Reviewed by Donald Lawie
November 2016 marks one hundred years since the last shot was fired in the Battle of the Somme which commenced on 1 July 1916. Fought in the vicinity of the Somme River in northern France, the battle was an attempt by the British and French armies to defeat the forces of Imperial Germany which had invaded France and Belgium in August 1914. SOMME: Into the Breach by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore is a timely publication which supplies all that the student of the Somme battle could desire. The author has produced, in 518 pages of text and 22 maps, what may be the definitive history of the battle about which more has been written than any other Great War battle.
Sebag-Montefiore’s scholarship is impressive: he has researched his subject exhaustively to produce a narrative that examines all aspects of the battle from planning to finish. His quotes from participants’ recollections of the many sub-battles that accompany each section give life and immediacy to the emotionally draining recitations of soldiers whose lives were squandered. Extensive notes and a Bibliography provide a path for readers who may wish to further amplify any of the details of specific actions or comments.
The “Great War to End All Wars” which commenced in August 1914 had deteriorated into a stalemate by early 1916. The Western Front comprised a line of trenches that ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. The British army manned the trenches from Belgian Ypres in the north , as far as the junction with the French army astride the Somme river in Picardy. Attempts to break the German line during 1915, such as Loos and Neuve-Chapelle, had failed, and in early 1916 the German army took the offensive. The German commanders intended to “ bleed the French army white” at the frontier city of Verdun by a massive artillery offensive backed by shock troops. The French government appealed to Britain for help and as a result the British Commander in Chief, Douglas Haig, brought forward the planned joint British-French attack, situating it on the Somme.
Somme: Into the Breach amplifies the above précis of the reasons for the Somme battle, supplying the strategic reasoning of the French and British commanders. The French contribution was downgraded due to the loss of so many men at Verdun, and Haig was urged to commence the attack as soon as feasible.
The date of 1 July 1916 marked the day that the British army suffered more casualties than any other day in its long history. The convenient statistic of 60,000 men including 20,000 dead is close to the truth. Somme: Into the Breach sets the scene in the double page spread of Map 2 which covers the entire battlefield. German and British front lines and the German second and third lines are shown along with the British and French objectives and the actual situation at the end of that fateful day. The dispositions of armies, corps and divisions relevant to towns, villages and woods facilitate the reader’s understanding of the sector maps that follow. Considerable page turning is required in plotting the events as they unfold, but having all maps in the book’s beginning saves even more of such activity
The Germans had the advantage of higher ground than the British and French and so had a clear view of the massive preparations that were necessary for a prolonged offensive. German artillery carefully registered the positions of front line, support and communication trenches (124) then awaited the onslaught. As the attacking allied troops filled the assembly trenches the German artillery opened fire and mass casualties occurred before the attackers reached their jumping-off positions(170).
Much has been written about the pre-attack British artillery bombardment of the German positions, how the guns thundered unceasingly for days with the intention of destroying the barbed wire entanglements that protected the German trenches, caving-in the trenches themselves and entombing the soldiers sheltering from the bombardment in their deep dugouts. Somme: Into the Breach clearly points out the deficiencies of the artillery, the insufficiency in gun numbers and the inefficiency of the gunners’ art. Reconnaissance patrols revealed these defects but the reports by battalion and brigade commanders were “swept aside with complacent answers” (181) .
The creeping barrage was perfected during the Somme battle but “the infamously inaccurate British guns” (177) , combined with primitive communications between attacking troops and artillery, mitigated the effect. The barrage was lifted too early and defending Germans had time to leave their dugouts and man their machine guns before the onset of their attackers.
Sebag-Montefiore covers the initial assault geographically, from Gommecourt in the north to the French assaults south of the Somme river. He intersperses the tactical actions with survivors’ recollections ; this makes very difficult reading : “ misadventure was turned into massacre … yet the men continued to jump up and advance over their fallen comrades”(146) “dead and wounded like a high water mark”(126) “advanced at the same hour as milking time at home”(141).
Somme; Into the Breach moves on from July 1 and covers the subsequent sub-battles in detail. Of particular interest to Australian readers is the coverage of the battles to take Pozieres village and windmill. Australian leaders express misgivings at the battle plan but as with Brigadier-General Elliott before Fromelles, they are overruled (351). Gunfire at Pozieres has the reputation of being the worst to be endured by troops during the entire war. It is described as “like the climax of a thunderstorm in hell”(353). The first attack on the windmill was “a classical failure”(413), “slaughter on such scale that there were few witnesses to report”(355). My father participated in the windmill battles; he suffered a bayonet wound during the German counter-attack and his brigade ( 7th Bde., 2nd Div. A.I.F.) was almost wiped out in a “victorious” action.
Douglas Haig was never fortunate with the weather. As the battle ground on, the weather became cool, then wet and cold and then freezing. The British assault against Flers in October coincided with extreme cold. My father’s reminiscences repeatedly included Flers, the mud and the cold. Somme: Into the Breach quotes an Australian soldier : “ every man was standing bogged over his knees in the mud, looking helpless…. our feet being like blocks of ice”(501).
The author dwells at some length on what he describes as “war crimes”; he quotes orders from junior officers to take no prisoners, and participants’ reports of bayoneting or shooting of prisoners. As the battle dragged on, the soldiers became weary. The Germans abandoned their assault on Verdun by July 11 – thus fulfilling one of the reasons for the battle . “The Germans had used-up … thirty divisions on the Somme in one month”( 367). Their morale was low and there arose a tendency to surrender after fighting bitterly. What is today regarded as atrocities were committed in the heat of battle and it is this reviewer’s opinion that 21st century civilian mores should not be used to judge a century old battle.
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme – Into the Breach will not be the last book written about that tragic and controversial event which did not, although it consumed the lives of a million men, materially shorten the course of the war. His book will, however, serve as a source of information, hard facts, admiration for what men can do and bewilderment that such a battle could have been possible.
by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
Penguin Random House UK
607pp; AUD $35.00