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Dr Sheffield needed a longer book
on 29 March 2004
I don't think Gary Sheffield claims this work to be the definitive 'Somme' history and, in that, he's right.
Dr Sheffield is carving out a niche as a military historian - with the inevitable TV appearances - who questions the received view that the First World War was, essentially, a gory waste of time where good men were led to their deaths by 'donkeys'.
His book 'Forgotten Victory' expounds this theme and this book treads similar ground. The First Day of the Somme - July 1st 1916 - was the worst in British Military History (give or take the Fall of Singapore and the Battle of Isandhlwana.) Around 20,000 men were killed in disastrous attacks - most of whom never made it to the German trench line, a large proportion didn't even make it to the jumping off point.
Dr Sheffield makes the point that over the rest of the battle - which dragged on for months - German losses matched or exceeded the Allied ones and the battle was - indeed - the 'muddy grave of the German field army.' Also he argues that the British learnt valuable lessons on the Somme which was to transform the Army into the efficient tool of late 1918 when substantial breakthroughs were made.
A few points. Firstly this argument is nothing new. I was inspired to watch my Great War dvd after reading this and there were similar arguments, espoused by the great Haig biographer John Terraine - among other script-writers.
Secondly the lessons of the Somme were patently not learnt by Paschendaele, when many of the same mistakes were made. Yes war-fighting is a learning process, but that does not mean that getting thousands slaughtered is right or unavoidable if you are going to get better at it.
The Somme is still better viewed as some sort of disaster rather than a battle, in my opinion. There had to be a better way. This is not wooly liberals speaking nearly a century after the event, but at the time people were striving for such a better way - Lloyd George, Churchill.
Dr Sheffield makes a couple of points drawing on the experience of the second world war one good, one less so. Firstly the criticism of Haig (or Rawlinson) that the tanks were committed in 'penny packets' and no in one armoured fist. Dr Sheffield rightly points out that this is twenty-twenty hindsight. How were the very first people to use tanks to magically know how best to operate them? I was less convinced by his 'cavalry in the first war were the equivalent of airborne troops in the second.' An analogy too far.
The Somme still needs a contemporary history that examines the grand strategy and the individual experience of fighting the battle. Anthony Farrar-Hockley's work has dated; Martin Middlebrook's 'First Day of the Somme' is necessarily limited in scope (and thirsty years old) and Malcolm Brown's Imperial War Museum Somme book is more of an 'oral history' of the British combatants. Such comprehensive battle books are common about the second world war (that's why Anthony Beevor's not short of a bob or two) or, say, the American Civil War, but World War One - outside of Gallipoli (And Alistair Horne's wonderful 'The Price of Glory') - does not seem to support the genre. Not sure why.
I think Dr Sheffield would be well-advised to undertake such a project - maybe about Mons and the Marne, but I know he's a busy man.