any move onward is to be attempted. This Haig rejected with the report that if the German line broke, such tactics would prevent any attempt at a pursuit or exploitation of the German lines.

At the same time, on June 27, Major General Trenchard, the Royal Flying Corps Commander, moved his headquarters to Fienvillers where he would continue to direct the 185 aircraft under his command in their efforts to report on German positions, bomb targets, and keep the 129 German aircraft out of the air.

(Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard commander of the Royal Flying Corps during the Battle of the Somme)

With the commands and ultimately the tactical plan of attack settled, about all that could remain was to wait for the right time. In the German trenches, some were tormented by the constant shelling, even if the shelling wasn't actually doing what was expected. And Gilbert again quotes a German corporal, Friedrich Hinkel in a "prayer" given under the British shelling...

"There was just one single heart-felt prayer on our lips: Oh God, free us from this ordeal: give us release through battle, grant us victory: Lord God! Just let them come!" and this determination increased with the fall of each shell. You made a good job of it, you British! Seven days and nights you rapped and hammered on our door! Now your reception was going to match your turbulent longing to enter!"

- Corporal Friedrich Hinkel, remembering his thoughts and "prayers" under the bombardment

- Quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 42
And the Germans did defend their lines well as the raids continued. On the night June 27/28 the British tried to raid the German lines again... Again they used Newfoundland troops. This time, they were illuminated by flares and the raid failed. The failure of the raid disappointed Haig, though it remained the rain that influenced his decision making. While the attack was scheduled initially for June 29, the heavy rains forced it to be pushed back 48 hours. This allowed for continued raids and for Haig to inspect his troops. And while Haig found many of his men confident and optimistic of success, many of the raids still had limited success at best.

On one trench raid on the evening of June 29, the British managed to reach the German trenches and were reported to have killed many Germans in the official histories, they'd also suffered heavily themselves. Scottish troops in another raid managed to return with forty-six prisoners, which was a success in terms of the raiding activity... but their interrogations indicated that the German front lines weren't demoralized under the British bombardment, which probably SHOULD have been taken as a warning. Other trench raids of June 29/30 turned into firefights that would see the death of two members of a Pal's Battalion, the 18th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, the 2nd Bradford Pals who couldn't have been more than sixteen when they enlisted, Private Arthur Firth and Private Kenneth Macaulay.

But, optimism seemed to remain as the day of the offensive grew closer. Haig felt highly confident in his troops and their training as the day of the attack began to approach, even as reports came in from other fronts. The French were, obviously, still holding on at Verdun, but now the Russians were beginning to face German attacks, which would further put the onus on the British... Though, to the War Committee in London, the differences between Britain's front and the Russians on their front, there was reason for optimism. British industry was producing 120,000 shells a week to be used on a 22 mile front while Russian industry was producing 40,000 shells a week on a 172 mile front.

And in the June 30 meeting, the War Council received the reports that gave them confidence to give the go-ahead for the "big push." Sir William Robertson made the presentation that the Germans had only 6 divisions that would be facing the British while they had 26 divisions and the French a further 14. By such numbers, the Germans would be well outnumbered and thus victory assured. And with that okay, the offensive was given the go ahead...

As the news went from London to France and the British troops moved forward for the attack, they moved past the basilica of a Albert. The church had been a focal point for travelers in the Middle Ages and by 1898 was called "the Lourdes of the North" by Pope Leo XIII. However, during the war, Albert was heavily bombarded and the basilica was hit. The result was damage done to a statue of the Madonna with Child, which soon hung at an angle from the roof. The image soon generated superstitions that the war would end when the statue fell from the roof, which British engineers countered by fastening the statue to its post with wire... Though as the troops moved to their jumping off points, the superstitions probably remained...

(Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières, the painting on the wall depicts the damage to the statue and the "repair")

But by this point the expected offensive was on the eve of its start. It would be an assault by British and French infantry on German positions and with optimism in the air for the British. They would attack with Rawlinson's Fourth Army and Gough's Reserve Army. To the south would be General Fayolle's Sixth French Army, though it was reduced in size due to the fighting still raging at Verdun.

(Émile Fayolle, Commander of the French Sixth Army during the Battle of the Somme)

Opposite them were the forces of the German Second Army under General Otto von Bedow. Though...I'm not sure this is accurate. As I've found no other source that would give the same name. They list the Second Army as being on the Somme, but they list the commander as Fritz Wilhelm Theodor Karl von Below, the cousin of Otto von Below. Though... it could be possible that this could have been a typo based on Gilbert's age when he wrote the book in 2006... as according Wikipedia, Martin Gilbert was born in 1936 and died in 2015.

(Fritz Wilhelm Theodore Karl von Below, Commander of the German Second Army on the Somme... via First World - Who's Who - Fritz von Below)

Man for man the French and British outnumbered them 200,000 to 150,000, but the German lines were still well defended and they could pull reserves from either the Eastern Front or other parts of the Western Front, such as Verdun... Though, Gilbert does note that the latter was what the French were looking for.

And at the same time of the 158 British battalions involved, 88 were from the New Army, 43 were from the regular army, and 27 territorial battalions. With most of these units coming from the New Army... it would be a major test as Gilbert quotes Sir James Edmonds to close the chapter:

"Never before had the ranks of a British Army in the field contained the finest of all classes in the nation, in physique, brains, and education. And they were volunteers, not conscripts. If ever a decisive victory was to be won, it was to be expected now."

- Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds on the British Army at the Somme

- Quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 49
1) A better handling of the time flow than in the previous chapter. The previous chapter had the potential to be confusing if one wasn't paying attention closely... But this chapter does flow in a more chronological manner, which makes everything easier to follow and understand.

2) The chapter is a long one, but is highly detailed in presenting information on the advancing of the plans for the Somme and the political okay for the attack, the specific raiding actions that took place before the actual attacks, and the impact of the bombardment. In a way it reveals a lot of the actions relate to the last month and days before the battle began... and in that, the detail that Gilbert provides makes the chapter length worth it.

1) The typo regarding the German Second Army commander. Gilbert notes the German commander as Otto von Bedow. However, I've been unable to find any other source in my possession that would even mention a General named Bedow in WWI. There was an Otto von Below, but HE was not on the Somme. And according to First World - Who's Who - Fritz von Below the German commander on the Somme was Fritz Wilhelm Theodor Karl von Below. Now, this could just be a simple typo and/or confusion based on Martin Gilbert's age at the time the book was written. However... that could well mean that ANYTHING in the book could have errors in it, especially if Gilbert meant to write Otto von Below, who wasn't on the Somme in 1916.

2) Unrelated mentions at times. Gilbert does provide a lot of detail and the detail that relates to the Battle of the Somme is quite helpful, but there are the occasional mentions of issues and battles that do not relate to the Somme. He makes mentions of some of the sites that were passed being sites where earlier British armies had passed on their way to Medieval battles, like Crecy. It's interesting, but the British troops didn't march past those areas with memories of Crecy in mind.

3) Continued mentioning on where individual soldiers were buried... While that can be touching, it comes off as though he is pausing the narrative to make that mention on where someone has been buried. The mention of the cemeteries and memorials to those who died on the Somme, be it in the battle or in the build up to it, would be better served as an afterward that covers the commemoration of the battle. Because the mentions of these monuments and memorials being made while the buildup to the battle is actually occurring... could be confusing.

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... Gilbert does an excellent job of providing detail and setting the tone for the base narrative on the book. He takes you from the political centers in London to the various headquarters of the military leadership and even to the various men in the trenches. It's a level of detail that is excellent for understanding everything that happened as the month of June progressed and the eve of the start of the battle approached...

It shows just how the timing of the offensive went through that there really was no one man that could really blame for the Battle of the Somme, if one wishes to argue that there was someone who needed to be blamed. The French, under pressure at Verdun put a lot of pressure on the British government to launch an offensive on the Somme, which in turn lead to men like Lloyd George, who was opposed to even having an offensive in 1916 when he first learned of it, deciding to support an offensive. And with Kitchener dead, there really wasn't anyone that had the sort of military experience to be able to say that they'd need to wait longer if the July 1 start date was too early. And while Haig did hope and plan for a breakthrough, even he had some specific concerns in some areas and had the preference for a start date in August. In this, if there is to be criticism on the start of the Battle of the Somme... there was PLENTY to go around.

And the detail that Gilbert puts into the chapter allows for that. And while we today may look back on the Battle of the Somme with very critical eyes, we also have the advantage of having access to histories that talk on both sides of the battle in 1916. Which is more than Haig had, which left him with the intelligence he had available to him and that the New Army had been trained well... Which in his way, Gilbert demonstrates.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter three...

Chapter Three: The first day of the battle: "Dead men can advance no further"

Chapter three is a long chapter that covers the first day of the attack on the Somme and includes many of the events that are typically associated with the battle as well as various points that aren't so often mentioned with regard to the first day. This includes the mentioning of specific attacks and successes and a personal touch on the fate of individual soldiers from both the British and French armies which Gilbert uses to try and keep some measure of the losses sustained in the battle...

This begins with exploding of the mine on Hawthorn Ridge at 7:20 AM to start the battle, which was caught on film...

The Hawthorn Ridge Mine Explosion

The British would soon follow that up with the detonating sixteen more mines under the German trenches which did massive damage to the German 119th Reserve Regiment. However, the explosion and the artillery barrage weren't perfectly coordinated with the infantry attack and British planners had greatly underestimated the German's ability to survive under the bombardment and the detonation of the mines. Which would allow the Germans to scramble and ready their own defenses, and force the British to be wary, even as their men advanced with various considerations to help their artillery support the advance... even on the first day, which included the pinning of tin triangles to the backs of the advancing infantry so that the sunlight would be reflected back to artillery observers and tell them just how far the British infantry had advanced.

The advance was prepared so that along the entire Somme front that the British could be ready for all sorts of contingencies that would relate to the hoped for breakthrough. This included carrying sixty pounds of equipment that would include their weapons, ammunition, their helmet, two gas helmets, a satchel, goggles for use against tear gas, Mills grenades, iodine, and a first aide dressing. Some were even given specialized equipment, including shovels, picks, and sledgehammers. Some were even issued gray paint so as to mark any and all artillery that was captured in the advance. It was a burden that was noted that was noted would actually demand a walking pace which would essentially warn the Germans of the coming attack and give the Germans time to respond to the detonation of the mines, which had never been intended by the British... as Lieutenant Stefan Westmann would recall:

"Then the British Army went over the top. The very moment we felt their artillery fire was directed against the reserve positions, our machine-gunners crawled out of the bunkers, red-eyed and dirty, covered in the blood of their fallen comrades, and opened up a terrific fire."

- Lt. Stefan Westmann recalling the opening moments of the Battle of the Somme

quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 53
The detonation of the mines was also observed by the various flyers of the Royal Flying Corps and that in some cases the flying dirt even hit the wings of the aircraft as they flew their recon missions. From his description of the detonation of the mines, Gilbert then moves to cover a sector by sector description of the attack on the German lines in the Battle of the Somme, beginning with the northern most sector attack on Gommecourt...

(A map of the Battle of the Somme, noting the advance by specific dates during the battle)

The attack at Gommecourt was intended as a feint carried out by General Allenby's Third Army that was to distract the Germans from reinforcing positions further south.

(Edmund Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby, Commander of the British Third Army during the Battle of the Somme)

The attack, while successful in gaining the ground was costly. Units with the Queen's Westminster Rifles, a Territorial unit, would describe the German defense as a trap, and that some 2,765 British troops were killed in this diversionary attack, which Gilbert identifies as twice the number of wounded and that German losses in fighting against this diversion were a quarter of the British losses.

To the south of Gommecourt at a line Serre to Moutauban the British are soon confronted with the main German defenses and shown the troubling points that the British had. This included various problems with the British artillery, and namely with regard to dud shells. In this, an observer with the British III Corps made the note that many of the shells fired into what they'd identified as "Sausage Valley" proved to land short of their intended targets or were duds... or both. This essentially meant that much of the German barbed wire was NOT destroyed, and helped increase the British losses in places as they took German machine gun fire as they tried to advance.

Further complicating matters were issues with false reporting, either that colored flares that were intended to signal that the attack had crossed into the German trenches or had been blunted had failed to be launched or that actual reports to Haig had been faulty. The latter included reports that the British 31st Division was entering Serre village and Theipval. Some of these mistakes in reporting may have come from areas where the British did manage some advances in the northern sections of the line, but they were still costly and weren't a complete success. This included units of the Essex Regiment trying to cut off Beaumont-Hamel, where British accounts would note fierce German resistance that would force their units, including a Lieutenant Gilbert Waterhouse, back Heidenkopf Crater that had been blasted when the attack began.

(Lieutenant Gilbert Waterhouse, British officer killed near the Munich Trench, July 1, 1916)

Though there were various moments of heroism that Gilbert notes in these attacks. Among them was a British drummer by the name of Walter Ritchie, who helped rally his unit to assure for some modest gains on the lines near Beaumont-Hamel. In relaying messages, Ritchie would win the Victoria Cross and enabled some minor advances, though by the end of the day, increased German machine-gun fire forced them to withdraw from what they had gained.

(Walter Potter Ritchie, a British drummer, who stood under fire to sound the call to "Charge," rallying the men of his unit at earning the Victoria Cross at Beaumont-Hamel)

Among what the British forces launching attacks on the German lines, there were also various units from Britain's colonies, including Newfoundland, now part of Canada. As with other British forces, they had found that the artillery barrage had failed to cut through the German wire and that even the openings in the British wire had slowed them down. This had left them having to cover five hundred yards of open ground before they could even reach German lines, and that proved difficult. Gilbert notes that of 810 Newfoundlanders who attacked that July morning, 310 were killed and more 350 had been wounded and only 68 men escaped serious harm. It was tough position that eventually the officer commanding the 29th Division would report to the Newfoundland provincial government that:

"It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valor, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further."

- General de Lisle, describing the Newfoundland advance on July 1, 1916

quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 64
The carnage that permeated the Somme battlefield was enough raise stress and cause problems, even for the small scale successes that were had. The sights and horrors of the wounded disturbed many, and Second Lieutenant Edward Brittain, waiting to go in the second wave was well aware of the sights and sounds of the battle. In a letter to his sister, Vera, he even discussed difficulties in getting men ready to move forward in spite of the shellfire coming from the German lines.

(Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson, Edward was wounded as part of the second wave on July 1, 1916)

But not everything went bad for the British in the Battle of the Somme. Many units took heavy damage, but they still advanced onward. Units from Ireland, and particularly from Ulster attacked toward German positions at a point called the Schwaben Redoubt, which by midday, the Ulstermen had overrun. It was a result that despite all tight defenses that the Germans had put together couldn't hold off all attacks. A Bavarian captain, Herbert von Wormb even reported on his own major calling for a rifle to fire on a British soldier only to see that major gunned down first. However, despite some thin German defenses behind the Schwaben Redoubt, the British were not able to get far beyond it. A mile to the south, Scottish units had similar success at the Leipzig Redoubt, though as with the other British successes... it did come at a cost with James Turnbull of the 17th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry... the Glasgow Commercials... giving his life tossing grenades to hold the trench lines the unit had seized.

(James Youll Turnbull, a Scottish soldier killed July 1, 1916 holding a position on the Leipzig Redoubt)

Despite the bravery of the Ulstermen at the Schwaben Redoubt or Turnbull on the Leipzig Redoubt, the main objective on the northern part of the line, Thiepval village, remained in German hands and had held off attacks that seemed to have been bolstered more by optimism than anything else...

"You will be able to get over the top with a walking tick, you will not need rifles. When you get to Thiepval you will find the Germans all dead, not even a rat will have survived."

- instructions given to the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers regarding the German defenses

quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War pages 71-72
But optimism doesn't count for much, and Gilbert makes it pretty clear that north and west of Mametz were patchy at best and many British penetrations were ultimately stopped by the German use of troops equipped with flamethrowers. However, as the lines moved further south and east, toward areas around Mametz and Montauban, the more successful the British attacks became. In stiff contrast to the more northern sections of the line, it was as if the Germans had abandoned this region entirely. In the attacks on Montauban, the British only lost 76 officers and 1,664 other ranks, which was far lower than losses the British had taken elsewhere on the Somme front on July 1, 1916.

And the British weren't the only ones going into action. On the southern most section of the line, the French under General Fayolle had committed their forces, including French colonials and members of the French Foreign Legion, to an attack on German positions at Belloy-en-Santerre and was a testament to successful use of artillery and infantry along an eight mile front. Though among the 25 officers and 844 men who were French casualties was an American, Alan Seeger who had earlier in 1916 written his poem, "Rendezvous" which Gilbert quotes.

(Alan Seeger, American in the French Foreign Legion, KIA on the Somme on July 1, 1916)


From there, Gilbert moves to cover what went wrong and what went right in the start of the Battle of the Somme. Much as what happened at Loos in 1915, the British struggled heavily with the use of their artillery and Gilbert notes that it was poorly employed against German artillery and that much of the success that the British did have on July 1, particularly in the south was due stronger artillery support than their was in the northern sectors of the line. However, while the breakthrough didn't occur and even the French did not attain all of their intended objectives for the first day, the Somme did attain one point of major importance on the Western Front... it would force the transfer of troops from Verdun to the Somme and lower the German chances of winning on the Meuse.

1) A well ordered presentation on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Many of the events of the battle happened simultaneously and could easily represent trouble for the narrative... especially given the amount of detail that Gilbert puts into the book, as things could easily be lost between specific points on the battlefield and events in the course of the day. Gilbert, however, does follow a fairly orderly path in covering the days events going from the very beginning of the day and then going through each sector as it went through the day. In this, even if one needs to go back and look through the chapter again to find needed information, it will be easy to find specific points that refer to those units as they fought through the battle.

2) Showing a balance between success and failure. Many people know on the failures in the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It's something that in many of the historical narratives of the First World War that is often used emphasize the slaughter in the trenches. It's something that can be easily supported when one considers that July 1, 1916 was the single worst day in British military history... but it wasn't as though they were entirely without success. Particularly if one looks to the advances made in the southern part of the British line. The first day on the Somme was a bloody day and wasn't easy, but the Germans didn't win everywhere... and by pulling German attention away from Verdun, the British had attained some success...

The frequent mentions of where individual soldiers are buried. While it does add a personal touch to the narration of the battle and serves as a reminder of the human cost of the Battle of the Somme, on a certain level it becomes a bit distracting when the mentions of modern memorials are so frequently used in relation to where specific men fell during the battle. The battle was bloody, but if Gilbert's narrative continues to point to where individual men are buried or their graves memorialized... he may find his narrative be judged as overly personal...

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... While I would hold that Gilbert didn't need to make as many mentions to where men from the Battle of the Somme have been buried or their service memorialized... as it could be a distraction from a historical narration/analysis of the battle, he does do an excellent job of providing both detail and a personal touch on the events, successes, and failures on the first day on the Somme. And it's more than just the big picture moving of the troops on a map by generals but also looking very much at the individual struggles that lone officers and NCOs had as they struggled to take and hold positions. In this I am quite impressed, and while the chapter is a long one, the detail that Gilbert has put into it is worth it.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter four...

Chapter Four: The First Full Week of Battle: "It Looked Like Victory"

Chapter four, despite covering several days of action is actually a much shorter chapter than chapter three, which covered the first day of the battle. Gilbert opens the chapter with remarks that would give some indication that while the German Second Army had successfully prevented an Allied breakthrough on July 1, 1916, it had suffered heavily as well, particularly in the southern sections of the line. In fact that damage to the German forces was such that German General Grunert and his subordinate, General Pannewitz, had even suggested a withdrawal in the southern sectors of the line opposite the French.

(Paul Ferdinand Alexander Grünert, Chief of Staff for the German Second Army at the start of the Battle of the Somme... See: Paul Gruenert for more)

(Günther Ludwig Feodor von Pannewitz one of Grunert's subordinates who agreed with the idea to withdraw... at least from the positions in the southern sections of the line... See: Günther von Pannewitz for more)

Falkenhayn who was visiting the Second Army on July 2, 1916 was shocked at the idea of withdrawal and Gilbert reports that he relieved Grunert of his post as punishment and essentially ordered that the German lines hold firm on the Somme. And as this transpired on the German side, the British were building up their own strength in the expectation of carrying out further offensives on the Somme, and among those men being gathered, was Harvey Augustus Butters, an American citizen serving as an artilleryman in the British Army and had successfully avoided regulations to keep non-British citizens out of the army.


And it should be noted that there is the potential Gilbert has had another error with regards to the name of persons involved in the battle, this time with the case of Butters. Gilbert has his first name as "Harvey" while the website "findagrave" has his name as Henry. There is the potential that there is confusion on the name, but given the website has Henry Butters and names another of Martin Gilbert's histories as a source for their posting... I would think that this is more likely an error on Gilbert's part in which either his age is getting the better of him or his editors aren't catching mistakes...

The history continues with the continued fighting on July 2 with Haig noting ups and downs with British units holding off German counterattack at Montauban as good news but the fact that the Germans still held Fricourt, La Boiselle, Thiepval, and that some British units were reported cut off in Schwaben Redoubt and Serre. Above the battlefield, Cecil Lewis continued to patrol and noted German movements on the ground and even attacked a German wagon team which resulted in the destruction of those wagons. However, with all the ups and downs, both Haig and Rawlinson maintained some measure of optimism on July 2 with only Sir Hubert Gough and the Reserve Army having concerns, which related to his forces having to clear many of the communications trenches opposite Serre and Beaumont-Hamel.

Von Below observed the areas where the British had had success, as well as the French on the Somme, and gave orders to the German Second Army to hold firm, likely in accordance with what had already happened with regard to Falkenhayn's frustration with von Below's chief of staff and subordinate on the issue. The result of this was that by nightfall of July 4, 1916 the French had practically broken through the German lines on a six mile front and had taken 4,000 German prisoners. Von Below's orders and requirements would also begin pulling reinforcements from Verdun, essentially accomplishing what the French wanted as a result of the Battle of the Somme by mid 1916...

However, while Von Below's orders would essentially enable the Allies to achieve major strategic objectives with regard to the fighting on the Western Front, that didn't mean that the Allied command was entirely confident. General Joffre and Foch both visited Haig's headquarters on July 3 seeming to press Haig to attack Thiepval which then lead to an argument between Haig and the French commander in chief with Haig voicing points concerning the successes between Mametz and Montauban. Gilbert includes excerpts from Haig's diary on the meeting, which seems to present Joffre as completely inept and unhinged, and that after Haig talked down to him, he backed down and feeling ashamed.

(Ferdinand Foch, commander of French northern armies)

Now, granted the coordination between France and Britain was never great prior Foch's becoming Supreme Allied Commander in 1918 with much of their cooperation largely limited to making sure that the two armies didn't pull themselves apart and that the argument that Gilbert reports on is largely limited Haig's personal opinion on Joffre's abilities... but the exchange as Gilbert presents it would make Joffre come off as an unhinged commander that was easily frustrated, which runs counter to what most other historians have commented on with regard to Joffre's character. And it's all limited to what Haig puts into his diary. There is no other context regarding the argument to explain why Joffre had such an uncharacteristic meltdown on July 3.

Is it possible that could have happened? Given the strategic situation, yes, it is possible as the fighting at Verdun had not been expected and was still raging when the Battle of the Somme began and would still be raging when the Battle of the Somme ended. But with no other reporting on this other than what Haig put in his diary... it would seem as though Gilbert wrote down a lot to say very little. This in and of itself is a major problem as it leaves things unexplained in a chapter where he's already covering more events than the previous chapter and as noted at the start of this chapter review post... this chapter is shorter than the previous chapter.

From the argument among the Allied generals, Gilbert then moves on to the next British moves, which included an attack on the night of July 3 with initial success at La Boisselle, but were forced to pull back after taking machinegun fire from their flanks and losing unit cohesion in the dark. The only success the British had on the night of July 3 that lasted was the capture of Bernafay Wood. However, there were other issues that the British ran into as they advanced. On July 4, Haig would visit XIII Corps headquarters to congratulate its commander Walter Norris Congreve on what he had done, but still urged greater rapidity on Congreve's part to continue the advance.

(Walter Norris Congreve, commander of the British XIII Corps at the Battle of the Somme and veteran of the Boer War)

However, Haig's orders advances didn't make things easy as he would soon learn that some of the bunkers/dugouts that the Germans had were in two tiers with openings that would apparently let German troops fire upward from them against anyone that had entered the trenches. This was reported to Haig by his artillery chief, Major General Headlam. Gilbert does not provide a first name... which can be confusing as there were at least TWO Major Generals in the British Army with the surname of Headlam. one was more in intelligence work and the other was in command of Britain's artillery... and links to the Imperial War Museum would give the indication that the officer that Gilbert is referring to in this chapter is named John. See:

All of these defenses, though, would serve to allow for heavy British casualties, even in successful attacks, which soldiers like Sassoon would see and would even put into one of his war poems, which Gilbert quotes, but does not give the title of. The war journalist, Philip Gibbs, also reported on scenes like this, including a section that Gilbert quotes regarding the capture of German trenches at Fricourt.

It looked like victory, because of the German dead that lay there in their battered trenches and the filth and stench of death over all that mangled ground, and the enormous destruction wrought by our guns, and the fury of fire which we were still pouring over the enemy's lines from batteries which had moved forward. I went down flights of steps into German dugouts astonished by their depth and strength. Our men did not build like this. This Germany industry was a rebuke to us - yet we had captured their work, and the dead bodies of their labourers lay in those dark caverns, killed by our bombers who had flung down hand-grenades. I drew back from those fat corpses. They looked monstrous, lying there crumpled up, amidst a foul litter of clothes, stick bombs, old boots, and bottles. Groups of dead lay in ditches which had once been trenches, flung into chaos by that bombardment I had seen. They had been bayoneted. I remember one man - an elderly fellow - sitting with his back to a bit of earth with his hands half raised. He was smiling a little, though he had been stabbed through the belly, and was stone dead.

- Philip Gibbs describing German trenches captured at Fricourt

quoted by Martin Gilbert, The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War pages 98-99

(Sir Philip Gibbs, a British reporter during WWI and reported on the Battle of the Somme)

However, Gilbert also notes the German will to fight on the Somme had not been weakened and that the fighting would go on, which would keep many of the other elements that related to the fighting of the war going. In this, by July 4, 1916 the first of the wounded from the Battle of the Somme began to arrive in London where they would begin their path to recovery from their wounds. Among the nurses was Vera Brittain who commented on the number of men being brought in and what those ultimately being covered by a sheet would mean. By coincidence, her brother was among those brought to hospital in which she worked.

(Vera Brittain, one of Britain's nurses working in London during WWI)

And the fighting went on, with a heavy focus on La Boiselle, and fighting that would see its own acts of heroism. One that Gilbert draws attention to was a Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment rescuing another group of British troops who were pulling back after a failed attack by mounting his machinegun on the parapet that he held to fire on the Germans attempting to throw grenades on those men until he was finally shot through the heart. For this action he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Another would awarded to Second Lieutenant Donald Bell who had managed to take a German machinegun post and shooting the German gunner with his revolver, an action he would describe as a fluke... which would be reinforced by the fact that he would be killed essentially engaging in a similar type of attack five days later.

(Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell, Victoria Cross Recipient for action on the Somme on July 5, 1916)

(The Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery... and issued to both Thomas Orde Lawder Wilkinson and Donald Simpson Bell on July 5, 1916)

And as Gilbert gets into the last part of the chapter, he gets into what is more a brief rundown of events people and place names. This includes the capture of La Boiselle on July 6 and an agreement between Haig, Foch, and Foch's chief of staff, General Weygand, on coordination between the French and British armies in the next day's attacks. In the agreement the French would provide counter-battery support for the British.

(Painting of the German surrender in 1918, General Weygand is depicted seated on the right with Foch, who is standing with a red and gold kepi on, to his left)

And the fighting would continue, as the British pushed forward and the Germans pushed back. The village of Contalmaison, captured by the British early on July 7 was lost by the end of the day and Gough's troops had yet to capture all of Ovillers and that casualties would continue to pile up with up to 260 wounded men dying of their wounds in field hospitals behind the lines like Heilly as many of the preparations for the battle seemed to be overtaxed by the battle. But by July 7, 1916 had been informed by Lord Esher that the French had been greatly pleased with British actions to that point and that their success would help keep France in the war.

The chapter's only real strength is that Gilbert is able to provide detail on where the British had success and where they had failure... This includes the issues that relate to the movement of their troops, particularly on the southern part of their lines, and the pressures the offensive put on the Germans which would essentially accomplish what the French had been looking for... relief for their forces engaged at Verdun.

1) Confusion with names: Just as with his confusion as to which Von Below commanded the German Second Army in Chapter Two, there seems to be some confusion over the name of an American citizen, Butters. Gilbert has his first name as Harvey, but other sources I've found would indicate his first name being Henry and his grave is marked as Harry. Now, it could be possible that "Harvey" was another name he was known by, but Gilbert doesn't explain it, which leaves some question as to how much he actually looked into the man, particularly in the fact that his grave is known and his writings have survived. Given Gilbert's age... one might be able to explain the mistake that way... but it's again a problem that can only lead to confusion for those who are unwary.

2) The debate with Joffre... I honestly can't see the real point in why the argument between Joffre and Haig was so important and why Gilbert's only mention of it is by quoting Haig's diary. He provides no context behind the argument as to why Joffre may have lost his cool, something he isn't known for, which in turn comes off as unnecessary French bashing. Because all that is presented in relation to it is what Haig wrote in his diary, which is bound to have his own personal biases in it and won't put what happened into context. And while Joffre probably wasn't the greatest general of World War I, he IS known for keeping calm, regardless of the situation, and various historians have noted this on Joffre. As such, by only putting in Haig's diary entry... there is no context for the debate and why Joffre might have lost his cool...

As such, Gilbert has written a fair number of words on the debate... but in reality has said very little about it. And in a chapter where he's covering events of the week after July 1, 1916... what he's put down with regard to the debate is more of a distraction than anything that would be truly helpful to the battle as a whole. Joffre may have indeed lost his cool... but there has to be some sort of context as to why, which Gilbert does not provide.

If the point was to show the differences of opinion between Haig and Joffre and how they saw operations... either to demonstrate Haig's value as a commander and show that Joffre was not as great as he made himself out to be... Gilbert has still written too much and could have said the same thing by being far more brief. He could simply mention the meeting, say that Joffre was uncharacteristically uneasy for some reason and made little sense in the process and then move on to the events of the battle instead of quoting several paragraphs from Haig's diary.

About the only "strength" in this is in showing the difficulties in how the French and British got along in WWI... but by solely relying on Haig's diary Gilbert wasn't providing the full story.

3) The poetry... In general, I wouldn't normally hold this as a weakness, as the First World War was a war in which a great number of poets and writers fought and some died in the course of the war. And many of the war poems of WWI are well remembered to this day. In this, it can actually be quite touching. However, in this case, Gilbert quotes one of Siegfried Sassoon's poems and notes its importance to the fighting on the Somme, but he does not give the poem's title. It's really the lack of a title that is the problem.

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... In many ways, I think Gilbert was a bit rushed with this chapter. He does continue to provide a lot of detail, which is good...

But take the debate between Haig and Joffre. The only apparent source that Gilbert names is Haig's diary and he provides no context on the incident. And while it may be interesting, without context, it doesn't do anything more than distract from the rest of the battle which should be the main part of the book... and definitely the main part of the chapter. But Gilbert provides no context for the debate, only states that it happened and give's Haig's thoughts on the debate... There is no context and thus the debate comes off in a one sided presentation.

Had that context been put there, he would have had a far stronger chapter that would say a lot more, as with regards to the movements of the armies and the fighting that occurred, Gilbert does do a fairly good job of making his argument... but without that context... he's made the chapter weaker because the only commentary on the meeting is Haig's commentary.
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Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter five...

Chapter Five: The Last Three Weeks of July: "Boys of the Bull Dog Breed"

Chapter five will flow in a rather disjointed way as Gilbert moves from point to point as he goes through the rest of the month of July as the British and Germans continue to battle on the fields of the Somme in France. The information he provides is detailed and informative, but it doesn't quite seem to flow very well, which could be a problem as someone not paying super close attention to the details could be lost in the confusion. In general, this could be a problematic point for a history book as the main goal would be to inform readers on the history of the battle and how it unfolded... though, certain elements of the chapter would make it seem to me that this might well have been Gilbert's intention with this chapter. In that he wanted point specifically to points of confusion that happened during the battle for various reasons and the potentially confusing nature of the chapter reflects those issues...

In fact Gilbert opens the chapter with the continuing fighting, particularly around Mametz and the service of Hugh Boustead in these attacks. However, as with all the great battles of the First World War, artillery still played a major role and did a lot of damage. One shell, in fact, landed among Boustead and his comrades as they attacked. Boustead survived the explosion others did not and were literally blown apart. Gilbert adds a footnote in that four years after the battle, Boustead received a letter from the British War Office in London requesting information on a cross that had been put up in the Montauban valley in 1916 marked "Number 5100, Private Hugh Boustead." It would appear that someone had thought him dead and marked him as such, and the British army and government was left in confusion... Gilbert ends that note by saying that Boustead assured the authorities that he was alive and well.

From confusion over identifying the dead, Gilbert then moves on toward the higher levels of command, as Haig, retaining his optimism and checking in with various unit commanders and removing those judged to be unsatisfactory. In a visit to the XV Corps headquarters at Heilly on July 9, 1916, Haig found out from the corps commander, General Horne had already removed two division commanders, General Pilcher of the 17th Division and General Philips of the 38th Welsh Division. What becomes the most noteworthy was Horne's criticism of the 38th Welsh Division in particular...

"Although the wood had been most adequately bombarded the division never entered the wood, and in the whole division the total casualties for the 24 hours are under 150! A few bold men entered the wood and found little opposition. Deserters also stated Enemy was greatly demoralized and had very few troops on the ground."

- General Horne's complaint to Haig on the 38th Welsh Division on July 9, 1916

- Quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 106

(Henry Horne, 1st Baron Horne the commander of the XV Corps who removed Pilcher and Phillips from their commands)

(Thomas Pilcher, removed from his command of the 17th Division by Horne)

(Sir Ivor Phillips, removed from command of the 38th Welsh Division by Horne)

Horne's report to Haig, however, was reportedly at odds with the fighting that had gone on, and particularly with regard to the "timidity" of the 38th Welsh Division. Men in the division left detailed accounts on the ferocity of the battles they had endured around Mametz and would leave behind various poetry and verse that reflect their feelings on the engagement. Among these men was Lance Corporal Harry Fellows, who had buried many of his friends on the Somme and had the effects of the battle go with him for the rest of his life, and would have his ashes buried on the Somme after his death in 1987. In this, his grave is one of nine monuments erected after 1919, and a few lines of verse is quoted by Gilbert.

See: for more, and the entire poem that Gilbert quotes a few lines of in the book...

In this, Gilbert does point to issues where the nature of World War I could cause confusion... however, the best "proof" that he has of this is more in the poetry written by veterans of the battle. And while this is touching with regard to the personal consequences of the war, proving that Pilcher or Phillips were timid or poor commanders or that Horne was mistaken in his assessment of their actions cannot be proven with poetry from the lower ranks. In this, Gilbert could have done much more to explain the situation to either point to what mistakes that had been made by Pilcher and Phillips or where Horne's assessment was wrong. Especially as the quoted poetry that Gilbert uses is mentioned AFTER attacks were renewed after Pilcher and Phillips were relieved of their commands... And if the 38th Welsh Division's actions prior to Phillips removal from command wasn't as timid as Horne claimed and that there are "detailed accounts" of the fighting... Gilbert should have had more than just two pieces of poetry to demonstrate that point.

Gilbert then interrupts this with some updates on actions in the air as even reconnaissance planes fought each other to observe the actions on the ground, and winning the attention of men on the ground, including a Lieutenant Arthur Preston White who watched some of these duels. See: While further south the Germans would also launch their last great offensive at Verdun on July 10, though while they would get to the roof of Fort Souville and could see the city, that was the closest the Germans got, and despite suffering 2,400 casualties, French troops under Kleber Dupuy would secure the fort and effectively secured Verdun...

(Lt. Kleber Dupuy, French commander at Fort Souville who managed to hold the fort from German attack and essentially securing Verdun)

Though, back on the Somme, things for the French Army didn't have the same "success" as Dupuy at Verdun, as they suffered heavily in an attack on the village of Barleux. Haig noted that to encourage the French they would have to keep active, and kept the British Army on the offensive. On July 12, Mametz Wood would be secured with up to seven thousand Germans taken prisoner, though among those wounded that day was Richard Dennys, who would die twelve days later. Like many of the First World War generation, Dennys was a man of many talents and abilities, including poetry, which Gilbert quotes one of his last poems, Better Far to Pass Away. See: for more and the poem in its entirety.

(Richard Dennys gravely wounded on July 12 during the capture of Mametz Wood)

But still the war and the fighting went on. Pilots like Cecil Lewis were again in the air and sent to support the advances, though other methods of the war were also to be tried. This included the testing of a new chemical weapon of hydrogen mixed with carbon disulphide called "Double Red Star" at Monchy-le-Preux on July 12. This was all part of General Foulkes efforts to break the trench system, though, it didn't work. German return artillery fire hit the British trenches as the Double Red Star gas caught fire and ignited. Another gas was also used, known as "White Star," which had a phosgene component to it, though while it often killed off the rats, accidents and other issues meant that it would cause problems for the men assigned the task of releasing it.

(Charles Foulkes commander of the British Special Brigades and use of chemical weapons)

It's for these reasons that infantry commanders didn't want Foulkes and his men around, and often tried to get them sent to other sectors. Though from the complaints that Gilbert has quoted, their concerns seemed to be more on either mistakes made in the British attempts to use poison gas or in the lethality of the gas the British used...

"We gassed about three hundred of our own men and killed one German who laughed so much that he blew his gas mask off!"

- Technical Chemist Adrian Hodgkin recounting the effectiveness of Britain's use of poison gas

- quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 111

"I don't know much about smells, but this one had none on the Bosche. They fairly snuffed it up and loved it! If we are going to descend to this sort of thing there is no point in making ourselves ridiculous by having a sort of sneezing mixture. What we want is something to lay out the Blighters, not fill them with beans."

- Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Fergusson commenting on the effectiveness of White Star gas

- quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 111
Though even with the complaints on the use of gas by the British and it's effectiveness, it doesn't take away from the fact that fighting and dying did go on. On July 13 the most aristocratic of the men fighting in the Battle of the Somme and member of the French parliament, Josselin de Rohan-Chabot, duc de Rohan was killed leading a reconnaissance mission. On the same day, news of the fighting at Beaumont-Hamel reached Newfoundland, and many would mourn the loss of those who had died in the fighting there. The First Newfoundland, a veteran unit of the fight at Beaumont-Hamel had been pulled out to resume training and would soon be sent to the Ypres salient, a quiet sector in 1916.

At this point in the battle, Haig had felt the battle had progressed to a point where the British could deploy their cavalry for the first time in the battle and set the goal for the cavalry units to take region around High Wood, and in the early hours of July 14, British artillery opened up on the German lines with the fire intensifying 3:30 AM before British infantry along with the 20th Deccan Horse Division and the 7th Dragoon Guards. Though while the end results of the attack would leave Haig rather optimistic, the breakthrough that was hoped for did not occur. Bazentin-le-Petit would be taken, but it would take time to truly secure and by 3:40 AM on July 15 the cavalry were withdrawn without ever actually achieving the breakthrough that was hoped for.

This left the fighting to the infantry as 114th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers was sent forward to secure the parts of Ovillers that the Germans still held. Among them was a future British author, who's war experience and loss of friends would stay with him well after his life, JRR Tolkien.

(JRR Tolkien in 1916 and would first see action on the Somme at Orvillers)

The German resistance was fierce and while 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment would take some German trenches and even repelled a German counter-attack, the loss of life continued to go on. With Chancellor's Medal for English Verse from Cambridge University, Lieutenant Donald Johnson, among the dead.

(Donald Fredric Goold Johnson, British poet and soldier, killed in 1916 on the Somme)

Though, even with the losses taken, even critics of the Somme Offensive, including Winston Churchill, there was some sense of respect for the men who were risking their lives to carry out the offensive. In fact he would even write to his younger brother, Jack, that "the marvelous devotion and heroism of the troops exceeds all that history records or fancy had dreamed." Though this would be tested by July 15 as the battle for Delville Wood when the South African Brigade was ordered to attack the wood. The attack, however, was costly and only achieved partial success and would take up much of the rest of the month of July.

The attacks included even raiding parties and sniper times, which included Boustead going forth to try and deal with German units putting fire on British forces from a location marked as Waterlot Farm. And while Boustead would have some success in this, it was not without cost and that many of the men that had gone with him and before him were killed as part of these actions. This wore down on the troops as a whole it was noted that units were beginning to be chewed up by the fighting that was going on and that some officers were having to think more on issues related to burying the dead and when that could be done in addition to other tasks. It had its moments of humor, but was showing that the British were being ground down by the fighting on the Somme.

On July 16, a heavy artillery bombardment was fired on the Germans in preparation for an assault on a German held ridge that dominated the village of Pozieres. Though while the bombardment may have done some damage, it didn't break the German defenses, and the Germans were often able to establish new ones. The result was that the infantry attack on the 17th was so costly that the planned attack for the next day was cancelled. Though much of Haig's concerns with the failures seemed more focused on local failures of command and a lack of coordination between the XIII and XV Corps, though Haig did continue to retain some optimism in the offensive...

"The events of the last fortnight have again proved conclusively that the British troops are capable of beating the best German troops. They are fully confident, and so am I, that they can continue to do so, provided we are kept supplied with men, guns, and munitions. Our present success has been gained before we have reached our full strength, and the exploitation of this success is limited only by the extent of our resources."

- letter by Haig to Master General of Ordinance, Major General Sir Stanley von Donop

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 119
While the letter does show Haig's continued optimism in the face of fierce fighting, the results of the letter would betray some of the concerns that were likely in the background... that everything would be needed for the Battle of the Somme. Sir Stanley von Donop would use the letter to curtail the sending of supplies to Russia as resources were needed on the Somme.

(Major General Sir Stanley von Donop the Master General of Ordinance in 1916)

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... I know that the "chapter thoughts" is usually the last part that I put in with each chapter review, but with the way this chapter seemed to flow, I feel it best to put my thoughts on it...

Because of the way in which the chapter flows, fluttering from point to point in a rather confusing way, a lot of the strengths and weaknesses in this chapter are really going to depend on what Martin Gilbert was looking for in this chapter. If he was simply presently a flow of events as they happened... while he does accomplish that, the way in which he does it isn't focused and can be confusing, which would make it a major chapter weakness. However, if the chapter was deliberately made to be confusing in its flow in order to demonstrate the often confusing nature of warfare, particularly in large scale warfare, then that could be a real strength in demonstrating that point... However, because Martin Gilbert has since passed away, I don't know if an actual answer on that can be truly reached...

And in this, even if Gilbert was trying to demonstrate that war is confusing, I don't think I would have gone the exact route that he did in doing so, for while he may demonstrate that war is confusing, it may hurt the history he is trying to present.

1) Providing a lot of information, and particularly in relation to the cost of the Battle of the Somme. While many WWI battles had many casualties in them, and there might even be some that would be bloodier than the Somme was... But yet, it is the Somme that often comes to us in the popular imagination regarding the attritional warfare in the trenches which Gilbert does demonstrate. This is seen heavily in all the recollections on the dead and lost friends, and even in some cases where the men in question seemed quite willing to take it.

And the point that of 3,872 graves in the London Cemetery 3,113 are unidentified is especially pointed. It makes it pretty clear that in a war where the chief killer was artillery that being able to have known graves for men who had given their lives for their country is difficult.

2) Keeping and providing some sense of humor... This relates to the opening of the chapter with Boustead assuring War Office Authorities that he was alive and well after being identified as among the dead on the Somme and with a small section where Arthur Preston White muses on what to do with regard to a wagon and a dead German soldier that was in it. White's thoughts are not portrayed as vandalizing the body and seem to be more limited to writing some "pretty sloppy stuff" about him. It may not be humorous in the same way that a joke-book is humorous, but it also shows many of these men were not broken by the war. The war was trying, yes, it was devastating, yes, but soldiers went in somehow managed retain some element of humor, something I'd personally think they'd need to survive...

1) The overuse of poetry. World War I was the war in which we remember the loss of poets and artists that died in the war. It is touching and one that should be remembered. However, the purpose of the chapter is to cover the actions that closed out the month of July 1916 on the Somme. And while maybe a lone reference to a particular poem once in a chapter can highlight that overall point... Gilbert has done this repeatedly, particularly in this chapter where he's not only quoted a few lines but entire poems. In this, he's talking less about the battle and rather the poetry that relates to it or to the poets that died in the battle.

The issue with the 38th Welsh Division illustrates this point. The best proof that Gilbert uses is poetry written by survivors of the fighting near Mametz that General Horne's judgement of them was faulty. Now, Gilbert may well be right that Horne's opinion was wrong, but he should have more than just poetry to show that the division saw fierce fighting in the Mametz Wood. In this, the frequent and heavy use of poetry would be better served in a history of the poetry of the Great War and not on a particular battle's history.

2) Mentions of unimportant people to the battle... While it is an interesting fact that JRR Tolkien or that a French nobleman fought on the Somme, their names are only seem to be mentioned to highlight that they were there. There is little mention of what they did IN the battle being important. Especially while going through the battle's events.

3) The chapter's content doesn't fully match the chapter's title. Chapter Five's title mentions the last three weeks in July while Chapter Four covers the first full week of the battle. In this, the content of Chapter Five should end with the last day of July. Yet it would appear that Gilbert did not get past July 19 in the chapter. It doesn't really take away from the information provided. The chapter is still informative... but the content of the chapter does not fully match the chapter's title.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter six

Chapter Six: Fromelles: "A Bloody Holocaust"

This chapter is a short one... only four pages... covering a diversionary attack made by British colonial troops, specifically ANZAC veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, to try and prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements to the Somme. The planned target was the town of Fromelles.

(Map of the battle line shortly after the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, note that Fromelles is located near the center of the map and that it is in a part of France close to the Belgian border and well away from the Somme)

Gilbert does provide information on where Fromelles is in relation to the fighting on the Somme, but I'd think it would have done better to include a map that would show Fromelles's location in France and potentially in relation to the front in 1916. Gilbert does have a maps section for the book, but like his general history of World War I that is actually at the END of the book and would mean one would have to flip to the end to see Fromelles's location on a map. He does provide the information and he does provide a map showing where Fromelles is, but my only "complaint" was that there could have been better organization in presenting that and putting it at a point where Fromelles would be taken as important to the fighting on the Somme.

The attack was supposed to pin German troops down at Fromelles and prevent them from being moved south to the Somme, however, there came intelligence indications that the Germans weren't in the process of moving their troops away from the position. In this, there was no actual need to pin them down there, and alarmed at strength that he observed of the German trenches, Australian General HE Elliot would ask a British staff officer what he thought what would happen there... The answer he got wasn't promising.

(Harold Edward "Pompey" Elliott a senior Australian commander in the attack on Fromelles)

"If you put it to me like that sir, I must answer you in the same way as man to man. It is going to be a bloody holocaust."

- Major HCL Howard, a British staff officer, estimating the results of an attack on Fromelles to General HE Elliot

- quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 121
However, the commander of the XI Corps, General Sir Richard Haking, wanted the attack to go on and made sure the attack went on...

(General Sir Richard Haking, commander of the XI Corps at the attack on Fromelles)

However, the Germans overlooked the areas in which the British and Australians were preparing their attack and had a salient known as the "Sugar Loaf" well fortified in case of any attack. And while Haking encouraged his men to be ready to "support" those fighting further south on the Somme, there is much that would go right. Following a day long barrage of artillery, the Australians went forward on July 19, 1916 and suffered their first casualties when their OWN artillery fell short. German machine guns and German artillery would soon add to their woes as the preliminary bombardment had not broken the German defenses.

In some places the Australians did reach the German trenches, but for the most part, the specific targets, like the Sugar Loaf salient eluded them. The result was heavy losses and the ultimate withdrawal of the Australian units involved in the attack on Fromelles. Of those that died, 410 Australians would be buried at VC Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial, north of Fromelles. Gilbert cites that around 400 British troops were also killed and that nearly 4,000 British and Australians would be wounded in the attack while German casualties were lower than 1,500...

And this does illustrate many of the failures the Allies had on the Western Front, though it would also appear that Gilbert might have some numbers wrong or poorly identified. As the site: has close to 5,500 total casualties for the Australians alone, exceeding what Gilbert states for the Australians and British combined by one thousand five hundred. Though Gilbert's description on the fact that there only 410 Australians buried in mass graves at the memorial because they hadn't been identified does match the website, though the website also makes mention of archeologists essentially locating where many of the others had been buried and moving them to the Australian cemetery at Fromelles at a point in time AFTER Gilbert's book was published. In this, it could be possible that from the information he had available at the time that Gilbert wasn't fully aware on the difference in numbers... but one would still think that certain records would have at least shown a range of reported casualties. In this... Gilbert has done a decent job with regard to explaining the battle, but it might be wiser to trust Ashley Ekins, Head Military History Section, Australian War Memorial on the casualty numbers for the fighting at Fromelles.

Gilbert ends the chapter with an quote by an official British historian made a decade after the battle that Fromelles, given the circumstances and the units involved, was not a position that could have been taken and held.

Gilbert provides an excellent summary on the actions at Fromelles and the misgivings that were had before the attack. It is brief and to the point, which in a short chapter, is necessary...

1) Failure to tie the attack at Fromelles into the fighting on the Somme. While Gilbert states that it was intended to prevent Germany from moving troops from Fromelles to the Somme, there is no corresponding reports on intelligence that would give any indication that they might be doing so or even had the forces to do so. Which can be puzzling when Gilbert makes some mention that intelligence reports before the battle gave the indication that the Germans weren't moving troops away...

Which then raises all sorts of questions that could have and perhaps SHOULD have been answered. What gave the British the perception that Germany had reserve formations at Fromelles, particularly when their main offensive on the Western Front in 1916 had been at Verdun far to the south of the position. Was this from aircraft flying overhead? Was it from prisoners taken in trench raids? What made Fromelles look like it was going to send troops south to fight on the Somme? That is really what Gilbert doesn't provide.

2) Inaccurate numbers regarding the casualty numbers. While Gilbert does provide an excellent summary of the action at Fromelles, his numbers for Allied casualties differ heavily from those presented by the Australian War Memorial (again see: Now it could be possible that the website had newer information than Gilbert did, but even that doesn't really explain the 1,500 man difference between Gilbert's 4,000 Allied casualties at Fromelles and the website's 5,500 Australian casualties at Fromelles.

3) Complicated locating of Fromelles... Gilbert does provide a map that shows Fromelles's location, but this is on page 274 after the content of the book is covered. From an organizational standpoint, it could have been easier to put at least a localized map on where Fromelles is in the chapter so that those who are not super familiar with battle locations from World War I or French geography can see WHERE the town was as they read the chapter rather than having flip between the chapter and the back of the book.

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... Gilbert provides an excellent summary of what happened at Fromelles, but in many ways, if a summary was all that he was going to use, he might have done better to move onto the next sets of actions directly on the Somme with a paragraph mention of the failed diversion at Fromelles. For as it is, weaknesses 1 and 2 completely negate the chapter's only real strength. There is no explanation as to how or why the British thought Germany had reserves at Fromelles and with his numbers for Allied casualties at Fromelles conflicting with the Australian War Memorial's numbers, there is the real potential his summary could also be taken into question...

And in all of this... about all that Chapter Six really accomplishes is take up four pages.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter seven.

Chapter Seven: Pozieres: Death Grinning at You From All Around

Gilbert returns to the direct battles on the Somme River with chapter seven and in a way does a bit of what could have been done with regard to the action at Fromelles with a brief summary in the chapter's introduction, however, it also includes a line that is rather confusing...

The battle at Fromelles was a brief interlude, fought forty-five miles from the Somme, as an integral part of a vaster battle. Its aim, to keep German troops back from the Somme, had failed.

-Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 125
The sentence by itself isn't bad, but Gilbert actually doesn't say anything that would explain it... at least not in any way that would be directly relevant to chapter seven and its title. Gilbert stated in the previous chapter that the Germans weren't moving troops from the region around Fromelles to the Somme battlefields, which made the attack unnecessary. Now, the British couldn't have known that at the time, but by saying that its aim to prevent the German reinforcement of the Somme had failed would give some implication that the Germans DID reinforce the Somme from the northern sectors of the front, such as around Fromelles, in late July. Now, this implication would add to the defeat that the British and Australians had taken at Fromelles, but it would need to be something that Gilbert actually explains... Which he does not do. At no point in chapter seven does Gilbert refer to troops coming from Fromelles to the Somme... or from any other point of the Western Front to the Somme...

Now, it could be possible that Gilbert is only referring to the losses sustained attacking Fromelles and that the positions there weren't taken... and that WOULD be true. However, if that is what he's actually referencing, he'd need to explain that, which he doesn't really do. The result is that while Gilbert provides a good general summary to introduce the chapter... the specific details for the chapter are unclear.

From the introduction, the chapter returns to the action around the Somme battlefield with Arthur Preston White as he wrote to his sister regarding the Germans attempting to shoot down British observation balloons that were being used to aide the British artillery. With some shells landing short and some going long and landing on all sides of the trench, the situation was described as being "coal boxed" would soon lead to men being wounded and being taken to the dressing stations behind the lines. White describes the intensity of the shelling and that as then men tried to remove the wounded and deal with the incoming shells, more were in turn killed or wounded and that the local captain, AE Swell, soon ordered the men to their platoons, but at the time, the shelling was such that White couldn't get back to his own platoon until a lull in the shelling came.

And as the battle continued, so did the fight in the air. Gilbert describes some action on July 19 where Cecil Lewis was again in the air and observed British advances near High Wood and would also describe stories told him on other battles in air to air combat. This included four De Havillands meeting eleven Fokkers with four Germans being downed and the rest running. Gilbert uses this as to some indication that the British were gaining aerial superiority over the Somme and ties it in to a chaplain's report on July 20 in which the men, including the gunners, stopping to watch and cheer as a German plane went down. Though, even with these successes and cheers at the victories of the fighter pilots, the fighting continued to take lives as July 20, 1916 would also see the death Major William Congreve. He had been in action on the Somme since July 6, 1916 after returning from leave after seeing some action near Ypres earlier in the year. He was shot through the throat by a German sniper during the fighting for Longueval.

(Major William Congreve, killed on the Somme on July 20, 1916... and son of General Walter Congreve, commander of the British XIII Corps)

Gilbert notes that Major Congreve was also a Victoria Cross winner and one of three men to win the award and also be the son of a man who had won the award, with his father being a general with the British army at the time and was also commanding units fighting on the Somme. Gilbert also notes that two more Victoria Crosses were earned on July 20 by men engaged in the fighting at Delville Wood. One was Corporal Joseph Davies and Private Albert Hill. Both had engaged large numbers of Germans and drove them off in the process. Davies was wounded and the King had to apply the ward to his sling. Gilbert also notes that both would survive the war and that Hill would try to enlist again at the start of World War II in Canada, though was told the construction work he was doing at that time would be bigger for the war effort.

(Corporal Joseph Davies, winner of the Victoria Cross on July 20, 1916, though wounds sustained against the Germans forced the medal to be applied to his sling... as pictured)

(Private Albert Hill, winner of the Victoria Cross on July 20,1916)

Gilbert continues to show the progression of the battle, particularly at the individual level for the soldiers as they endured the affects of the battle. This includes the efforts of men in the various engineering units as they would dig communications trenches as the lines advanced. This included the effects of men enduring the battle for both sides. British men would endure the shelling as they dug the trenches with little notice of the shells while others where highly affected by it. This included a Lieutenant Robert Graves.

(Robert Graves in 1920)

Graves would survive the war, though he was wounded on July 22, 1916 and adding to the difficulty was that he would be listed as killed in action and it would only be on July 25 while visiting a nephew that his mother would find out the error and that Robert Graves WAS still alive...

The attack on Pozieres resumed on July 22, 1916, and while there had been a great deal of issue and concern on the British side, the British were not the only ones that had suffered in the battle. The Germans had suffered to and Gilbert does include a comment from an unnamed German soldier...

"It is not really a trench, but a little ditch shattered with shells - not the slightest cover and no protection. We have lost fifty men in two days and life is unendurable."

-unknamed German soldier in "In Hell's Trenches"

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 129
This would show that the fighting on the Somme was more than just a horror for the British and French... though at the same time, it also something that Gilbert doesn't fully explain. The fighting was surely horror for both sides, but outside of this one reference, of which Gilbert could not find a name for the German soldier, we know more of the British soldiers on the Somme than we do Germans in this chapter...

In fact as the assault on Pozieres is discussed and mentioned, the Germans remain rather nameless and much of the mention of them is the general measures taken to improve their defenses. It marked some inclusion on the casualties they inflicted on the British and Australian forces as they attacked these defenses, the German troops remain nameless. And the only name that is mentioned is again Arthur White describing the losses his unit had taken and what had to be done to clear the German trenches. Now, that is perfectly understandable... but there had to be either German defenders who managed to survive, either as prisoners or with the German army, who could have left records as to what they had to do to endure or the conditions that those that did surrender were other. Their inclusion would have added the same personal touch that Gilbert has provided for the British in this chapter... but not for the Germans. It isn't necessarily inaccurate... but it has the potential to lose some degree of "neutrality" that a history of the battle should show...

And this is even shown in how Gilbert ends the chapter. He ends it in describing the trial of the Captain of the steamer Brussels, Charles Fryatt. He had brought his steamer toward neutral Holland and was caught by the Germans who tried him for piracy for attempting to ram a German U-boat...

(Charles Fryatt, Captain of the Brussels, tried for piracy and executed on July 27, 1916)

Found guilty by the Germans, he was executed for the crime. Which in turn angered many in Britain as a perceived war crime. See: Gilbert ends the chapter with the mention that British Marine gunners marked their artillery shells: "To Captain Fryatt's Murderers" which shows the opinion Britain had on the German action. And it is something that was used in other imagery…

(Poster equating Fryatt's fate to murder)

Having a very personal feel to how the Battle of the Somme affected people, as shown by the frequent use of names for individual soldiers, even those as low as privates in terms of rank. It can show the impact that war as a whole had, particularly with the explanation and story regarding Robert Graves' wounding and his family's ultimate finding that he had in fact survived the wounding.

1) Poorly balanced... And this nearly completely negates the chapter's strength by itself. Now, while there can be plenty of information that would show how the Allies were on the "better" side of the war, but a good history that would try to make that case wouldn't provide a ton of personal stories on the Allied side and then pretty much leave the Central Powers as nameless and even faceless. The war had a very personal effect on both sides, and even if the British were on the "right" side of the war as a whole, there is no need to only show the personal effect on one side and not the other.

2) Confusing explanations... Particularly with regard to the opening of the chapter. While the attack at Fromelles did end in defeat as mentioned in the previous chapter, but the mention that the attack at Fromelles had failed in its objectives would give the implication that the Germans DID transfer troops from the region around Fromelles to the Somme, which would then conflict with the previous chapter. Now, Gilbert could be implying that the failure was in the loss of life and the failure to breakthrough... but then, even from what Gilbert argues... breaking through at Fromelles was NOT an objective. Merely to hold the Germans there in place. However, Gilbert doesn't clearly explain what is meant by the operation at Fromelles failing.

This weakness also reinforces the chapter's prime weakness, in that while there could be some measure defense for Captain Fryatt, there is no explanation that would provide that defense. It merely reports that the incident happened and that the British responded to the death of Fryatt as though it was murder... Which actually gets away from the more neutral expectations that one would have regarding how a historian presents what happens in history...

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... To a certain extent, I feel as though Gilbert has either rushed through this chapter or is quite literally trying to sell a certain point of view. And the story on what happened with Captain Fryatt would betray the latter. Now, while it is entirely likely the British did see his trial and execution as murder and there could well be some legal case that would justify it... BUT his trial and actions is not the focus of the book. The book's focus is on the Battle of the Somme, and while the British probably did respond in the way Gilbert describes, the fact that there is little personal information or even names for the German side in this chapter would make it come off as though Gilbert is displaying a bias that would not show a reliance on facts to make his case... It's something that runs counter to my experiences with his books on World War I (as a whole) and World War II (as a whole).

Now, some of this may be the result of age... but in a way... I find it a bit disappointing.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter eight.

Chapter Eight: The Battle Continues: "A Little Uneasy in Regard to the Situation"

The chapter opens with a comparison of opinions on the fighting on the Somme between the high command under Haig and the lower ranking infantry executing Haig's plans for the Somme offensive. Haig notes with optimism on the British attacks near Delville Wood on July 27, 1916 that the army would secure those positions and was particularly pleased with the specific units that his troops had had success against. This included reports that the British had taken 158 German prisoners in these attacks. However, Gilbert also includes information the tenacious fighting the Germans also put up as a British infantryman George Leigh-Mallory writes to his parents.

"I'm not one of the optimists about the war and shall be quite surprised if it ends before Xmas. I suppose we may at any moment hear very good news from Russia - but it's a very long time coming and the German war machine must be far from run down if he can put up the fight he has done."

-George Leigh-Mallory in a letter to his parents

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 134

(George Leigh-Mallory in 1915)

It shows a very different picture of the war, which Leigh-Mallory does survive, though he does disappear while mountain climbing after the war in 1924. His brother survives the war as well, though he serves in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot during World War I and later as a commander of Fighter Command in World War II. This shows the great difference between Haig and many of his subordinates on the Somme... particularly those in the rank and file.

This soon includes reports on exchanges between Haig's artillery chief, General Birch, and Australians that would go forward on the night of July 28/29. The reported exchange included that the Australians voiced confidence in advancing regardless of machine guns.

(General James Frederick Noel Birch, Haig's chief of artillery)

The attacks generally failed to reach their main objectives, which based on reports Haig reasoned came from four categories that related to poor preparation. These included their not being placed opposite their objectives, the advance was made to cover 700 yards in the dark, units being unaware of terrain, and the bombardment only lasting one minute. This then set Haig moving about to try and correct these issues that he noticed in the attacks Pozieres and their failures. Haig conversed with Australian commanders, General Birdwood and General Brudenell White which would include warnings not to underestimate the German defenses. Haig would also assign Brigadier General Napier to command XV Corps' heavy artillery.

(William Birdwood, Commander of the ANZAC II Corps)

(General Brudenell White in 1940, He was Birdwood's chief of staff in 1916)

(George Napier Johnston...)

Haig notes their accepting his remarks and advice as the battle continues. Which is good... though it would appear that Gilbert has again had some issues with regards to names being used. This relates to the use of General "Napier." Based on:, and it would appear that his full name as George Napier Johnston. Gilbert's coverage on his role would appear to be accurate, but seems to only use part of the man's name in the book and doesn't provide a reason why he's used what would appear to be General Johnston's MIDDLE name.

However, even with Haig's optimism with regard to the operation and his confidence, his return to his own headquarters would reveal that the reports on British casualties on the Somme were beginning to raise questions about why they were still fighting on the Somme, particularly when it appeared that the pressure on Verdun had been released by this point. This would represent some of the debates that would eventually rage between Haig and the British government in the future, though, that hadn't reached a major point, yet. For the moment Haig was able to keep the battle going and would continue to see the employment of cavalry. On July 29, this included having cavalry units practice bringing a heavy machinegun into action... and that wouldn't be the only renewal of action...

On July 30, British battalions would again attack the village of Guillemont, though again, the main objectives were not achieved. Fog obscured the vision needed to observe the German defenses and hid actions the Germans had taken to avoid the bombardment. This included moving men into no-mans land to strongpoints that wouldn't come under direct attacks. Few of the British troops made it to the German trenches and 500 men of the Liverpool Pals battalions were killed. This was costly at Guillemont… but with the battles going across Europe in 1916, the Germans were being heavily pressed. Especially with Haig wanting to continue the offensive, and this raised a negative response in Germany, and even Walther Rathenau noted that the situation had changed from where it had been earlier.

(Walther Rathenau, German Raw Materials Board head during WWI)

Gilbert does not directly quote Rathenau, but he does give some reference to the man's thoughts...

Slowly, despite repeated counter-attacks, the Germans were being pushed back across the Somme battlefield. On July 31, at his desk in Berlin, the head of the German Raw Materials Board, Walther Rathenau, wrote in his diary that the "delirious exaltation" he had witnessed in the streets two years earlier ha seemed to him even then "a dance of death," an overture to a doom that would be "dark and dreadful."

-Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 139
Though the reference to "dark and dreadful" could possibly be applied to all sides on the Somme, as Gilbert ends the chapter with some commentary in relation to more of the young men killed on the battlefield, including two of Tolkien's friends Robert Gilson and Ralph Payton, with the latter having no known grave.

1) Retaining some sense of balance. While Gilbert could and probably should have done more with regard to getting the names of men who had fought for Germany at the Battle of the Somme, as he has done so much of this for the British, he has at least gotten away from what came off as a biased argument seen in the previous chapter. Gilbert doesn't correct for that error, but he doesn't repeat in this chapter, and by including coverage on Rathenau's diary entry provides some understanding on Germany's position at the end of July 1916.

2) Showing the push and pull between reasons to continue the battle beginning form. This is highlighted with Haig's continued optimism and with the letter from George Leigh-Mallory showing those differences of opinion. And Gilbert does a fairly decent job of balancing this with regard to the reports that Haig has to look over and how he has looked at what went wrong while at the same time providing the personal touch in relation to the British men killed in the battle as well, even providing individual names for many of them.

1) The chapter still carries a rather British focus. And while as the attacking force in the Battle of the Somme, that can be understandable, and that Gilbert has avoided the lines that would make the chapter come off as biased against the Germans, it's as though the issues the British went through is to be presented far more in a way that makes their struggles personal. As there are many names of British soldiers who fought on the Somme, including many who died... and sometimes their mention isn't much more than to say that they died. In this, a mention for the Germans could easily be given as well.

2) Confusion on the name George Napier Johnston. This really doesn't weaken this chapter, as it is otherwise fairly strong... especially as Gilbert does get the man's rank right and includes a part of his name... but for an odd reason, he only includes Brigadier General Johnston's middle name with no explanation as to why it was used.

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... I found this chapter to not only be better than the previous chapter but also far stronger. Gilbert closes out the month of July and does so without betraying any obvious bias. The only "issue" I might really have would be in that it's taken so long to actually get to the end of July 1916 when Chapter 5 was "The Last Three Weeks of July" and this now Chapter 8... but that would be more a potential weakness for the book as a whole and not this individual chapter.
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Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
At present SD, USA
The review continues with chapter nine...

Chapter Nine: Criticism and Commitment: "Under No Circumstances Must We Relax Our Effort

The previous chapter gave some hints at shifting moods regarding the Battle of the Somme, and Gilbert opens chapter nine by bringing mention to a war committee meeting held in London on August 1, 1916, with its purpose to discuss criticisms of the Somme offensive made by Winston Churchill in memos that were presented to the cabinet by FE Smith, the attorney general at the time.

(F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, British Attorney General in 1916 who brought Churchill's criticisms of the Somme offensive before the War Cabinet)

The criticism that Churchill had was strong and made a direct point to argue that the British army hadn't gained much, was on too narrow a front, had no glorious prize to win, and no political objective to achieve by continuing the offensive. Gilbert presents much of this criticism as something that would also be in line with Lloyd George's concerns with the offensive in the first place in that the primary objective was to prevent a Russian defeat in the east, which would have dangerous consequences in 1918, and that the situation by August 1916 was past the point in which the continued offensive was necessary.

It is an interesting point to make, as so much of Churchill's life has been noted for the support of military adventures that do not fair well... and primarily Gallipoli in World War I, to have Churchill being the one making the criticisms of the offensive on the Somme. Though it should also be noted that while Churchill did have points that would have some merit, the criticisms that he and Lloyd George seemed to share also ignored major aspects of the war as it was. In fact Haig would even reply to these criticisms by August 5 that would be presented in another War Cabinet meeting that made the point that by that point in the year, the Russian offensive in the East was grinding down and that had the British and French NOT been fighting on the Somme, the Austrians would have surely gotten more reinforcements from the Western Front. So, while there could be valid room for criticism, and the man making the criticism has some points worth noting... But the nature of the criticism itself has its own flaws as well.

The major point that comes though... is that criticisms WERE being raised, which would indicate that the British offensive on the Somme was not blindly supported and that the army would have to defend its actions and decisions in the field before the government. General Robertson would even provide testimony on the battle, in which he states that while British losses were heavy, most were in the 56,000 casualties on the first day of the battle while the casualties for the week prior to the meeting were at 18,000. Robertson then gave a report, though he didn't explain how it was reached, that German losses were calculated at 1.25 million total German casualties, of which 600,000 were a "dead loss." Robertson's report and calculates were noted by Gilbert to differ from Churchill's criticism, and Gilbert mentions that Robertson didn't explain how the German losses were calculated, but Gilbert also notes that the War Cabinet didn't press him on the subject, either. And the August 5 meeting would give some indication that Haig did still have official support at home.

But while the first grumblings were heard at home, the battle continued on. On August 4, the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry made two attacks and took the German lines in front of them. That night, north of Pozieres, following a lengthy artillery barrage, with intermixed barrages of 18 pounder artillery, the Australian 2nd Division not only advanced but captured parts of the German second line and then beat of three German counter attacks.

(British 18 Pounder Gun... pictured in use at the Ypres salient in 1917, but was also used on the Somme)

The success was well received by the French, as Joffre would arrive at Haig's headquarters by the sixth to deliver a box of Croix de Guerre to be distributed to the troops involved in the battle.

(Croix de Guerre, French military medal created during WWI and has been issued to soldiers of various nations, not just France... including members of the Australian 2nd Division on the Somme)

The presentation of medals, however, did not stop the fighting for the positions, as after the 4th Australian Division relieved the 2nd, it would face a prolonged German attack on August 7. Much of the credit for the success in this action would go to Lieutenant Albert Jacka, who despite being seriously wounded would eventually return to his unit and would survive the war.

(Albert Jacka, Australian Lieutenant in 1916 who was wounded August 7, 1916 while taking part in the repelling of German counter-attacks)

But not all actions were successful and the British were noticing problems in some areas. There was the continued appearances of what is described as "shell shock," which proved to be a major condition that the British army monitored carefully. Gilbert even quotes the British Army medical historian... (though he offers no name):

"To explain to a man that his symptoms were the result of disordered emotional conditions due to his rough experience in the line, and not, as he imagined, to some serious disturbance of his nervous system produced by bursting shells, became the most frequent and successful form of psychotherapy. The simplicity of its character in no way detracted from its value, and it not infrequently ended in the man coming forward voluntarily for duty, after having been given a much needed fortnight's rest in hospital."

- unnamed British Army medical historian discussing shell shock treatment in WWI

-quoted by Martin Gilbert The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War page 148
But genuine cases were increasing and forced the British army to struggle for ways to treat the problem. And Gilbert does make the mention that it was difficult to treat, his presentation both provides too little and too much information on the subject. It's strange... but gets into too much detail in quoting a historian, whom Gilbert doesn't name, on the diagnosis and treatment of shellshock and then gives too little information by failing to provide reference to when it began to appear and what many of the treatments were. In this, Gilbert could have given a couple of lines to say that the condition, which we now identify as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that stated that the issue was something that was troublesome for the issues presented and offer that the British struggled in treating it, and this would have provided a good summary without getting into added detail. But, by quoting an official historian on elements of the condition were handled, Gilbert invites greater curiosity into it and its effects and causes, which is not provided.

Some reverses though included their own bits of heroism included. This is marked by a failed British attack on the village of Guillemont on August 8. The attack had been planned at the last moment and launched without adequate artillery support, and the result ended in failure as the British troops were hit by German artillery and machine gun fire. There heroism came when the medical officer, Captain Noel Chavasse, quite casually walked into no man's land during the hours of darkness to recover the wounded and ignoring German shots fired at him as he whistled and called out to the wounded as he made his rounds.

(Captain Noel Chavasse, a British Medical Officer who earned a Victoria Cross on the night of August 8, 1916 rescuing the wounded)

And then came the release of "The Battle of the Somme." It was a propaganda film intended as a morale booster that was put on by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell after being commissioned by the British government. The film contained five reels and showed live action shots of the battle, which were among the most graphic portrayal of trench warfare ever shown. Some shots were staged, but some shots were shot live, including the detonation of the mine at Hawthorn Ridge on July 1. See: The Battle of the Somme film | First World War Centenary for more information

(Geoffrey Malins, holding the camera, British cinematographer who helped film "the Battle of the Somme")

There was some criticism of the film after its release on August 10, with some complaints relating to soldiers not liking the fact that it lacked sound for training purposes, some complained that it was shown in place of popular comedies of the day, and one Very Reverend Herbert Hensley Henson protested that the film wounded the heart in making entertainment out of events that were putting people through the process of mourning. Protests and criticisms of the movie aside, however, the film sold an estimated 20 million tickets in Britain in the first two months. On that basis it remains one of the most successful films ever screened.

(Herbert Hensley Henson, Dean of Durham in 1916 and protested that the Battle of the Somme film violated the sanctity of bereavement)

The battle, however, ignored this and rumbled on. And in spite of some specific successes, the fighting remained on of attrition that saw men fight and die for specific positions. There was hope for new weapons and ideas, as Haig learned by August 11 that the first tanks wouldn't be ready until September 1, leaving the fighting up to the infantry and artillery for the moment. And with the issue of criticisms of the war coming from those connected to the British government and at the beginning of the month and some of the protests that would rise from the film "the Battle of the Somme" there was some effort made for ways to try and alleviate the harshness of the fighting.

This would include visits by heads of state to review the front and observe the operations. There were also visits for discussions on larger strategic issues that weighed on the minds of the French and British political leaders. This is seen by a visit by King George V and his son Edward on August 10. George V would visit Haig again at Val Vion on August 12 where he would discuss the battle with Haig and with French President Raymond Poincare.

(George V, British King during World War I and often visited the front)

(Edward VIII, British Prince of Wales during World War I and a frequent visitor to the front, including a visit on August 10 with his father)

(Raymond Poincare, French President during WWI who visited with Haig and George V on August 12)

Poincare voiced concerns on the need for some breath through before winter to keep the people from grumbling. Haig would respond that he expected at least ten good weeks of weather and that they would have gained something by then. This is something that shows a contrast in the way things were operating and the rising criticism of the offensive. Haig is still optimistic, but certainly had to be aware that some breakthrough would be needed if continued criticism of the operation was to be avoided.

It showed the stresses as the battle carried on, and there were stresses on both sides. Gilbert continues to manage a great deal of detail with regards to the individual British soldiers and much of his focus tends to remain on that side. Though as he ends the chapter, he does include some commentary on what the battle was doing for the Germans and how they were enduring the fighting... though mostly again from the reporting of Philip Gibbs after the army had advanced. The reporting does show hardship that the Germans went through, including their own counter-attacks being mowed down by British machine guns... but it does also include testament that the German losses were staggering... but NOT more than the Allied losses. Yet, even as morale among the men seemed to sink with the losses... the battle would continue.

1) Showing where there was disagreement and criticism... and even showing the flaws in the criticism that was made. The Somme is often remembered as a breakthrough battle... or at least a battle where a breakthrough was hoped for. The fact that it became a battle of attrition was bound to be one that would lead to criticism of the men most associated with the battle, which for the British would mean criticism of Haig.

And Churchill and Lloyd George's criticisms of the battle do have some good points... And they were points that would have to be answered by Haig and Robertson. And answer it they do, and Gilbert does make a good presentation how this criticism failed to fully affect any major change on the battlefield. Particularly in the reference to the fact that Robertson gives an answer that calculates German casualties at over a million by that point and over half a million Germans killed, which presents a major difference with the numbers that Churchill raised in his criticism... (and what was likely the reality based on Gilbert's references to Gibbs' reporting toward the end of the chapter)

And yet, Robertson is never questioned to explain the calculation, either in regard to where it came from or what it would encompass... the Somme front? The entire British sector of the Western Front? The entire Western Front? Robertson appears to give no explanation and isn't called out on it... or at least asked to explain it. Now, this could be just the start of the great rivalry between Lloyd George and Haig, and thus why there were such flaws in the criticism aimed at the army handling of the battle. There were points where men like Churchill and Lloyd George were critical, but hadn't yet progressed into the sort of distrust that would be seen later in the war.

2) A good use of tie in material, particularly in relation to the film "the Battle of the Somme." It shows how its portrayal could have unintended consequences that would help serve to add to the sorts of criticism that has began to appear with how the British army has handled the Somme offensive, especially given that the film was intended as a morale booster. Yet, by ticket sales, it was still highly successful and that the response wasn't entirely negative. And in its own way, Gilbert did a decent job of integrating the documentary's place in the actual history of the battle.

1) The too much and too little issue with regard to shell shock. The adding of the medical historian's testimony was interesting and adds good detail, but it only adds questions and curious thoughts on the treatment and history of shell shock in World War I, which Gilbert doesn't really provide. With what he put to finish that segment, he probably would have done fine without the medical historian's quote... but with the historian's quote added, Gilbert really needed to add MORE to sum up the nature of shell shock.

2) The lack of personal touches on the German side... This isn't that big of a flaw, as Gilbert's references to Gibbs reporting do show some of the difficulty that the Germans went through, and the chapter doesn't get anything that would make the Germans appear like faceless monsters... but when compared to the listing of all the men who died on the British side and where their names are on post war memorials... that same sort of coverage is still sort of absent with regards to the Germans.

CHAPTER THOUGHTS... Gilbert does a great job of presenting the likely start of the official rivalry between Lloyd George and Haig, and it's rather interesting that the man who essentially brings the August 1 meeting about is Churchill. It shows the issues and concerns that were had with the battle and the reasoning for continuing… along with the weaknesses in the initial criticism and its attempt to have an effect. It shows a good starting point in relation to what we know of with regard to that rivalry later and the progression on how Haig and Robertson tried to defend their position while keeping the battle going at the same time. And the tie in material that relates to it in some ways works very well.

In this, I'd hold that the chapters strengths actually offset its weaknesses.