The Meat Grinder

Review: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, ‘Somme: Into the Breach’

Battle of the Somme
Troops of the British XIV Corps, possibly 5th Division, advancing near Ginchy, during the Battle of Morval, part of the Somme Offensive / AP
September 11, 2016

"[We saw some] gruesome sights as we struggled up to the front line. [I saw] Hands, feet and shin bones [which] were protruding from the raw earth, stinking of high explosive. [I also saw] a smallish soldier, sitting in a shell hole, elbows on knees, a sandbag over his shoulders. I lifted it to see whether he [was] alive, and he had no head. Further on, [I came across] a corporal, lying doubled up [on the ground]. Just in case anything could be done for him, I bent down to raise him a little, [only to find] his head was… [only] attached [to the rest of his body] by a bit of a skin.’’

- Second Lieutenant Charles Marriot describes his experience at the Somme.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s First World War history, Somme: Into the Breach is at once easy and hard to read. Easy, thanks to Montefiore’s deep knowledge and exceptional writing. Hard, because it records what happened between July 1 and November 18 1916 in northern France.

As the battle began, British Army commanders were optimistic. Having successfully detonated explosives in tunnels beneath German strongpoints, commanders believed they had seized the early imitative. (Consider the vast explosion caught on film at a German position at the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt.) But success was momentary. Confusion between British Army headquarters and front line battalions meant that confusion reigned on the first day. Units advanced without reliable supporting artillery fire or adequate reinforcements, and the highly efficient German Army met advances with withering machine gun fire. While some German positions were seized at great cost, they could not be held. On the first day, British "casualties were in excess of 57,000 (including at least 19,000 killed).’’ And that was only the beginning. When the Battle of the Somme had concluded four and a half months later, Britain had suffered more than 400,000 casualties.

A key British weakness was leadership. One problem was that the commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig "had established a hold over’’ the 4th Army’s operational commander, Sir Henry Rawlinson. This domination was "way in excess of what should have been the case given their relative status. It meant the 4th Army’s commander was constrained when it came to challenging Haig’s tactics.’’ Rawlinson’s desire to methodically seize each German trench line and then advance under artillery cover was abandoned. Rather, Haig forced the 4th Army into an overly ambitious and impractical assault plan. This failure of the command culture is a major theme of Somme. We see how upper-class ego, poor intelligence exploitation, and lethargic communications sent too many young men to oblivion. Although things improved somewhat as the battle progressed, British commanders repeatedly failed to take advantage of breaks in the German lines. The Germans, however, took advantage of British failures right from the start. Indeed, shortly before the Somme offensive began, captured British soldiers gave up crucial information about the British campaign plan.

Still, the failures of senior officers do not do justice to the broader run of officers at the Somme. Far from it. Instead, Montefiore offers many examples of extraordinary heroism from field and company grade officers. We read a captain’s record of three young lieutenants in his company: "[Lieutenant Eric] Street, was last to leave the [German] trench, ran [the] greatest risks and got caught fast in the wire. Burchill went across to help him and received a fatal stomach wound, and [Lieutenant Edmund] Cansino did likewise, and so far as we know was killed in attempting to save Street.’’ Much of Somme’s 518 pages consider the personal stories of those who crossed open ground against overwhelming fire. And each account sounds like Omaha beach on June 6, 1944: of soldiers advancing without cover open against terrible odds. But the heroism was real. One soldier’s account from early in the battle sticks in my mind here. It records a battalion crippled by casualties and pinned down in No Man’s Land. The colonel "called for a signaler. One stepped up… ‘Get to the top of the road and signal for reinforcements’ [the colonel] thundered. Without a moment’s hesitation, the signaler obeyed. But as he raised his flags to send the first letter… [he] dropped back into the road, riddled with bullets.’’ In those months, a number of battalions were simply annihilated: "The Newfoundlanders ended up with more than 700 casualties out of the roughly 780 men who made the charge.’’

As the battle went on, the record of suffering achieved almost unbelievable levels of horror. One account from the Mametz Wood front: "There were more corpses than [living] men. But there were worse sights than corpses. Limbs and [legless and armless] trunks, here and there a detached head, forming splashes of red against the green leaves and as in advertisement of the horror of our way of life and death and of our crucifixion of youth, one tree held in its branches a leg with its of flesh hanging down over a spray of leaf.’’ Throughout his book, Montefiore illustrates these accounts with photographs and maps to help us visualize their grim reality.

Montefiore’s book also gives consideration to soldier’s families back in Britain. We read how mothers and fathers sought answers about the fate of their missing children, and then learned of their loss via red ink marked ‘dead’ return-to-sender letters. Small towns and villages lost entire generations if their local battalions were destroyed. We also learn of the nurses who worked past exhaustion to relieve the pain borne of grotesque wounds. And Montefiore draws our attention to the mental wounds—known then as "shell shock"—so many endured.

The book also dedicates deserved attention to the experience of the Australian, Indian, South African, and New Zealand units that served the British Empire at the Somme. The courage of these units, at terrible cost, was extraordinary, and the conditions they faced in the trenches were as bad as those suffered by any other unit. This being said, the Imperial troops do add a bit of color to the narrative: we read how in Cairo, Egypt, while in transit to France, proclivity for prostitutes led to sexually transmitted disease rates so high that they "could have undermined New Zealand’s foreign policy.’’

Montefiore’s conclusions about the battle are mixed. While he argues convincingly that it is overly simplistic to blame generals for pointless slaughter, he has harsh words for their judgment. At the strategic level, Montefiore explains that while the Battle of the Somme achieved comparatively little on its own merits, it relieved pressure on French forces at the Verdun front. This served the broader war effort. In addition, the Somme helped commanders improve their tactics for future battles—for example, in utilizing tanks for the effective combined arms offensives that would eventually win the war.

Ultimately however, as much as Somme is a history of a battle, it is also a testament to human courage. In that regard the book ends well, offering the thoughts of an Australian lance corporal:

… surely those who not only fell but gave their lives for humanity … lived in the fullest sense. They lie there enshrouded by the soil they saved and [for]ever then live in our memory … as men whose praises shall go resounding down the ages while yet men love and revere liberty, and honor bravery.’’

My great grandfather was a British soldier in World War One. Thanks to the Somme, I have new appreciation for what he and his comrades did, and how so many of them were lost.

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