The Battle of the Somme 1916 RECONSIDERED book cover
 

The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered

 

Peter Liddle

(South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016)

Hardback £19.99

180 pp, including a middle section of 57 b/w photos, and ten maps.

End sections include Notes; Bibliography; Personal Experience Documentation;

Official Nomenclature for the Battle of the Somme and its Subsidiary

Actions; Army, Corps and Divisional Unit Involvement in the Battle of the Somme 1 July-18 November 1916; Order of Battle, 1 July 1916; index.

 

 

Twenty four years after his original The 1916 Battle of the Somme Peter Liddle has returned to the subject on the centenary of what should more properly be termed the 'battles' or 'Somme campaign'. His aim has been to review his earlier work in the light of the research and writings since its publication. He re-examines the origins and planning of the battle before proceeding to take the reader through an outline of the actions on the infamous opening day of battle, 1 July 1916. There then follows a summary account of the four and a half months of the fighting that followed.

A former teacher and lecturer, Peter Liddle is probably best known as the founder of the Liddle Collection which is permanently housed at the University of Leeds. During the 1960s he had begun to collect historical memorabilia as an aid for his teaching. Some thirty years later the collection brings together a range of personal experience documentation and memorabilia connected to the First World War. He has also written many books based on his studies into the First and Second World Wars.

His earlier work on the Battle of the Somme was considered to be his challenge to some of the more critical writings and judgements by contemporaries of the time such as Tim Travers and Denis Winter. This new book continues in the same vein, including a number of critical asides directed at the latter. At the time Liddle also gave a more sympathetic hearing to Haig and his generals, drawn from his take upon the wider strategic situation in the spring of 1916, and the resources and tactics available to the BEF at that time in its confrontation with the Germans’ defense in depth. His conclusions included certain positives at the end of the fighting, including the strength of the troops’ morale and the successful waging of a war of attrition.

To get to grips with Liddle’s essential judgements on his subject it is crucial to take note of his emphasis upon the prolonged period of the conflict. As he writes in his introduction:

"…there were four-and-a-half months of battle to be endured and a consideration on any shorter timescale is completely to misunderstand the Somme experience and the battle’s significance…"

It is only through looking at the full drawn-out nature of the fighting that one can appreciate, so Liddle argues, that the battle’s outcome was ‘a tragically costly but essential contribution to the winning of the war’.

The new book once again draws from the testimony of those caught up in the struggle, selecting a small number of representative accounts from different perspectives. These include the front-line infantryman and ‘specialists’ such as the gunner and engineer, as well as the supporting arms including the doctor and nurse on the ground and the RFC pilot in the air. As the publisher’s website states:

The reader is privileged in getting a direct insight into how those who were there coped with the extraordinary, often prolonged, stress of the experience and maintained to a remarkable degree a level of morale adequate for what had to be endured.

In his introduction Liddle is at pains to report the patriotic commitment and pride of those who took part in the struggle and he takes issue with those who ‘from our privileged latter-day position’ would seem to scorn those sentiments. He rejects the ‘moral superiority’ of those who attempt to view past actions within a modern day context. As I understand his argument, he believes that the pride and honour felt by those who took part in the battle should be properly acknowledged and respected by later generations; the soldiers present on that day would not have recognised the later criticisms of futility and waste. That is not to say that Liddle does not also describe the terrible conditions under which men fought and the loss of life, often for limited tactical gain. But his presentation of his history is a balanced treatment which I feel is to his credit.

Liddle also provides an argument in support of the concept of attrition. He draws what some will see as a provocative similarity between the military and economic wearing out of the Confederate states by the more powerful North in the American Civil War, and the allied efforts on the Western Front and more widely between 1915-17. Referring to Ulysses S Grant, the successful commander of the Northern Armies, Liddle describes Haig as ‘the practitioner of an updated version of Grant’s philosophy’ – for which the Battle of the Somme was the crucible.

This is not a long book – it does not attempt or claim to be a detailed account of the fighting - and represents a useful overview of the battle set into a broader context. Following the introduction there are just six concise chapters covering the initial preparation and planning; the opening day 1 July; July to September; 15 September (A New Major Effort and a New Weapon) ; October to November (Slough of Despond) ; and the author’s Verdict . There are also some helpful and informative appendices which provide useful added value to the book. There are plenty of photographs and line drawings, plus a selection of maps to help guide the reader. Liddle does have a tendency to produce long sentences and makes regular use of the semi-colon; a practice I welcome (as you can see) though given the sweep of events and the commentary, I did find myself occasionally having to re-read a sentence in order to make sure I had understood the point.

With its broad conclusions and judgements made by Liddle, Somme Reconsidered is probably best approached as part of wider reading about the battle, rather than as an initial introduction (you could start with his original book). Personally I enjoyed this swift take on the battle and all its aspects – and welcomed the author’s refreshing and challenging opinions. Recommended reading for WFA members.

P.S. The last time I looked the Pen & Sword website was offering the book at the discounted price of £15.99 – but I encourage you to try and order it through your local bookseller if you can.

Review by Dennis Williams

25/10/2016



Slaughter on the Somme book cover
 

 

Slaughter on the Somme 1st July 1916

The Complete War Diaries of the British Army's Worst Day

 

Martin Mace & John Grehan

(South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016; first published 2013)

Softback £16.99

514 pp, including middle section of b/w photos, and six maps.

Contents also include List of Battalions; List of Abbreviations; plus index.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme. The massed Allied artillery fell silent… to be replaced by the sound of hundreds of whistles being blown. At 0730 hours on 1 July 1916, an army of British soldiers climbed out from their trenches on the Western Front, and made for the German positions opposite.

As we all know only too well, by the end of that day, more than 60,000 of those troops were casualties – a third of whom had died for their country. 1 July 1916 would become generally described as the worst single day in the British Army’s history; ‘the Somme’ would take root in the nation’s psyche. Some of the battalions involved met with varying degrees of success; others had suffered heavy losses for limited or no gains; a few had for all practical purposes ceased to exist. A volunteer citizen army went crashing headlong into the reality of modern warfare; and the British Army would never be quite the same again.

This unique book - ‘for the first time ever’ as the blurb on the back cover points out – brings together the full text from all the war diary entries for the 171 British battalions that went ‘over the top’ on that fateful day. The two men responsible for this feat of dedicated transcription have both had long standing involvement in the field of military history. Martin Mace has more than twenty years’ experience, while John Grehan has authored more than 150 books and articles on military subjects. Mace developed the idea for ‘Britain at War’ magazine, with which Grehan has also been involved.

What Mace and Grehan have done here is precisely what it says in the subtitle – transcribed the official war diary entries for 1 July 1916 of each of the battalions that took part in the attack. As readers will be aware, a war diary is an official daily record of the operations, reports, orders and related events and administration, written up for each unit by an appointed (usually junior) officer. They are not in any way personal diaries; a unit on active service was required to maintain this authorised account of its activities. The quality and content of each diary varies considerably. Some are very brief or concise, perhaps scribbled hastily in pencil by an author caught up in the confusion of battle; others may have been typed up in considerable detail after the events described. The crucial point is that these records of that first day of the offensive were written at the time or very soon after; by someone directly involved in or very close to the actions that took place.

Equally important for us, the readers, is that Mace and Grehan have also included the texts of supporting papers appended to the diary entries. These personal accounts and operations reports provide added detail which can often help set the unit’s actions in a broader context; or give an opportunity for some initial reflection upon the unit’s experience.

The result is a comprehensive collation of the immediate – and first hand - authorised histories of the attack launched on 1 July 1916. The diary entries and the appended reports are set out word for word from the original text archived at Kew. There has deliberately been no attempt by Mace and Grehan to edit or summarise what was written. The volume therefore stands muster as a most valuable reference work for anyone looking to research the opening of the Battle of the Somme. As someone who has spent time poring over original war diaries at the National Archives at Kew, I will always choose the personal reading of the actual document to be the most satisfying way of engaging with the history of the Western Front. It will certainly help you to appreciate this book if you have had the experience of reading some war diaries at first hand – so that you can bring to mind the feel of the paper, the hazy typewriter print or blurred pencil – all adding to that sense of becoming ever closer to the events described.

While the book’s main value is for reference purposes, I found real satisfaction in working my way through page by page, from the beginning. The successive accounts develop into a dense and multi-layered vision of the experience of the British soldiers that day. The records are variable in quality and detail – they can sometimes present as confusing or conflicting - perhaps frustratingly brief or with unnecessary detail. However this pot pourri of histories only adds to the sense that, taken collectively, the book probably represents the closest one can get to appreciating what the experience meant to those directly involved – before, during and immediately after the opening day of battle.

What also comes through for me – always present yet not always stated directly – is the sheer bravery, fortitude and commitment of the troops involved. The majority were not regular soldiers, they were volunteers from all walks of non-military life, but they gave of their best and for belief in a cause or principle which does not fit with the modern perceptions of the First World War as futile or senseless.

I shall always look back on July 1st with pride and sorrow because it was humanly impossible to do more than the [56th] Division did, sorrow for the hundreds of gallant Londoners who laid down their lives in a desperate attempt to achieve the impossible… That the ground gained could not be held was due to the cutting off of help and ammunition by the furious and sustained shelling…

The spirit shown and maintained must always make London look with pride on the part taken by its sons in the Battle of the Somme.

(War diary, 1/13 Battalion (Kensington) London Regiment,

A report on the attack on Gommecourt,

1 July 1916, C.S.M. A.J. Evans)

As always when I read a war diary, I found that the lack of sentiment and the sense of detachment in most of the entries actually deliver for me the exact opposite – I care passionately about the author and the fate of the men of whom he writes. To the great credit of those involved, there are many diary entries or appendices that include practical comments on the lessons to be learned from the experiences on the opening day’s failures; and suggestions on how future attacks could be improved upon. Often there are references to the importance of continuing the fight, as a fitting act in memory of those comrades in arms who had lost their lives. I feel humbled by the sheer stoicism of these people caught up in the maelstrom – this ‘let’s roll our sleeves up and get on with it’ response to what seems the worst kind of nightmare.

The body of the book is organised through a chapter for each of the six army corps involved in the battle. The chapter opens with a summative history of the role of the corps and its constituent divisions in the build up to the battle; followed by an overview of the particular events on the opening day. There is also a short reference to the perspective of the opposing German forces. The chapter then proceeds with the war diary for each of the battalions making up the formation, working in alphabetical order.

The final presentation of the book could have been slightly improved. There is a copy of the Official History maps (not always easy to read given the reduced scale required to fit on one page of the book), one for each corps sector, located at the start of each chapter. However an overview map of the front for the opening day of battle, showing initial dispositions of all the corps and key locations, would have been useful. There is also no order of battle provided so that it is necessary to try and have this information to hand on order to track how the actions of one battalion may relate to other units; or to check the relevance of references in one war diary to other battalions, brigades etc. The index of ‘military formations’ does provide some help for potential researchers; but it only helps with specific unit references. So the entry for a brigade only lists pages where that brigade is directly named – it does not allow the reader to locate all references to the battalions of which the brigade was formed, or the division of which it was part (hence the need for an order of battle). However I agree that these are minor points which can be addressed by having the appropriate maps and ORBATS somewhere close at hand. The index does also include a helpful list of place names.

My only real complaint is that title… particularly the use of the word ‘Slaughter’.

One of the book’s main achievements is to demonstrate the complexity of what took place on that day – the various planning and preparations, the heroism and courage, the different tactical attempts, the limited successes and the heavy loss of life. Others may disagree but I think the title could have tried harder to reflect this range of experiences; it does not do justice to the powerful and complicated picture that emerges from the book’s contents.

So, with that off my chest, I can now urge you to go out (or click on the mouse – though I always encourage supporting your local bookseller) and get a copy of this book - but do not just put it on your bookshelf to use for reference. Read it – it can be difficult at times (emotionally and textually) but so very worth the effort. Despite – or for me, because of – the range of quality and content in the diaries, I just found this collection of the human experience to be wholly compelling.

 

 


Review by Dennis Williams

20/10/2016

 

 The Somme and Beyond book cover by Peter Simkins
 The Somme and Beyond. 

 

The British Army’s Experience on the Western Front 1916-1918

Written by Peter Simkins

ISBN 978 1 78159 312 7

254pp. Maps. Praetorian Press, Barnsley, 2014

 

WFA members will welcome this book of essays from our President. They are, in effect, a synthesis of a lifetime of deep study of the British Army’s performance on the Western Front.

In Everyman at War, Peter notes with approval the growing trend of historians to draw on the personal experience of those involved in the war, a trend started by the late and lamented Richard Holmes with Tommy. Added to these are a glut of battalion histories but few divisional accounts. Studies on morale and discipline have also appeared but there is still much more to discover. There follows a further chapter of historiography, this time writings on the Somme 1916.

Peter provides a very helpful survey as he traces the literature from the "Mud & Blood" school of between the wars and after, to today’s revisionists. His next chapter is a defence of the New Army divisions on the Somme, which also reveals one aspect of his methodology. This is to analyse each separate operation during the battle in terms of divisional success or failure. This enables him to gauge each division by its success rate and reveals that, in most case, New Army divisions were no less successful than their Regular and Territorial counterparts.

There follows two battle studies.

The first concerns 18th (Eastern) Division’s capture of Thiepval on 26 September and its subsequent operations. He pays particular tribute to Ivor Maxse, the divisional commander and an excellent trainer, and such redoubtables as Frank Maxwell VC, then CO of the 12th Middlesex. In truth, it was an indication that the BEF’s battle handling had come some way since 1 July. In contrast is the struggle of V Corps on the north bank of the Ancre during those grim last days of the battle in mid-November 1916. Peter’s main point here is that too often operations at this time degenerated into piecemeal, and thus uncoordinated attacks, once the set-piece phase was over.

The clock now advances eighteen months and to a defensive battle.

This is the severe fighting that took place around Villers Bretonneux in April 1918. Here Peter examines the Australian claim that the British troops involved lacked any form of fighting spirit. What they failed to recognise was that the British divisions which took part had, throughout the March Retreat, suffered heavy casualties, especially the 8th and 14th (Light) Divisions. With little or no time to absorb new drafts, it is understandable that they did not perform as well as they might, but 18th and 58th Divisions did do their bit and so Peter finds the Australian accusation only partially true.

He then turns to V Corps and the recapture of Thiepval and the Ancre Heights in late August.

The Corps’s experiences were very different to those 21 months earlier and Peter puts this down in part to the high quality of leadership at brigade and battalion level and, at times, lower levels, in the ability to accept delegation of command and use of initiative. Training also helped.

Finally, he turns to 12th (Eastern) Division, which with 18th Division are his favourite formations. He examines the officers and men who belonged to it in an effort to answer the question of how it was able to keep going through much hard fighting during the 100 Days. He concludes that the key was the survival of experienced officers and NCOs around whom the battalion could be rebuilt after heavy casualties. It was especially noticeable that the A4 Boys fought well, unless their leaders were knocked out, when they became a disorganised rabble because of their lack of combat experience.

Peter writes with great lucidity, especially when it comes to describing battles.

He marshals his arguments well and has a very good understanding of the nature of the British soldier of the Great War and the environment in which he operated. The result is a book that every student of the British Army on the Western Front would do well to have permanently by his or her side.

Reviewed by Charles Messenger

Somme Attack

 

Attack on the Somme: 1st ANZAC Corps and the Battle of Pozières Ridge, 1916.

 

Meleah Hampton

Helion & Company

 

 

In Attack on the Somme, Dr. Meleah Hampton, currently of the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), presents the Battle of the Somme for 1st Anzac Corps. While popular memory places Australia’s primary contribution to the war at Gallipoli, their sacrifices at Pozières Ridge were even greater. Using a wealth of sources, Dr. Hampton analyzes the battles as both as an individual campaign and as a learning experience for the Australians. Commanders and their actions, both Australian and British, are assessed using contemporary documents more than retrospective memoirs. As a result, Dr. Hampton is able present the Australians’ successes and failures in context and at the brigade and division level. This approach makes the eminently readable book a valuable piece of scholarship that is well supported by her sources.

Dr. Hampton starts her narrative with a discussion of the ‘learning curve theory’ of command on the Western Front. She concisely presents the theory’s historiography and salient points while explaining that the learning curve theory has not fully been applied at the battalion, division or corps level. Her introduction adeptly explains the focal point of her analysis. Dr. Hampton has created a “layered and detailed qualitative study to produce a description of a battle to the lowest levels of command.” She does so by structuring her work chronologically as each division of the 1st Anzac Corps takes their turn on the line.

On July 23rd, the 1st Australian Division launched an attack on the village of Pozières that differed from previous efforts to capture the town, and more importantly, the German lines to the east and northeast. The attack, while successful in capturing the town, was hampered from the beginning by a lack of coordination and planning at the Army level. General Gough, commander of the newly-created Reserve Army, “called spur of the moment conferences without representation from [neighboring] Fourth Army to begin planning uncoordinated attacks within his sector.” Gough’s lack of coordination was emulated by his subordinates as the battle continued over the next six weeks. Furthermore, the capture of Pozières represented the high-water mark, but even its significance was limited by the failure to capture the German ‘OG lines’ to the east and northeast.

On 27 July 1916, 1st Australian Division was replaced by the 2nd Australian Division. The 2nd Australian Division’s mission was to capture the OG lines. Their approach to that task, however, was markedly different from that of their predecessor. Dr. Hampton provides thoughtful analysis of the different planning styles. For example, she dissects the application of artillery and its coordination with infantry objectives and finds it was uneven across commanders. Even the engagement of Reserve Army staff in the matter failed to rectify woefully inadequate fire support planning and execution, all while German artillery hampered preparations for a renewed attack. As a result, the hastily planned and executed attack on the OG lines on 29 July was a failure.

Dr. Hampton places Australian failures within a wider context of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) operations. She ascribes some of the failures of August and September to the change in British campaign strategy. Previously, attacks in Reserve Army’s area of operation were in support of attacks by Fourth Army. After the overall strategy changed on 30 July 1916, the attacks of Reserve Army were to be “an end in themselves”. With this change in operational design, 1st Anzac Corps began planning and executing a series of actions that were largely in support of II Corps’ 12th Division to their left instead of predominately supporting Fourth Army’s main effort on the right. This change in role, while not tactically changing the nature of the battle, did change the campaign objective for 1st Anzac Corps and, in effect, made its efforts increasingly in vain.

The bulk of Dr. Hampton’s work focuses on the change of Anzac operations from one of disrupting attacks and economy of force operations to one of constant pressure. She relates division after division coming through the line launching nearly six weeks of operations that can best be summarized as displaying initiative but poor judgment. Reserve Army’s desire to continuously attack the Germans led to ongoing attacks that were only loosely tied to Reserve Army’s concept of operations and “attacks were being conducted on such a small-scale that had they not been so costly in lives they would be inconsequential.” These uncoordinated attacks sapped Australian troop strength, supplies, and morale, all while being part of “the seduction of being able to report a ‘success’”. The goal of being able to report any success led to the frittering away of combat power with limited correlation to larger Army or even BEF goals. These piecemeal attacks frequently displayed a lack of coordination between infantry and artillery, inadequate coordination or liaison efforts between adjacent units, and progressively smaller objectives. Indeed, by late August, General William Birdwood, Commander of 1st Anzac Corps, had reduced objectives to a distance of 50-100 yards with, at best, limited artillery support on the objective itself. Furthermore, Anzac troops found themselves frequently falling victim to short rounds from their own fire, with limited ability to find protection or shift the fires onto the Germans. As a result, Dr. Hampton damningly states, “[by] late August there had simply been no purpose in 1st Anzac Corps’ operations. There had not been for several weeks.”

Dr. Hampton also analyzes the lessons learned by Anzac commanders during the battle. While she finds numerous examples of lessons learned documents in the archives, unfortunately for the men of 1st Anzac Corps, the disseminated lessons learned led to “no practical examples which indicated that what was being written about was actually being absorbed and implemented.” As a result, while the information and analysis might have been available to commanders, its incorporation into the planning cycle or in the attacks themselves was absent, a case of negligence at the command and staff level that had tragic results.

Attack on the Somme is benefitted by a breadth of real-time sources. Dr. Hampton has mined the Australian War Memorial (AWM) archives for unit war diaries, operations files, and award recommendations. The bulk of her arguments and analysis are built on these records, especially the more than 5,000 messages written during the battle now housed at AWM. She supplements them with records from The National Archives (Kew) to provide contextual references and place 1st Anzac Corps in a larger picture of BEF operations. Other archival work was conducted at King’s College, London, and at the National Archives of Australia. This archival work is supplemented with published diaries and secondary sources.

If there is one area for improvement in Dr. Hampton’s work, it is the lack of German sources, which she herself notes in the introduction. As a result, the reader has a limited impression of the German perspective on the battle and the efforts of the Australians. While admittedly outside of the main focus of her work, the inclusion of German source material and analysis would have helped present a fuller picture of the battle. That said, the omission in no way lessens her scholarship or the value of the book. Indeed, it provides the opportunity for future scholarship to her or others to pursue.

Dr. Hampton writes in a clean, methodical and engaging manner. Attack on the Somme is a well-written counterpoint to narrowly-focused histories that place the Australian contribution to the BEF as a uniquely Australian venture divorced from a larger British, or even Coalition, effort during the Somme Campaign. Furthermore, her analysis avoids drawing unnecessary and limiting categorizations of senior leaders as either “butchers or bunglers.” Attack on the Somme is an important close campaign analysis of one part of the larger Somme Offensive that sheds light on the months the Anzacs fought an increasingly futile sideshow.

 

Reviewed by Timothy Heck.

 

Timothy Heck is currently a graduate student at Kings' College, London, in the Department of War Studies.  An artillery officer by training, he is a graduate of several military command and staff schools.  He lives and works in Southeast Asia.

 Book Cover for The Battles of the Somme
 The Battles of the Somme 

 

Published by Heinemann 1917HB 336 pages £11+ from eBay, free as an eBook through Google Books. 

 

Philip Gibbs, was the Daily Chronicle’s correspondent on the Western Front for the duration of the Great War. This one volume draws together all of his daily dispatches from the Somme. The Book starts on 1st July 1916 and runs to the 8th October 1916.

 

Gibbs writes in the patriotic manner and style of the day, referring to glorious and heroic exploits of “the many” who were to lose their lives on the battlefields. Throughout the book Gibbs writes in the manner of one who is writing about right defeating wrong. Time may well judge him as being one who helped to glorify the War for the greater good of the establishment. But one should remember that everything he wrote was subject to the scrutiny of the Army Command.

 

The dispatches take the reader through all of the major engagements of the Somme. Gibbs covers in detail each action refering on numerous occasions to his chats with soldiers fresh from the front. He refers to his discussions with the prisoners of war. Gibbs paints his honest and mainly accurate picture of the battlefields in a time when journalism relied on the written word. The time of the photograph and movie camera was yet to come.

 

In his introduction to the Book Gibbs says of the dispatches, “ I might have rewritten them, polished their style, put in new facts here and there, and written a narrative of history with a more considered judgement than was possible day to day. But I have thought it best to let them stand as they were written at great speed, sometimes in utter exhaustion of body and brain, but always with the emotion that comes from the hot impress of new and tremendous sensations”.

 

Gibbs, with his honest dispatches provided the readers of the Daily Chronicle with an accurate picture of what was happening at the Front. For those seeking to understand what it was really like, reading this book will help enormously.

 

Reviewer: Martin Hornby (2008). Revisited by the Digital Editor August 2016.

 

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