The Battle of the Somme: The Story of the Deadliest Battle in WWI. Alan Axelrod. Guilford, Connecticut: LP Books, 2016.
On July 5th 1916, French General Ferdinand Foch had a decision to make. At that point, the situation that would eventually become the Battle of the Somme was five days old. The British troops, who formed the majority of the participating forces, had attacked German lines in and around the River Somme on 1 July, with little success. By the 4th and 5th of the month, German counter-attacks were already eroding those gains. The French contingent, part of Foch’s Army Group North, was meeting with more success. Foch could continue the attack, which had already consumed thousands of lives, or not. To him, those were his only choices.
Somewhere in the British lines on that same day, a young officer in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry regiment named Basil Henry Liddell Hart may have had other ideas.
German troops to the southeast, at Verdun, were advancing further into French territory and the French Army was hurling itself at their lines, trying to force a German retreat. The entire idea behind the Somme offensive was to take pressure off the French forces at Verdun, while success or failure at the Somme was almost an afterthought. If there was any doubt in Foch’s mind, there does not seem to be any for those looking at the Somme from the remove of a century. Foch was the leading thinker behind the French Army’s doctrine that focused singularly on the direct offensive. He had taught these ideas to a generation of French officers, who were now employing it and dying at Verdun in just the way the German leadership had hoped. He stated in his book The Principles of War: “The decisive attack is the keystone of the battle, and all the other combats must only be considered and organized in the measure in which they facilitate and assure the development of the decisive attack characterized by mass, by surprise and by speed.” His chosen tactic worked at the Marne in 1914, stopping the German offensive and earning him a promotion. It had failed at the Third Battle of Artois in 1915, but that failure did not earn him a demotion. He would do the same again on this day at the Somme, and once again it would fail.
Somewhere in the British lines on that same day, a young officer in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry regiment named Basil Henry Liddell Hart may have had other ideas. Already wounded once in 1915 by an artillery shell, Liddell Hart returned to action in time to join his unit’s Foch-style attack on day one of the Battle of the Somme. Liddell Hart’s unit was virtually wiped out before nightfall. Wounded thrice in that attack, Liddell Hart managed to continue on in the trenches until July 19th when he was finally sent back to England after being gassed. Liddell Hart survived nearly everything the Germans and industrialized warfare could throw at him, and it informed his thinking as he began to write tactical manuals for the troops he was charged with training for the remainder of the war. Liddell Hart would eventually become one of the most influential military intellectuals of the 20th century. His entire career would revolve around denigrating massed, frontal assaults and instead advocating indirect methods of attack. Many years later he would write, “Throughout the ages, effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as the ensure the opponent’s unreadiness to meet it.”
Technological advances such as the airplane and tank as well as concepts like German infiltration tactics had not yet developed enough to make a difference on the Western Front.
These two men, one who largely influenced the Battle of the Somme and one who was forever influenced by it, remain two of the most eminent sages in the canon of strategic theory. In fact, Foch’s The Principles of War is more nuanced than typically depicted. The Battle of the Somme (and for that matter, Verdun) occupies an inflection point between old tactics and new at a time when the character of warfare was changing. Technological advances such as the airplane and tank as well, as concepts like German infiltration tactics, had not yet developed enough to make a difference on the Western Front, but contrary to popular belief most participants already knew old tactics would not suffice in future conflicts. Perhaps, even Foch himself knew. Thus, the result of the Battle of the Somme’s equally matched foes could only be pure attrition. But that knowledge changed nothing: France was bleeding at Verdun, and England would need to bleed as well just to try and stem the flow.
A book that could have been written as seesaw accounts of running and dying in the mud is given life and excitement to leaven the necessary tragedy.
Alan Axelrod’s new book The Battle of the Somme: The Story of the Deadliest Battle in WWI depicts the battle, and that inflection point, in gripping narrative prose filling the drab subject with color. Axelrod adroitly pivots between the points of view of trench occupants like Liddell Hart and command post generals like Foch. A book that could have been written as seesaw accounts of running and dying in the mud is given life and excitement to leaven the tragedy.
Axelrod has more background in the English language than the military, so it is a pleasant surprise that he is able to provide such fine details on both tactics and weapon systems. Axelrod gets details as diverse as tactics, war letters, and the subtle differences between flamethrowers and flame-projectors correct. He does not miss the various tactical innovations that all sides tried in this battle, whether technological or the superior way in which the Germans planned and dug their trenches.
In the few places where British offensives were successful, they were simply drawn deeper into the web of supplementary trench lines that facilitated German counter-attacks.
When it comes to those tactics, Axelrod highlights just how outmatched the British were by virtue of the British Army’s rapid expansion beginning in 1914. The offensive tactics of both sides still relied on on the massed infantry advance to clear a lane for (horse) cavalry units that would then exploit the breach. Indeed, this was the British plan at the Somme. When it came to defensive tactics, the Germans were well ahead of their contemporaries. Their trenches were arranged in three lines to provide depth, included secondary and supplementary positions for flexibility, and featured concrete underground bunkers and rooms for long-term comfort and survivability. The British trenches at the Somme, by contrast, were designed with the presumption they would not be occupied for long and thus did not require as much effort. This philosophical difference about the humble trench made all the difference as German concrete obviated the British artillery barrages preceding every attack. In the few places British offensives were successful, they were simply drawn deeper into the web of supplementary trench lines facilitating German counter-attacks.
The one drawback of this book is that it focuses mostly, but not exclusively, on the British. This is understandable; far more British troops were engaged than French, and the Germans did little more than hold the line and retake key ground; both were more focused on Verdun than the Somme. However, this book should be paired with others to ensure a well-rounded understanding of the battle.
One thing this book clarified for me is just how interconnected the Somme and Verdun were, which Axelrod highlights. Many histories treat them as independent operations given the geographic distance between the two and the vast numbers of troops involved, but from the perspective of the French and British, one was the operational logic behind the other. Indeed, the Germans were forced to reinforce at the Somme with troops pulled from Verdun.
Axelrod’s book is a great and useful volume on the Battle of the Somme, especially given the battle’s place at a midpoint in both the first World War and a transition period in warfare. His expert prose keeps the text readable, accessible, and clear, even where the events themselves are confusing. All of this makes for a good book. His ability to capture both the stories and feelings of individuals in the trenches and the often collective decision-making of high level staffs makes it a great book.
Brett A. Friedman is a wargame analyst, an officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge. He is the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: British wounded at Bernafay Wood 19 July 1916 (Ernest Brooks, Wikimedia)
 Trans. J. de Morinni. Foch, Ferdinand. The Principles of War. New York, H.K Fly Company, 1918. University of Michigan Library reprint. Page 325.
 Liddel Hart, B. H. Strategy. New York: Penguin, 1991. Page 5.