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This review is from: Somme Intelligence: Fourth Army HQ 1916 (Hardcover)
Imagine that you are asked to examine an England versus Germany football match that England won 3-2. You want to know how the manager was feeling and why he made certain decisions in choosing his team and giving them tactical instructions; why he changed tactics after going a goal down in the first few minutes; why he brought a substitute on at a crucial time and how he managed to score a late winner. You also want to know how the Germans managed to score that unexpected early goal and how they felt about and reacted to the change of tactics. But all you have to go on are some in-match comments made by the German goalkeeper; a note passed from the German manager to his captain; and something that a passing Bovril salesman overheard as he went near a downed German player who was receiving treatment. I am not sure you would be able to make much of an assessment of the match from that evidence, let alone what was in men's minds as they played or made those vital decisions. "Somme intelligence" is a bit like that - lots of fragments that are more or less interesting in themselves, but not stacking up to provide meaningful answers to lots of questions.
The fragments of information that appear in "Somme intelligence" come from a journal kept by an ordinary soldier who was employed on intelligence duties at the British Fourth Army headquarters during the planning and execution of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. They are snippets of statements from German prisoners of war and from captured diaries, letters and orders. They are, if you like, the Bovril man's viewpoint. With the benefit of hindsight we can perhaps see that there is enough negative, soldierly German moaning to offer encouragement to the British officers who had the unenviable task of conducting the battle in the knowledge that they faced formidable entrenched defences and perhaps it added to the air of optimism before the battle. The enemy talks of shortages, loss of comrades, unrest at home, war weariness and - in those last days before the attack, when under sustained bombardment - of physical exhaustion.
For students of the Somme and of the German army, "Somme intelligence" is of some if limited value. It is interesting and to some extent insightful, but is such a narrow and fragmented set of information that from it even the most imaginative of pundits could surely not draw many conclusions about the match.
The battle planners had a good deal of intelligence from air and ground observation, and from reports of patrols in no man's land. There was also a certain amount of knowledge of German conditions coming from spies and informers, and the snippets as noted in the journal all added to the picture. The Somme raises big questions - for instance why, if it was known that the German barbed wire was not cut in many places on the attack front of 1 July, did this apparently not lead to any change of approach? What was expected to happen? The mass of intelligence from all sources that was gathered and sifted and used by Fourth Army is a vital component of the battle and we do not understand enough about it and its effect on decisions and fighting - but we still await the book that properly assesses it. "Somme intelligence" does not take us very far towards that understanding.