Review of “The Somme” by Peter Hart

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The combined British and French offensive in the Somme River Valley of 1916 was one of the deadliest battles in the history of warfare. It lasted from July 1 until the middle of November when winter weather compelled a relaxation of hostilities. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, with 131,000 dead; the French had 204,000 casualties; the Germans 450,000 – 600,000.

The original goal of the British was to break through the German trenches on the western front, their first objective being the village of Bapaume, which lay about 5 miles behind the first German trenches. When the breakthrough proved impossible, the offensive continued in order to relieve pressure on the French, who were engaged in a battle of similar magnitude at Verdun. In the end, the British had moved the front line forward a few hundred yards, and the German trenches remained substantially intact. The village of Bapaume remained in German hands.

Bapaume, France, during World War I, May 1917

Hart’s narrative takes us from the first day of the battle, when the British incurred 57,470 casualties and 19,240 dead, to its sanguinary climax. He covers in significant detail virtually every significant attack, and there were many. His technique is to give a general overview, and then fill in the details with extensive quotes from letters written by the participants. Looking back nearly 100 years, one has to marvel at the literacy of the British army.

The book is a treasure trove for the serious student of World War I. However, it, like the battle itself, takes its toll on the reader. There were a great many individual attacks, all with agonizingly similar results: a heavy artillery barrage was followed by a “charge” of infantry men weighed down by their battle impedimenta, and a virtual slaughter in no man’s land. Sometimes the attackers actually made it to the German trenches, but even when they succeeded in taking the trench, they were seldom able to hold it because a prompt counterattack drove them back to the original starting line.

Cheshire Regiment, British Army, in a typical trench in the Somme, 1916

During the course of several months, the British adapted their tactics slightly, but only slightly. They learned that the intensity of the artillery barrage was crucial to any success. They became more adept at the “creeping” barrage that landed just ahead of the advancing infantry. The men learned to use shell holes for cover, but usually found them already occupied, often by corpses. The first tanks were introduced by the British in this battle, but though they at first terrified the Germans, they were very slow and prone to frequent mechanical breakdown.

Hart’s criticism of the British generals, Douglas Haig in particular, is less harsh than that of most other analysts I have read. Haig believed that the Germans might have prevailed in 1914 if they had only persevered in their attacks a little longer, and he did not want to make the same mistake. Thus, the British Army dug in for the long haul, and suffered heavy casualties that it could ill afford, for insignificant tactical gain.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Moreover, to win the war, Haig reasoned that it would not be sufficient merely to take back the French territory lost. The German army had to be defeated. To Haig, it was a waste of manpower to engage in battles in other theaters, as the “Easterners” like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill advocated. Hart opines that Haig and (his second in command) Robertson “may have been unimaginative, they were definitely ruthless when required, but above all they were hard, practical men and they were entirely right” in assessing how to beat the Germans in the situation they faced.

There were political as well as strategic considerations in play as well:

“Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and Russia … They were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the ‘butcher’s bill.’”

Evaluation: Hart’s favorable analysis of Haig is pointed and controversial. (Some of the epithets that have been applied to Haig include “The Butcher of the Somme” and “The Worst General of World War I.”) It is also very terse, taking up no more than 15 pages of a 550 page book. The remaining 530 pages support Hart’s characterization of the military leadership as “unimaginative.” I would not recommend this book to anyone who did not want to read a blow-by-blow account of a five and one-half month battle.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Pegasus, 2009


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Review of “The Somme” by Peter Hart

  1. bermudaonion says:

    Thanks for your review. I think I’ll skip this one – a blow by blow report of a battle doesn’t appeal to me.

  2. Rural View says:

    Horrific battle; can you imagine life in the trenches contemplating being blown up? This book sounds too much for me even though WW I is interesting. They fought for so long and lost so many men over a place like you show in the picture of Baupaume. Illustrates “war is hell” and I always ask, “What’s the point?”

  3. Trisha says:

    That just sounds terrible I must admit. Then again, I’ve never been a lover of war books. I think I’ll stick to learning from your review. 😉

  4. Jenny says:

    Wow. I am more interested in military history than I used to be, but I still don’t think I know enough to be able to understand something as in-depth as this.

  5. Staci says:

    Absolutely not the books for me…I don’t mind watching the History Channel but I’m not a huge fan of military history in writing.

  6. Sandy says:

    I love war books…this one seems like a read for the invested. I don’t know much about this battle, so when I saw the title, my first thought was that there is a wonderful Midnight Oil song that refers to a “hospital ward on the Somme”. There, I’m showing my expansive knowledge (or lack thereof!)

  7. Alyce says:

    I think the blow by blow account would probably be too drawn out for me. I don’t know a lot about WWI though, and should probably at least find some good WWI fiction to read if nothing else.

  8. zibilee says:

    Oh, this does sound like a rather repetitive and somber book, and although I do find a lot of the aspects of WWI interesting, I doubt if this book would make it onto my reading list. I do thank you for your very intelligent and thoughtful review on it though, and I can think of at least one reader I know who would probably really like it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  9. Aarti says:

    Is it just me or does it seem like many bloggers are reading WWI & WWII-era books right now? It may just be that I’m noticing more as I’m reading more in those eras, but it seems that wartime stories are really permeating the book blogosphere circle. I generally don’t like reading the military history- more the social history or the overarcing histories after the battles are done. SO maybe not for me!

  10. I think we (by whom I mean people who do not read a lot of war related books) forget how horrible WWI was, the incredible number of dead and injured…

  11. stacybuckeye says:

    I love Jim’s reviews since I pick up my hubby’s audio reading for him, but this one will not be making the cut. Several others that Jim has liked have been given the thumbs up by Jason as well. Wish I could remember wich ones they were 🙂

  12. John says:

    This may not be a book for everyone, but to rate it so lowly is a huge mistake. It is a brilliant piece of historical writing, fasciniating to anyone whi has an interest in understanding the twentieth century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.