Review: The Somme (Prior & Wilson)



The Somme.

Much Great War writing seems to resemble Western Front weather: obscured by clouds, rain and fog swirling round your head, or focused on the mud at your feet. This book is like that rare bright day on the Somme battlefield: so clear, you can see to the horizon in every direction.

The Battle of the Somme is presented from its conception as the best of several bad options, through its inglorious politically-motivated end. The authors expose its waffling civilian masterminds, and the inept generals who prosecuted it. The only participants who perform creditably are the lower echelons of officers and the other ranks.

We learn how the politicians abdicated their responsibility to oversee the campaign; how the Chief of the Imperial General Staff presented falsified statistics; how the Commander-in-Chief obstinately clung to his Napoleonic aspirations by confusing, deceiving, browbeating and blackmailing the generals of his Armies into pursuing his personal agenda; how divisional and brigade officers ineffectively applied their instructions to actual conditions; how the men of the battalions were forced to comply – occasionally at gunpoint by their own officers – with orders that not only sent them senselessly to their deaths but also prevented them from showcasing their usually excellent fighting skills.

But far from presenting a rehash of donkey-and-lion platitudes, Prior and Wilson cite documentation that substantiates all their claims. The Prime Minister and the War Committee are on the record as willfully disregarding Winston Churchill’s warning memorandum, in favor of CIGS Robertson’s unsubstantiated casualty claims. C-in-C Douglas Haig, in his diary entries and communiques, exposes himself as frankly delusional, until it suits his career ambitions to modify his tactics, at the very end of the campaign.

While none of the generals are stupid, they all exhibit poor learning curves: Haig adopts twentieth-century tanks and aircraft, but fails to give their implementation the weight he devotes to planning his cherished nineteenth-century cavalry charges; Rawlinson abandons the bite-and-hold, slavishly attempting to implement Haig’s obscure and contradictory instructions, and he fails to appreciate the tank; Gough admits he cannot understand the rationale of the creeping barrage. And when the going gets tough, the upper echelons embrace scapegoating, to direct attention away from their failure as commanders: the early training that the other ranks received may sometimes have been sketchy, but they were in no wise sheep shambling to the slaughter in No Man’s Land (the shoulder-to-shoulder strolls that the German machine guns interrupted occurred before the men even reached their own front lines), and they did not lack spirit or ability, as evidenced by their effective and successful performance on the rare occasions when they were given the proper artillery support.

The authors lay out everything in plain language that makes understandable troop movements that usually appear as enmeshed squiggles, arrows and cryptic abbreviations on most military maps. In fact, the selection and arrangement of maps are the best I’ve seen: Each one illustrates a limited section of the front line, showing only as much detail as is absolutely necessary to identify the units involved and their objectives during discrete periods in the progression of the battle.

The book features copious end notes, a substantial bibliography, and a thorough index. A short section of photos (many of them familiar scenes) on glossy paper in the middle of the book serves as a sort of intermission in the presentation.

The ongoing catalog of defeats and casualties is predictably depressing, but that’s simply the nature of the beast. There is only one instance of graphic gore, which appears in a block quote from a participant.

If you want to know the truth behind the disaster that was the Battle of the Somme, this book is where you’ll find it.

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