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Somme: Into the Breach, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Harvard, 2016. Pp. xlviii, 608. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 9780674545199.

An Impressionistic View of the Battle of the Somme

SOMME: Into the Breach is a new “history” of the infamous World War I battle. I place the “history” in quotation marks because this is the new form of history – it offers an impressionistic view based on multiple individual accounts never actually develops the “why” and “where” of what took place.

There are twenty-one maps, which should assist the reader in understanding what happened. However, the maps are often in too gross a scale to actually yield any insights. Often, one is hard-pressed to find the particular geographical site mentioned in the text; perhaps if the maps utilized an X-Y system of A-H and 1-5 they could have been more useful. However, even here, the problem is that these maps are reminiscent of the early World War II Marine amphibious invasions where only National Geographic maps were available for ground orientation (which proved useless).

The text itself is stolid. Individual accounts can offer some insights, but 518 pages of such retellings become repetitious and do little to explain what happened and why. There is no delineation of the order of battle of either side and little explanation of how the British Army was expected to achieve a breakthrough during the Big Push.

The author is prone to offer psychoanalysis of certain senior officers (e.g., Haig and Rawlinson), often without substantiation. In discussing X Corps commander LTG Moreland, the author makes much of his being raised as an orphan, which may have made him more “risk averse when it came to putting his men’s lives on the line” (p. 155). It seems hard to accept that such recalcitrance would not have manifested itself earlier in his career.

Sebag-Montefiore analysis of Haig’s potential is questionable. He notes that Haig was a “not especially intelligent” student at Oxford, but that he was “such an able student” at Staff College his peers began to think of him as a future commander-in-chief. This mismatching of intellectual abilities occurs within the same page of the text (page 28).

The author’s writing style is further proof that the British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. Examples would include “blot one’s copybook” (to cause one to have less respect, p. 38), “nibble” (try to influence under-handedly, p. 74), “not mucking in” (not sharing in duties, p. 82), “skilleting over” (mass casualties, p. 146), “on the back foot” (outmaneuvered, p. 157).

When the author does analyze the different operational decisions, he usually notes that there were no good options and then proceeds to excoriate the ground commanders who had to make some sort of decision.

The author notes that VII Corps commander Thomas Snow and Third Army commander Edmund Allenby objected to the operational plan for the Somme, but “fell into line after Haig demanded that the operation should go ahead …” and then conclusively states that “if they believed [that the operation] would result in a death trap for the troops in their care, they were surely under a moral obligation to refuse to play any part in the attack” (p. 119). This analysis makes no sense; it would be an extremely rare occurrence for a commander to act in such a manner, and could potentially lead to a court martial for disobedience of orders or shirking one’s duty. It would be more common for such officers to note their objections and try to execute the mission in such a manner as to mitigate the dangers to their troops.

There is no analysis of the potential combat calculation. What was the quantity and rate of fire of the German machine guns? What was the thickness of the barbed wire? How effective was the artillery in opening lanes through the wire obstacles? Although there are multiple instances of describing how many yards the troops had to advance, there is no analysis of the potential for mission success and/or failure.

The artillery is not analyzed in such a way as to yield an understanding of why it failed to achieve success. The earlier Battle of Neuve Chapelle (1915) has been cited elsewhere as a model for formulaic success in determining throw weight in battle. Nowhere does Sebag-Montefiore note this problem other than to say that the artillery preparation fires were unsuccessful.

In his conclusion, the author notes that “the generals, who started the war as novices when it came to trench warfare, had to embark on a steep learning curve….” (p. 517). In effect, he has it both ways – yes, they made serious mistakes, but it was “necessary” in order to achieve future victory.

In reading this iteration of personal experiences, one can empathize with the individual soldiers, but one cannot gain any appreciation as to the actual battle.

 

Our Reviewer:  M. Evan Brooks is a retired government attorney as well as a retired lieutenant  colonel in the Army Reserves.  During Desert Storm, he was the military liaison to the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society.  He has been a wargamer for fifty years and has written numerous game reviews for several periodicals.  In addition, he is the author of Military History’s Most Wanted, a delineation of the best and worst of martial accomplishment or lack thereof.

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Reviewer: M. Evan Brooks   


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