Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Somme: The Darkest Hour On the Western Front, by Peter Hart

This week I'm reviewing something a little more serious, a history text from Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front. For my readers who may not be aware, The Battle of the Somme was a battle of World War I that took place in and around the Somme River valley from 1 July to mid to late November in 1916. This battle was one of the worst in the nightmares of trench warfare, with some 300,000 men killed on both sides, and another 700,000 wounded, although exact totals are hard to verify due to the inability to account for the thousands of men missing, presumed dead. Clearly this is a topic that requires a very sober approach to give it the full historical weight it deserves. And while I have nothing wrong with Hart's methodology and he does a very fine job researching the material, I feel like this book leaves much to be desired.

The greatest strength of this book is the incorporation of primary sources as the basis of its research. Hart incorporates numerous entries from diaries, letters, and official memos which provide an intensive ground-level look at the Battle of the Somme as it was experienced by the Tommies of 1916. However, this becomes the book's bane as well. There are numerous points where Hart incorporates long citations from primary sources, and often includes at least two examples of the same event he's talking about. And while this is certainly good methodology, it quickly becomes very tedious to read. And many of the results are the same. There are so many ways to talk about how you climbed over the top of the trench, watched as people got cut down by machine-gun fire, and then took refuge in a shell hole. The plethora of accounts that tell that same story show how common it was to the experience of the Western Front, but I felt like Hart included more examples than was necessary to prove his point.

Another shortcoming in this work is how incredibly Anglo-centric this work is, which isn't necessarily a flaw. Hart is, after all, a British historian and has interest in British things. The problem for me, however, is the very, very brief inclusions of German sources and near total dearth of French sources in this work. The result is a story that seems very one-sided and while going into great detail about the British plans to create a breakthrough on the Western Front and return to mobile warfare, it barely talks about German plans responding to the Somme and their (largely effective) efforts to stop the British advance. If Hart had focused just on the British experience and explicitly said that, I would have less problem with it, but the bare inclusion of German and French perspective makes the overabundance of British views all the more jarring.

Hart also explicitly sets out to provide an exoneration of the British high command, specifically the chief commander, General Sir Douglas Haig. This proposition is not entirely without merit considering Haig has often been portrayed in a negative light. The example in Blackadder Goes Forth of Haig, portrayed by Geoffrey Palmer, callously sweeping tin soldiers off a map into a dustpan certainly comes to mind. However, the evidence that Hart marshals to counter the "lions led by donkeys" (itself a claim which is under much revision) actually supports the very argument he is trying to bring down. Take for example, the decision to launch a major offensive on the Somme River valley. The decision for this location was entirely based on the politics of the Anglo-French alliance. The Somme was intended to be a mutual offensive occurring at the point where the British and French sections of the Western Front met. As Hart goes into great detail, there was nothing else to recommend the site. The Germans had control of the high ground in the region, constructing three independent lines of very strong defenses, which proved to be incredibly difficult to capture. The existing transportation infrastructure was utterly inadequate to supply an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands which required food, water, spare parts, ammunition, and the thousands of other things an army requires to stay in the field.

On top of that, plans which Hart attributes to Haig show absolutely no realistic expectations for combat on the Western Front, and it is his subordinate, General Henry Rawlinson, who comes across as the far more realistic. From the start of the offensive in July, Haig fully expected the British to be able to break through all three lines of the German defenses, allowing the cavalry to rush through and exploit the breach. In reality, most of the attacks utterly failed and it was only small portions of the first line that were taken. By the end of the Somme offensive in November, the British still hadn't reached the objectives they had hoped to take in July, and the Germans had only built more lines of trenches further back, preventing any chance of a breakthrough. Haig even hopes the cavalry will be useful in October, when rains had turned the ground of the Somme into a thick semi-liquid mud that made it difficult to impossible for the infantry and artillery to get through, never mind the cavalry. And yet Haig is still hoping for the breakthrough that will win the war in a few short weeks.

To an extent there is an incorporation and adaptation of new methods of warfare, such as the creeping barrage, the tank, and the use of aerial reconnaissance, but much of the conflict is still the same for the Tommy and every foot of ground is gained at enormous human cost. Personally I have not read much that portrays the high command of either side of World War I in a terribly positive light, but Hart certainly fails to achieve his goal of exonerating Haig of his inability to adapt and learn from the brutal experience of the Somme.

Finally, I personally detected an almost jingoist tone to some of Hart's analyses of individuals and their actions during the course of the Somme. An example is a contrast between three officers, all of whom went home to England for medical reasons. In the case of the first two officers, they served in a front line capacity, being heavily involved in taking and holding German trenches, before finally getting wounded and sent back to England to recover. The third officer, however, reaches the front line and is set by a sudden attack of nerves before encountering combat and is sent back home on a medical discharge for weak constitution. In Hart's descriptions of the first two officers they're brave and noble warriors, both recipients of the Victoria Cross, who earned their trip back to England by facing the foe manfully. With the third officer, he doesn't out and out say it, but there is a very strong implication that the man was merely a coward who couldn't face danger and chickened out before experiencing a baptism of fire. Quite frankly I find this a rather outdated and unenlightened attitude, especially for a book published in 2010. Combat is a trying experience for even the most stout-hearted of people and I'm sure there were hundreds, if not thousands, of men on both sides who were gripped with absolute terror at the prospect of going over the top into combat. Some were able to head home before becoming another casualty, while others were left with no choice. To treat their experience of the war and the terrors it involved as somehow less valid or less worthy of praise is merely an extension of the outdated, militaristic jingoism of the turn of the century that resulted in the Great War in the first place.

Overall I have nothing wrong with Hart's methodology as a historian. He has certainly done exhaustive research and introduced a plethora of primary sources to provide a worm's-eye view of the Battle of the Somme. However, the conclusions that Hart draws from these sources seems both outdated and fallacious. He utterly fails in his attempt to redeem Douglas Haig as a general and only succeeds in making his subordinate, Rawlinson, seem the more realistic of the two. His use of primary sources becomes a handicap as we are submitted to yet more letters and diaries saying the same basic failures of trench warfare. I personally would not recommend this book for students of the First World War and would recommend trying to find something far less frustrating.

- Kalpar

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