History buff, Alec Stephen reviews Anthony Richard's The Somme - A Visual History and finds that the book gives him a vivid idea of what the battle was really like. The Somme- A Visual History is available for sale at Museum Bookstore for £14.95
Anthony Richard's The Somme - A Visual History, which was published by the Imperial War Museum to celebrate the battle’s and its own imminent centenary, is an excellent production. The book explores the Battle's context and planning, accounts of the infamous first day, the later stages of the Battle, all the way through to its legacy. While broad in its coverage, I awarded the book four stars rather than five, as there was no mention of aspects such as shell shock and cowardice.
Throughout the book the author, Anthony Richards expertly weaves extracts from private diaries, personal letters and interviews into his narrative and illustrates his arguments with photographs, posters and artworks. This gave me a more vivid and immediate idea of what the Battle was really like.
The war that almost everybody, except Lord Kitchener, had expected to be a brief one had rumbled through a frustrating 1915 without a decisive result. By the spring of 1916 things had taken a desperate turn for the worse. The Germans had launched a full-blooded attack on Verdun and there was a real danger that France would be forced out of the war – Sedan all over again. Naturally, the French Commander, Joffre, asked for help.
The result was that the British decided to concentrate more fully on the western front with Lord Derby recruiting a volunteer army of local groups like the “Accrington Pals” being encouraged. The plan agreed upon was an attack on the Somme which was to gain territory, and this gain to be the springboard for a decisive attack in 1917 that would end the war with Verdun, now securely in French hands. The date fixed upon was to be July the 1st and this attack was to be preceded by a week’s enormous artillery bombardment which would render the German army totally unable to fight back.
This bombardment which was audible in London, was duly delivered and an enormous army was assembled. The authorities were so confident that orders were given for the men to cross no man’s land at a walking pace and enthusiastic troops who wished to kick a football about as they advanced were given permission to do so.
Unfortunately, this optimism was totally misplaced. The thorough German fortifications had withstood the bombardment surprisingly well and the British soldiers moving at a walking pace with their heavy packs proved an easy target for the German machine guns. It was said “They went down like a lot of Charlie Chaplins”. On the first day of the battle, the British casualties were the worst they have ever been, (with the possible exception of the Battle of Towton in 1461). 19 240 men were killed and over 35 000 wounded and they had not achieved the immediate breakthrough on which Haig had been counting. The rest of the battle went on until the 20th November when the Germans had withdrawn to the safety of the Hindenburg Line, which is described in precise and scholarly fashion in this excellent book.
What were the results of the battle? The two sides had lost over a million men between them – and one shudders to think of the casualties among the horses. On the other hand Verdun had been relieved and the power of the Germans to resist had been much weakened. There had been great advances in technology, notably in the use of tanks and aircraft.
What are we to make of it all? Modern historians often argue that the battle was inevitable, but in history events appear inevitable after they have happened. There is the “Oh what a lovely war” and Blackadder approach which depicts the British soldiers as “lions led by donkeys”, and the valour of those involved cannot be denied although there is documentary evidence that as the battle wore on, solders came to question their involvement in the apparent futility of it all.
What a contrast with the moving letter on page 63 which the young Second Lieutenant, Eric Heaton, who was killed on the sunny Saturday morning of July 1st, wrote to his parents to be opened only in the event of his death.
28 June 1916
My Darling Mother and Father,
I am writing this on the eve of my first action. Tomorrow, we go to the attack in the greatest battle the British army has ever fought. I cannot quite express my feelings on this night and I cannot tell if it is God’s will that I shall come through – but if I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind. It is a great cause and I came out willingly to serve my King and Country.
No one had such parents as you have been to me giving me such splendid opportunities and always thinking of my welfare at great self-sacrifice to yourselves.
This life abroad has taught me many things, chiefly the fine character of the British Race to put up with hardship with wonderful cheerfulness.
If I fall, do not let things be black for you. Be cheerful and you will be living life always to my memory.
I thank God for my brother and sisters who have all been very much to me.
Well I cannot write more now. You are all in my thoughts as I enter this first battle. May God go with me.
With my love to you all.
Always, your loving son,
Perhaps we are all in danger of becoming too disillusioned?