I’ve often thought that the history of the Western Front has been written-up like the history of a 5 match test series. The same sides, but each test they move to another venue to battle it out. How else do you explain 1st, 2nd and 3rd Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Mons, Le Cateau et al? Reading through accounts of the Great War, we could be forgiven for thinking that fighting only took place in one place at one particular time.
But of course, just because a ‘big push’ was being made in one place, it did not mean that everyone went to sleep elsewhere. Maybe thats the down-side of focussing on one particular battle at a time and ignoring what was happening on the rest of the front. That pitfall is obviously what Martin Marix Evans is trying to rectify here, but looking at the Somme during the whole period of the First World War.
In an ironic kind of way, the same pitfalls are in evidence here. Even when you focus on an oft-ignored subject, to what extent do you refer back to the more well-known? Where exactly is the balance between context and irrelevance? Although Evans writes much about the Somme before and after July 1917, but also combines this with a potted history of the war elsewhere on the western front. This could be received either of two ways, depending on your viewpoint – tedious if you know all about the Great War already, useful if you are a newcomer to the subject. One other problem is the lack of referencing – despite an exhaustive bibliography, it would be nice to know where certain arguments come from.
I admire the intention of taking the Somme – and the first day in particular – and trying to place it into a wider context. Its a brave effort. For too long the grievous losses of that July day in 1916 have overshadowed much else that took place there – in particular some valuable lessons learnt in 1916, and some bitter fighting during the Kaiser Offensive in the Spring of 1918. And although he is trying to emphasise the other fighting, Evans gives us a very clear decscription of the fighting that began on 1 July 1916.
Were the massive losses of the First day of the Somme part of the process of learning to fight a new kind of war, or were they just another symptom of the ‘Donkeys’ school of thought? Evans argues that the First World War was a succession of ‘lessons expensively bought in blood and suffering’. Personally I’m not too sure the argument of ‘lessons learnt’ is backed up by developments, as the British Army fought almost exactly the same way at Passchendale in 1917 as it had on the Somme in 1916. But that is for the reader to decide.