Book Review: First Day on the Somme

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On July 1 1916, in one of the largest military operations to ever be executed, the British army entered into the bloodiest battle it has ever known. This was the battle of the Somme, a conflict that is etched into the collective memory of Britain as a tragedy. The first day on the Somme, the focus of this book, saw the loss of nearly 60,000 British troops, the largest loss in a single day in all of British History. Martin Middlebrook investigates, in depth, the events and circumstances that led to such a battle, and such an outcome, with regards to the British involvement.

Through close examination of diaries and official records, as well as a wealth of interviews and correspondence with actual soldiers who experienced the battle first hand, Middlebrook takes us from the the evening before the attack to several days after the attack in excruciating detail with the personal narratives of those who were there. He analyzes the actions of all parties connected to the battle, from the infantryman to the general to the politician in London. Before Middlebrook describes the day of July 1, he provides the reader with a mass of background information to help understand why the battle went the way it did.

His first point of order is the men and the makeup of the British army. This was the first large attack that Lord Kitchner’s new army had been a part of and Middlebrook compares and contrasts this new army against the Regulars and Territorials that had handled the mass of the fighting until this point. Middlebrook looks closely at the chain of command and how men operated within that system. He proposes that ineffective communication, partially cause by the inefficient chain of command system, was a powerful factor leading to the great losses suffered that day.

He also studies the relationships between Haig, Rawlinson, and Gough, the three generals in charge of the attacks, as he believes that their relationships towards each other may have had powerful influence on their decisions within the battle. Middlebrook thoroughly describes the plan of attack, but is careful not to say which elements of the attack would fail until later in the book. This helps give the book a stronger narrative style that is captivating and compelling.

The plan called for heavy shelling of the German trenches for over a week, followed by infantry attack in waves, without small attacking parties moving into No Man’s Land to secure trenches quickly after the artillery lifted. Middlebrook sees in this two of the greatest follies in the battle, both of which fall on the shoulders of General Henry Rawlinson. The first mistake was overconfidence in the destruction of the German trenches by shelling. The German trench system was stronger and more elaborate than most had figured. It had deep, fortified dugouts that could sustain the heavy artillery fire.

Also, the artillery barrage was supposed to destroy the German lines of barbed wire, but again, it failed. Men were told that they would have little resistance crossing No Man’s Land and that they would find empty trenches on the other side. They were sorely mistaken. The destruction of the barbed wire required a very accurate and precise artillery attack, especially when using shrapnel shells, and this was not achieved. On top of that, a large number of shells did not explode. Men reported seeing hundreds of unexploded shells strewn across the battlefield.

The second great mistake, from Middlebrook’s point of view, was the exclusion of troops to secure German trenches immediately after the shelling stopped. This could stem from Rawlinson’s overconfidence in the artillery. If key positions were attacked before the Germans had time to prepare their defenses, British troops could have quickly gained an advantage over the Germans. Middlebrook argues that Rawlinson had little faith in new army soldiers, and that he thought a rushing attack would be to complicated and confusing for them to execute.

Instead, it was ordered that the men should adhere to the rigid wave system. Men, loaded with a large amount of equipment, walked in lines across open ground with German machine gunners directly in front of them. Middlebrook says “It was the senselessness of sending up to eight waves of heavily laden men across open ground, without any sort of advance guard, that caused a high portion of the casualties” (280) Another issue that Middlebrook addresses is the handling of the success of the right side of the line. Here was one of the only divisions that achieved all its objectives.

The 30Th. division, which bordered the French army, had initial success and quickly progressed through No Man’s Land to the German trenches. With slight resistance they took the town of Montauban and the German trench behind it. The British army now had a position from which they could lead a decisive attack. Again, Rawlinsion had the choice of action. He could use varying degrees of a cavalry attack or could continue further with an infantry attack. What he chose to do however, was to keep his men in Montauban, and have them defend the town.

Middlebrook analyzes the situation: “The cavalry might have been caught by long-range German machine gun fire or British artillery fire; their return route might have been closed behind them. But, considering the slaughter of the British infantry farther North, these would have been risks that cavalry would certainly have accepted. Two or three cavalry regiments, boldly handled, could have achieved results out of all proportion to their numbers. ” (288) Middlebrook proposes the consequences of the hesitation.

After two days at Montauban, Rawlinson decides to progress the soldiers, but by that time cooperation with the French army in the area had broken down and the Germans were regrouping and prepared for such an attack. A crucial opportunity had been missed. The book also contains in depth analysis of international relations and peace discussions around the time of the battle. Middlebrook argues that Britain’s strong alliances, most notably with France, gave it little choice but to fully commit to conflict against Germany. By the time of the Somme, France was in dire straits and were barely holding on at Verdun.

A large attack was needed to sufficiently draw German troops away and give France a fighting chance. Middlebrook also assesses alternate fronts of attack, but comes to the conclusion that the Somme is one of their best chances. Naval routes of attack were severely blocked off and coming through Holland would have violated neutral territory. A feature of the book that I found especially insightful and compelling was the inclusion of the perspective of German military personnel. Throughout the narrative of the text, Middlebrook quotes German soldiers with the same manner he quotes British soldiers.

Understandably, the British offering far outweighs the German, but the inclusion at all is refreshing. The reader is shown the fundamental similarities between sides and is given a broader understanding of humanity in war. In the end, the goal of this book is to explore if the first day was a success and if the battle as a whole was worthwhile. Middlebrook looks at Haim’s original objectives to determine what might mean. “The French were relieved from defeat at Verdun; the positions held by the Allies at the end of battle were better than on 30 June; Losses were inflicted on the Germans. (289) But, as Middlebrook states “the British assault had been on such a scale that success, in this limited sense, had been inevitable. The terrible losses made it a success hardly worth having” (290) This book provides the reader with a clear view not only of a single battle, but of the elements of the British army in 1916. Most importantly, it gives the reader a glimpse into the mind of the soldiers who fought in that battle and that army. It is a powerful piece of literature that is both enlightening and engaging.

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