#Reviewing Somme: Into The Breach

Somme: Into The Breach. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2016.

On 1 July 2016, a few Canadian Armed Forces personnel, mostly Newfoundlanders, journeyed to a monument in the north of France. They went to commemorate the centenary of Beaumont Hamel, one of many engagements which comprised the much larger World War I campaign known as the Battle of the Somme. As the padre intoned prayers in her lilting Newfoundland accent, the tone of the ceremony was sombre, even elegiac. On that same day in 1916, the infantry of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, a component of Britain’s imperial army, attacked German positions across open ground towards uncut barbed wire. The attack was a complete failure, the troops never breaching nor even reaching the German positions. Of this green regiment’s seven hundred and seventy officers and men, eighty percent were mown down in twenty minutes. Despite disasters of this nature all along the British line on 1 July, the Somme campaign persisted into November, and ended with over a million Anglo-French and German casualties.

Today, the Somme is known as one of the iconic battles of the First World War. Even those with only a passing knowledge of military history may well know it as the worst day in the storied history of the British Army, and will cite the shocking statistic of sixty thousand British casualties incurred on that one day. Popular history and culture perpetuates the image of idealistic volunteers sent to their deaths by incompetent generals in luxurious headquarters far behind the lines. While the First World War is worthy of study for many reasons—the complex machinery that set it in motion, its relentless pace of technological innovation, and its far-reaching social and political consequences—it persists in modern memory because of the vast and seemingly fruitless sacrifice of battles like the Somme.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, a British popular historian, took advantage of the Somme’s centenary year to publish his account of the battle, a weighty and well-documented volume privileging the voices and accounts of the men who fought it. Other recent books on the Somme do a better job of explaining why the battle was fought and addressing questions at the strategic and operational levels.[1] In contrast, Sebag-Montefiore’s strength lies in his use of letters and diaries to resurrect the combatants as real men, husbands and fathers, while showing us unflinchingly how they suffered and died. His book adds to those of other historians who have mined first person accounts of the Somme.[2]

Originally conceived as a “Big Push,” the Somme was intended to be Britain’s first significant offensive on their western front. Limited offensive operations in 1915 (Loos and Neuve Chapel) demonstrated both the limits of Britain’s depleted regular and reserve army, and the challenges of overcoming entrenched defenders protected by barbed wire entanglements, machine guns, and artillery fire. To solve this problem, the British raised and fielded a new, volunteer army of over a million men, augmented by contingents from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Likewise, the artillery branch, which in 1914-15 had proven ineffective, was expanded and upgraded to heavier guns and howitzers relying far more on high explosive ordnance. When the German offensive at Verdun began in February 1916, political pressure and the strategic necessity of relieving the French forced the British high command to fix a date (July) and a sector (the Somme valley in northern France, near the town of Albert). Planning and preparation for the Big Push began in April that year.

Barbed wire at Beaumont Hamel, 1916. (Newfoundland and Labrador in the First World War)

Sebag-Montefiore focuses on the “divergent strategies” of the British command that doomed the offensive before it began.[3] Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the ambitious British Commander in Chief on the Western Front, wanted to capture a succession of trench lines on the first day, allowing the cavalry reserves to break through to the German rear areas. Haig’s principal subordinate, Major General Henry Rawlinson, favoured a more methodical approach of “bite and hold,” taking one trench line at a time and then moving the artillery forward to support the assault on the next one. Rawlinson was following a rule, developed from the failed offensives of 1915, that a trench system could not be taken unless the attack was supported by one heavy howitzer for each one hundred yards of frontage. His risk-averse plan traded limited gains of territory for the opportunity to force the Germans to commit reserves and thus incur heavy losses, putting the Germans into the same meat grinder they had inflicted on the French at Verdun.

Haig however was willing to accept risk in return for more ground gained “in the rush,” and thus forced Rawlinson to spread his preparatory shelling over far more ground and thus greatly dilute his artillery plan. Rawlinson acquiesced, in part, argues Sebag-Montefiore, because Haig had protected him from charges of inadequate performance during the 1914 campaign, and so Rawlinson was obligated by the gentleman’s code of the British officer class to conform to Haig’s wishes, despite his own better judgement. As a result, while troops were assured that they would walk over defenses that had been erased by their own guns, the reality was that many German lines “would not even be touched. It was a disaster waiting to happen.”[4]

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of British Forces on the Western Front in World War I (The Telegraph)

Haig’s overly ambitious plan is part of Sebag-Montefiore’s opening thesis that the Somme battle went awry because the British army presented only a “superficial veneer of competence.”[5] While he does present period accounts showing that some junior officers and NCOs were dismayed by inadequate preparations for the offensive, Sebag-Montefiore should have gone further in his analysis of why the British army performed so poorly. The task of raising a large volunteer army, something unprecedented in modern English history, and staffing it with the remnants of leadership from the shattered British Expeditionary Force of 1914, was nothing short of herculean, and this challenge of leadership deserves better analysis. Generals like Haig and Rawlinson learned their trade in a small professional army acting as a colonial constabulary. Their challenge was similar to the generals of the American Civil War in its early years, going from experience in small garrisons and expeditions to suddenly commanding divisions and corps of raw volunteers. Much of the poignancy of the Somme comes from the thought of these idealistic volunteers, the so-called “Pals Battalions” drawn from the same neighborhoods and workplaces, trustingly climbing out of their trenches and advancing into withering machine gun fire because the experts ordered them to do so.

Likewise, as the reader, I wanted more of the analysis of British planning and tactics that a professional military historian would have brought to this study. British and German accounts of the first day of the Somme agree that the assault troops advanced quite slowly. “We were told to walk. We’d to carry the rifle at the high port…The first line went (first. I saw) they were walking slowly.”[6] This method is puzzling given Haig’s talk of “rushes.” Was the decision to advance given because the troops were too poorly trained at infantry tactics to do anything else? Was it because there was no other way of coordinating the assaults of multiple brigades along a 25,000 yard front? The answer is almost certainly a combination of these factors, plus the practical reason that the assault troops were so burdened with gear and ammunition that, in the words of the official history, it was “difficult to get out of a trench, impossible to move much quicker than a slow walk, or to rise and lie down quickly."[7]

The events of 1 July 1916 are well known. The British artillery preparation failed to adequately cut the wire, suppress the defenders, or silence the enemy’s artillery. The Germans, who had weeks of obvious signs about the coming offensive, were ready and waiting, almost always in sufficient numbers to shatter the slow moving assault waves with machine gun and artillery fire, or to counter-attack and repel local incursions. The British plan, inflexible and hampered by the primitive communications of the day, sent each subsequent wave forward to be mown down in its turn. It was not until nightfall that the survivors could attempt to return to their lines and begin to recover their wounded. Sebag-Montefiore documents each segment of this horrific first day with relentless detail.

What is less well known is that fighting at the Somme continued for months thereafter. Haig had sufficient resources to continue the battle, which devolved into a confusing series of struggles for local terrain features that offered some hope of unhinging the German lines. Localized success in the southern portion of the battlefield, where the Germans were thinnest and where the British could cooperate with the French, led Haig to believe that other breakthroughs were possible in the center and north. Here, in this welter of shattered trench systems and obliterated villages, British, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Canadians launched costly brigade and divisional attacks, forcing the Germans to defend, counterattack, and bleed in their turn. In some cases the attackers, lacking sufficient artillery support, were checked by wire obstacles and shredded. As one Australian recalled of the fighting at Pozières (29 July), the Germans put down a “‘perfect barrier’ of machine-gun bullets and bombs all along the wire…In about fifteen minutes the 28th had ceased to exist...We never had a chance.”[8] In other cases, initial assaults captured first line positions, but were outflanked and thrown back, as with the Australians at Fromelles (19-24 July).

The Somme was essentially an extended artillery battle, grinding up infantry formations as they advanced through choked communications trenches, held their sectors of the line, or clung to their brief gains. Sebag-Montefiore’s sympathy for these men shines in the latter half of the book, as seen in his choice of this account of an Australian infantry officer who survived days of German shelling at Mouquet Farm (28 August-8 September):

To sit inactive under intensive shell fire for hours is one of the worst features of modern warfare…The sight of your comrades…being killed and wounded puts a strain upon you that calls for the highest degree of self-control. The temptation to bolt becomes very strong and has to be resisted in every possible way. Any action is better than the dreadful suspense of waiting your turn to be slaughtered or hideously maimed. But no action is possible, and you just sit on hoping against hope that your name is not inscribed on any shell and with a horrible dread that it is.[9]

Troops in a support trench during the Battle of the Somme, 1916. (Imperial War Museum)

In relating this and many, far more graphic passages, Sebag-Montefiore forced me as the reader to endure a similar ordeal, raining scenes of horror and futility on me like a series of blows. I found myself stunned, saddened, and sometimes even sickened as I read on. In the process I developed a profound and sorrowful admiration for all these men who, as one New Zealander explained were “powerless to do anything but go mechanically on…the final shield from death removed…all emotion numbed.”[10] While each operation forced the German defenders into similar agonies of endurance, this thought must have been scant consolation to the hard-pressed British infantry.

Like others before him, Sebag-Montefiore grudgingly admits that Haig’s plan was a “a victory of sorts” in that the Allies achieved the strategic objective of relieving the pressure on Verdun and locking the Germans into a prolonged attritional battle. The German army’s qualitative edge was significantly reduced in the Verdun and Somme battles of 1916, and its losses forced it on the defensive in the West until the final gamble of the 1918 Kaisershclacht or Spring Offensive. Nevertheless, Sebag-Montefiore’s frustration with Haig’s conduct of the battle—his indifference to operational details, his lack of interest in technical aspects and innovations, and his blithe optimism—all seem justified. The Somme was a moment when the shape of a tactical solution to trench warfare tactics, including the creeping barrage and the use of tanks, first comes dimly into view, though too slowly to benefit the attackers at the Somme. Lacking this tactical key, Haig was like a man battering a locked door with his shoulder, hoping to force it open before hurting himself too badly in the process.

For all the shortcomings of its conduct, the Somme serves as a reminder to strategists and planners that there are times in when an attritional strategy is forced on the attacker by circumstances such as the lack of a decisive technical advantage or room to maneuver. Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign in 1864, or the Red Army’s long slow bleeding of the Wehrmacht, are two examples of a numerically superior force forcing a powerful opponent to an unwanted trial by ordeal. With no political will for a truce with Germany, and a very British desire not to be outshone by his French ally, Haig found himself in an attritional struggle and was willing to pursue it until winter forced him to break it off. While this observation in no way mitigates the horror of the Somme, it does, as Sebag-Montefiore admits, force us beyond the popular view of the British high command as “donkeys leading lions.”

A wounded man is brought in at the battle of the Somme, 1916. (Newfoundland and Labrador in the First World War)

As November came and the corpse-filled Somme battlefields turned to mud, one of Haig’s subordinates famously noted, “No-one who has not visited the front trenches can really know the state of exhaustion to which the men are reduced.”[11] The greatest merit of Sebag-Montefiore’s book is that he takes us into those trenches, forcing us to experience this battle through the eyes and words of its participants until there is scarce the will to turn another page. In this respect, Sebag-Montefiore surely captures the true reason why armies recall these times and revisit these places, like the Canadians at Beaumont-Hamel. While militaries train to fight and to win, a book like this one reminds us that the road to victory can pass through a dark valley of suffering.

Michael Peterson is a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He teaches at the CAF Chaplain School and Centre at Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the Canadian Armed Forces or the Canadian Government.

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Header Image: British troops manning a shallow trench at the Battle of the Somme. (Telegraph)


[1] See Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour of the Western Front (New York: Pegasus, 2008) and Martin Gilbert, The Battle of the Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).

[2] See Lyn Macdonald, Somme (New York: Penguin, 2013) and Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme (UK: Allen Lane, 1971).

[3] Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Somme: Into the Breach (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016), 24.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] Ibid., 79.

[7] Gilbert, Battle of the Somme, 52. Gilbert (2006) and Hart (2008) have more thorough discussions of training, preparation, and the relative merits of the British and German armies in 1916.

[8] Sebag-Montefiore, Somme: Into the Breach, 356.

[9] Ibid., 425.

[10] Ibid., 481.

[11] Ibid., 514.