The Somme: France 1916 by Chris McNab (Pitkin Guide)

The Battle of the Somme in 1916 has a unique place in British Military History. As Chris McNab points out in his conclusion, it was by no means the only costly battle on the Western Front. But the grievous losses suffered on the first day alone – 57,470 British soldiers dead, wounded or missing – have occuiped the minds of many ever since. The British Army has never been quite the same, for a variety of reasons.

The focus is usually on the first day of the Battle – 1 July 1916 – but in fact the Somme operation lasted well into November, and was only ‘closed down’ due to the onset of winter weather. It was a battle aimed at breaking the deadlock on the Western Front, and to achieve a breakthrough. History tells us that this did not take place.

This Pitkin guide by Chris McNab gives us a very detailed overall picture of the Somme Campaign – from the outbreak of war, the battles of 1914 and 1915, the nature of Trench Warfare, the Commanders involved, the plans for the Offensive, the First Day and then the subsequent phases launched to try and re-invigorate the advance. The hardest task of any Historian writing about the Somme is to draw any kind of conclusion. The world knows all about the losses, and the small amount of land gained, but what about the more complex task of assessing whether it was a success or a failure?

McNab frequently refers to the deadlock of the Western Front, and this is perhaps the biggest factor that led to the Somme Offensive – a desire to return to mobile warfare and escape from the perils of static Trench Warfare. Mention the Somme, and the name of Douglas Haig is never likely to be far away. History has judged his leadership of the Somme offensive to be rather lacking. His background was as a Cavalry Officer, and he believed in ‘the charge’ of mobile warfare.

The Somme was planned to be a joint Anglo-French operation, born initially in December 1915. The Somme was chosen for no other reason other than that it was the junction between the two allied armies. When the Germans launched a strong offensive at Verdun, however, in February 1916 the ability of the French Army to co-operate on the Somme was be much reduced – hence the Somme took on a distinctly British character. The offensive also became an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Somme by drawing off German reserves.

A massive artilletu bombardment was planned to prepare the way for the infantry. During the week-long barrage, over 1,500 guns fired 1.7 million shells at the german front lines. Yet this overwhelming weight of fire did not have the intended results. In most cases the shells failed to cut the barbed wire. And secondly, a large proportion of shells simply did not explode – up to 30%, McNab argues. The Germans had also built highly effective deep dug-outs and shelters that largely survived the artillery fire.

After the massive losses on the first day, the British Army slowly and painfully moved forward, but with horrendous casualties. The battle bogged down into attrition. Haig came under increasing pressure from the British Government, who were asking why a few miles were costing tens of thousands of lives. Haig’s response was to order further attacks. The battle had been planned with the objective of making a breakthrough, but in hindsight a breakthrough became more and more unlikely. Yet Haig was sure that the German Army was on the verge of buckling.

In the second half of the 20th Century some historians labelled Haig and his Generals as ‘monsters’. The picture is rather more complicated, as Chris McNab rightly states. The commanders of the time were fighting at a time when technology – particularly the machine gun – favoured the defender, and innovations such as the Tank had not been developed enough in order to break down defensive positions. The Second World War tells us that even with air power, artillery and tanks, infantry will always have to cross no mans land and take on the enemy. The Somme had caused the Germans 630,000 casualties, and one only has to consider what might have happened at Verdun if the Germans had been able feed more reinforcements into that battle. The Germans eventually retreated from the Somme, but only to the fortified Hindenburg Line.

History has always had a fascination with the Somme. It was the first major battle in which the New Armies fought, and in particular the fate of the Pals Battalions has become imbued in British Culture. Chris McNab has written an insightful and thoughtful account of the Somme Offensive. In particular I found the emphasis that McNab has placed on prior developments and phases after the first day very important, and hopefully will buck the historical trend. It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of labelling Haig a monster, but quite rightly McNab lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

I found it very useful for my own research – looking at the 1st Hants who fought on the first day and at Le Transloy on 23 November, and the 14th and 15th Hants – the Portsmouth Pals Battalions – who fought in the September Battles. Chris McNab has helped put those men who fell in 1916 into context.

The Somme: France 1916 is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press


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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

One response to “The Somme: France 1916 by Chris McNab (Pitkin Guide)

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