Reviewed by: Gary Sheffield
Author: William Philpott
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price (RRP): £25
Forty-five years ago AJP Taylor was the most famous historian in Britain. He was one of the first celebrity academics, and when he said something controversial, people sat up and took notice. His view of Hitler as a normal but evil German statesman caused outrage.
But Taylor’s version of the battle of the Somme did not excite anything like the same level of anger. He claimed that it set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War: brave helpless soldiers; blundering obstinate generals; nothing achieved.
Taylor was preaching to a mass readership that was sympathetic to what William Philpott in his admirable new study Bloody Victory: the Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making
of the Twentieth Century calls Taylor’s “factual inaccuracies, half truths and clichés”; indeed, Taylor “himself ‘set the picture’ for later generations”. I can vividly remember reading Taylor’s Illustrated History as a young teenager in the early 1970s, and the impression it made on me.
Today, Taylor’s view of the Somme holds the field. The battle is firmly fixed in the collective British memory as a futile massacre, in spite of a number of efforts to argue that the matter was rather more complex. Dr Philpott’s book is the latest, and perhaps the most ambitious and impressive, attempt to buck this trend.
Most historians who have tackled the Somme have approached it from a Britocentric perspective. Even those who have attempted to reflect the French role, as I did in my short popular book on the battle published in 2003, have to bear in mind the demands of publishers and audiences who want to read primarily about the British Army.
As a specialist in 20th-century French military history, Dr Philpott comes at the Somme from a different angle. His insistence that the French army take centre stage in the story of the Somme, rather than be shuffled off to the wings (or even omitted from the cast list altogether) makes for a refreshingly different take on the battle.
His points are well made. The French army did much better than the British at the beginning of the battle, at a much smaller cost in casualties. French gunnery and generalship emerges as superior to that of the British, with General Foch as a key figure. “That the French army could walk over the German lines on 1 July”, Philpott writes, “was due to the French gunners… It was a vindication of Foch’s attacking methods, and Fayolle’s cautious and precise preparations”.
The fact that the exchange of tactical lessons between two Allied armies fighting side by side was so patchy has not received the prominence in the historiography that it deserves. Sometimes Philpott slightly overplays his hand, and he arguably underestimates the challenges faced in 1916 by the hastily assembled British Army, from Haig downwards. Nevertheless his book sets the agenda for future Somme studies. No reputable future book will be able to marginalise the French contribution.
Philpott also pays due attention to the Germans on the Somme, and deals with the fighting in the area in the early years of the war, in 1917 and in the crucial battles of 1918. He also includes an interesting but tangential chapter on the very different fighting in 1940.
But in many ways the central parts are the ones in which he discusses the significance of the Somme, not just for the First World War but, to quote the book’s subtitle, “for the making of the 20th century”. The Somme was, he argues, correctly in my view, the fulcrum of the First World War, and therefore the beginning of all that came after.
Everyone would accept the first word of Philpott’s title – ‘bloody’ – but few would agree with the second – ‘victory’. In my own work, although I certainly see the Somme a huge strategic success for the Allies, I have consciously avoided calling it a ‘victory’. The word has implications of immediate decisiveness that fails to capture the complex legacy of the Somme.
To describe it as a victory is a provocative move. It may serve to cloud the issue of Philpott’s wider themes, which would be a pity. For this is an important and powerful book that deserves to be read and its arguments debated.