Anyone who has ever visited the tiny village of Thiepval (population 98) in northern France can appreciate the enormity of the Battle of the Somme. Thiepval is the site of a towering triangular memorial commemorating more than 73,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell in the area, most of them during the Allied offensive between July 1916 and November 1916, and who have no known grave.Gazing at all those names makes for a sobering experience, especially when you realize they represent just a fraction of the overall losses in the battle. British forces suffered 131,000 dead and 288,654 wounded. Of those, 19,240 were killed in the first 24 hours. The French suffered an additional 204,253 casualties, while on the other side the Germans had between 450,000 and 600,000.
No wonder, then, that the Somme has occupied a hallowed place in British memory -- comparable to Gallipoli for Australians or Gettysburg for Americans, but on a much bigger scale. This was the costliest battle that the British Army has ever fought.
For most of us today, the bloodlettings of World War I are refracted through the despairing work of Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other soldier-writers. As Peter Hart notes, the contemporary view of the Somme ''can be brutally summarized in just five words: 'the pity of it all.' Politicians are portrayed as Machiavellian, but simultaneously weak, generals are stupid, soldiers are brave helpless victims and war poets -- war poets are the latter-day saints made flesh.''
Hart, the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum in London, offers a different perspective in ''The Somme.'' While not flinching from the horrors of trench warfare, he argues that the carnage was hardly senseless. In his view, attempts by Winston Churchill and other strategists to find a shortcut to winning the war were fundamentally flawed. The soldiers dispatched to Gallipoli, Salonika and Mesopotamia would have been better employed, he believes, in battering German defenses on the Western Front -- the only place where the kaiser could have been defeated.
Even more daringly, he comes to the defense of Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who has usually been depicted as an unimaginative, uncaring idiot who sent the flower of British youth to an early grave for no good reason. Hart argues that even though Haig made plenty of tactical mistakes, ''the broad thrust of Haig's strategy in 1916 was probably correct. . . . Haig's way was excruciatingly painful, but it was the only realistic way at the time.'' As for all those soldiers who suffered so much, Hart contends it is ''inane to adopt the morbid sentimentality of portraying the men who took part as helpless victims. . . . On the contrary, many were actively looking forward to the moment when they could finally prove themselves as fully-fledged 'warriors.'''
That moment arrived at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, when tens of thousands of British infantrymen emerged from their trenches to move through dense smoke across ''no man's land.'' The ground assault had been preceded by seven days of shelling from 1,537 guns and howitzers. Many, perhaps most, of the attackers anticipated, as Lt. William Colyer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers put it, that there would be ''no great difficulty . . . in the successful accomplishment of these operations.'' ''Surely,'' he reasoned, ''no human opposition could withstand that terrible avalanche of shell fire.'' But it turned out that the British bombardment, impressive as it appeared, was grossly inadequate.
The Germans had constructed three sophisticated lines of trenches with dugouts extending deep underground,bolstered by numerous fortified strong points. Moreover, the impact of the British guns was dissipated by Haig's absurdly optimistic timetable, which called for the seizure of both the first and second lines on the first day. This meant that the artillerymen had to spread their shells over a wide area and could not achieve critical mass in most sectors.
The bulk of German artillery, located behind the front lines, was largely spared in the initial softening up, and most of the German trenches and fortifications also survived intact. Hence the terrible slaughter that ensued once the bombardment lifted. The well-trained German soldiers crawled out of their dugouts and let loose with rifle, machine gun and artillery fire against the vulnerable Tommies advancing toward them. ''They were just mown down like corn,'' said Pvt. Reginald Glenn of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Pvt. Harry Baumber of the Lincolnshire Regiment pithily summed it up as ''an absolute bloody desolate shambles.''
Only in the southern part of the front, around the intersection between the French and British zones, were significant gains made on that first day. Here attacking troops managed to smash through the front-line German trenches, although the second and third lines remained intact. This relatively modest success encouraged Haig to keep going, convinced that one final push could lead to a war-winning breakthrough. He had seen the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and had realized how close the Germans had been to victory before suspending their offensive, and he did not want to make the same mistake.
But not even the arrival, in September 1916, of newfangled tanks -- which one terrified German soldier thought were crocodiles ''crawling into our lines'' -- could smash German resistance. The Germans simply built new trenches to replace the ones they had lost and sent in fresh manpower to replace their casualties. Haig's efforts to exhaust the enemy finally had to be suspended in November when heavy rains turned the battlefield into a ''sucking ooze'' where movement was nearly impossible.
Hart superbly depicts these months of brutal combat in all their complexity. As promised, he does not focus only on victims. He also features heroes like Lt. Albert Jacka of Australia, who had already won a Victoria Cross at Gallipoli and was wounded on the Somme. Even after being hit multiple times he managed single-handedly to kill at least five ''Huns.'' Admittedly four of them had already tossed down their rifles and put up their hands, but such episodes were all too common in this inglorious conflict. Nor does Hart slight the relatively unheralded but vitally important contributions of artillerymen, logisticians and medics.
If there is one fault with his account, it is its relentlessly Anglocentric focus. There is almost nothing here on the French and, even more surprisingly, not much more on the Germans, who after all had an awful lot to do with the outcome.
Such one-sidedness takes nothing away from the force of Hart's narrative, but it does suggest the need for a companion volume devoted to the other side. That may seem like, well, overkill, but the Somme, like Gettysburg, Gallipoli and other battles stretching back to Thermopylae, will continue to be commemorated as long as fortitude under fire continues to be admired.
Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of “War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.”
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.