The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered
(South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016)
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