26 July 2005
The Somme was a victory

A chap called Neil Hanson uses a review of Peter Hart’s The Somme to do some spleen-venting in the general direction of Field Marshal Haig.  He says:

The traditional view of the battle as a blood-soaked catastrophe has been challenged in recent years by revisionist historians, claiming that the grinding, attritional strategy of Haig (as Peter Hart notes, even his birth certificate omitted his Christian name) was the necessary, indeed the only means to ultimate victory.

But later on (in not a particularly long piece) he says:

Hart’s attempts to defend Haig’s much derided obsession with cavalry are no more plausible;


Attrition by artillery, “pinch and hold” attacks and the ever-widening disparity between Allied and German war production would have achieved the same ends for a much smaller loss of life.

So, is attrition good or bad Mr Hanson?  Because I do not see how those two statements can be reconciled.  What is “pinch and hold” (usually referred to as “bite and hold”, by the way) if not “grinding”?  The best you can say is that Haig did not know himself as at various times he was both predicting a “wearing out fight”1 and seeking a “breakthrough”.

He goes on:

Haig ignored the brutal lessons of the Russo-Japanese war and Britain’s own colonial wars, describing the machine-guns that were to wipe out tens of thousands of his men as “much overrated”, and his failure to learn from the disasters of Neuve Chapelle and Loos caused the same errors to be repeated on the Somme.

Now, I appreciate that this is a short piece but it is still tremendously vague.  Perhaps he did (at some stage) think the machine-gun “overrated” but does it matter?  Firstly, for the lion’s share of the war the Germans were defending and the British attacking.  A heavy machine-gun, of the type available in the First World War is very useful in defence but not (because, as its name suggests, it is heavy and therefore not very portable) much use in attack. Secondly, it was under Haig that every platoon got its own Lewis gun section.  Thirdly, he does not appear to have minded the existence of the Machine Gun Corps (born in 1915).  Hardly the actions of a man who thought little of automatic weaponry.  Fourthly, the British Army of 1914 had machine guns in exactly the same proportion as the German Army2.

And then there’s this stuff about “failure to learn from the disasters of Neuve Chapelle and Loos”.  If I recall correctly, the lessons of Loos included the need for secrecy, proper planning, neutralising machine guns, cutting wire and proper placement of reserves.  But most of these things were at least tried at the Somme.  They didn’t always succeed but that is the nature of warfare. 

He goes on:

Haig did not trust the civilian “Kitchener army” recruits “in any tactic that needed either brains or skill”. They were, therefore, ordered to walk in ranks across no-man’s-land and were cut down like corn.

Oh dear, we really are deep into the Cliché Jungle.  Machine guns, attrition and now this.  And because it’s all cliché one is forced to wonder how much Hanson really knows about the First World War. While it is certainly the case that men on occasion walked in ranks across no-man’s-land, it is far from clear how often it happened and who ordered it.  I do not know if every single division that attacked at any stage in four-month long battle adopted this tactic but crucially, I doubt if he does either.  The precise nature of infantry tactics in battle tends not to be recorded.  And anyway, I very much doubt if specifice infantry tactics, such as this, had much to do with Haig.  Haig was a “hands off” commander3.  And what would Hanson have had them do?  Run headlong into a creeping barrage?

And was Haig wrong on the brains and skill front?  We know New Army musketry was not up to much.  But what about the rest?  There are only two ways armies get good: training and experience.  Up until the Somme, the New Army had almost no experience.  So its (military) brains and skill depended on its training.  But who was doing this training?  The BEF suffered 90% casualties in 1914 and was hanging on by its fingernails in 1915.  There weren’t that many instructors around.  This was particularly felt at the NCO and junior officer level.

Hanson’s conclusion is hardly any better:

There was nothing efficient or essential about the meat-grinder of the Somme; as one Australian officer remarked in a quote that has eluded Hart, “Let us not hesitate to confess that strategically the battle was a failure. We are now threatening the communications of Bapaume, Vely and Achiet after four months. We had meant to do that in as many hours.”

This is utter drivel.  The aim of the Somme was not to gain territory, it was to wear out the Germans and relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun4.  The Germans paid a terrible price on the Somme.  According to Ian Passingham, the Somme marked the death of the old German Army.  Meanwhile, Verdun as a battle, began to peter out.  The Somme, ghastly as it was, was a strategic victory.

In 1914 Britain was (by today’s standards) relatively free.  If that relatively free society did well that suggests that freedom is a good thing.  On the other hand, it can be shown it did badly, it provides a pretext for statism.  Regrettably, First World War history still matters. 

Footnotes to follow.

1.  This is mentioned in John Terraine’s biography of Haig.  And here.
2.  p131 “Mud, Blood and Poppycock”, Gordon Corrigan
3.  It’s an on-going theme in Terraine
4.  p257 Corrigan

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