08 July 2006
The Somme: From Defeat to Victory

I was intrigued by the BBC’s documentary on the Battle of the Somme on Sunday night.  I can remember watching a similar documentary some 30 years ago which was very much of the “Donkeys” school of Great War history.

But this one was very odd.  The first part was very much the usual kind of thing: brave men, idiot generals etc.  But the second was quite different: brave men, some not-so-idiot generals and an army that was learning its trade. 

Some thoughts:

  • Equal billing with the “Donkeys” is a huge victory for the revisionists
  • Boy, does it take time
  • I think the claim about Morland was probably nonsense
  • The “Donkeys” history is badly skewed.  They overplay some aspects and completely miss others.
  • It is amazing how long it takes to come up with an even remotely balanced picture of what happened.

So, this Morland claim?
The claim is that on the morning of July 1916 with his left-hand side division having succeeded and his right-hand side division having failed, rather than using his reserves to attack on the right Morland should have have sent them to the left to have attacked the Germans on the right from behind (if that’s not too complicated)

I think this is preposterous (although I would bow to anyone with superior military knowledge).  A Great War division has about 20,000 men.  It is not an easy thing to move.  It takes weeks to prepare them for an attack.  To ask them to change their plans on the fly seems absurd.  How are you even going to get them to the new start line?  They won’t have maps.  Even if they did they would constantly be bumping into each other.

So, what do the “Donkeys” overplay? 
They are forever going on about how the British crossed no-man’s land in waves.  Or “walking slowly towards the enemy” as Blackadder would have it.  I think this misses the point.  If your enemy has unsuppressed machine guns behind uncut wire it doesn’t matter how you advance towards him - you’re going to get massacred.  You can run but then you can’t carry much.  You can crawl but what you gain in terms of silhouette is lost in terms of speed.  You are less of a target but the enemy has more time to shoot you.

Why would you want to carry much over No Man’s Land? 
Because of the difficulty of resupply.  No Man’s Land is still a dangerous place even when you’ve captured the opposite trench.  It can be swept by enemy machine guns in front and to the sides and by enemy artillery.  Attacking infantry have to have enough food, water and ammunition to hold out until help arrives.

And what do the “Donkeys” underplay? 
The real reason 1 July was such a disaster.  At Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the British Army stumbled on the formula for destroying an enemy position.  It was essentially, a certain weight of shells in a certain amount of time.  In the initial plans for the Somme, Rawlinson - the General in charge - kept to this.  And then, under pressure from Haig, he changed it - halving the weight of shells to accommodate the greater depth of frontage that his commander demanded.  So, neither the wire nor the trenches were destroyed.  The tragedy of the greatest bombardment in history was that it wasn’t great enough.

So, you don’t think that we had a balanced picture until recently? 
Well, perhaps balanced is the wrong word.  Detailed would be nearer the mark.  No, that’s wrong too.  Clear - that’s the word.  In the 1920s people were still in shock.  In the 1930s, the Donkey-bashing started.  Although, the BBC’s Great War documentary series from 1965 is balanced, it gives you little idea of how the war was actually won on the Western Front.  After that the “Donkeys” had a field day - culminating in the 1976 documentary I remember so well.  It was only after that that the “revisionists” started to look into the difficulties that the British Army faced and how it (eventually) overcame them.

So, what were the difficulties?
Well, they include the sorts of things: trenches, barbed wire and machine guns, that we all know about.  But they also include things like communication - there wasn’t any.  The small starting size of the British Army was another.  It meant that it lacked experienced men.  Counter-bombardments.  Artillery tends to get overlooked because it is difficult to visualise.  But if you attack the first thing that the defender does is to bring down shell-fire on you.  Artillery was responsible for 60% of casualties on the Western Front.

So, how did it solve them? 
Artillery mainly.  More guns, more shells, new types of shells, better shells, better techniques.  It’s not glamorous stuff or the stuff you can easily put on celluloid but it was a war winner.  Of course, other arms and other techniques had their part to play, and we shouldn’t neglect the impact of the Blockade, but artillery was overwhelmingly the most important.

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  1. And we’re back.

    When you first posted this I had a really great comment lined up honest. No the only thing I can remember is I got really annoyed during the programme because the little Union Jacks on the little battlefield plans were all upside down. If they can’t even get that right why should we believe anything else they said?

    Posted by Mark Holland on 17 August 2006 at 09:23pm

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