This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Starting on 1 July 1916, the battle of the Somme was a joint operation by French and British empire forces near the river of the same name in France. Military leaders were confident of the success of their plan – an aerial barrage followed by infantry advance into German trenches – but the battle was to become one of the bloodiest in history: on the first day alone around 20,000 Allied soldiers died, with tens of thousands more injured. By battle’s end in November, the Allies had gained only five miles. Much of the blame for this has since been pinned on British commander Douglas Haig.
To what extent was the decision to fight at the Somme a political one?
It was highly political. British forces needed to help the French, which sounds like a strategic military decision – but actually the Somme was chosen because it was where the two armies would overlap, or at least be adjacent. It would be a powerful propaganda move if the two armies could co-ordinate the biggest attack of the war thus far.
How much was overconfidence an issue in the planning of the operation?
It’s clear from General Haig’s diaries that he was wildly over-optimistic. It wasn’t entirely his fault: his chief intelligence officer, John Charteris, led him to feel that the Somme was going to be a big victory instead of the worst day in the history of the British Army.
We can see why they thought this. The sheer amount of ordnance they were going to be dropping on the German barbed wire and dugouts should, by any normal calculations, have resulted in a walkover. The British men were expected to just walk across no man’s land and take possession of the first couple of lines of German trenches, only possibly fighting for the third line.
Key among the reasons why this wasn’t the case is that barbed wire is an awful lot hardier than it seems. The wire was cut in some places but the men, heavily weighed down by their equipment, came up against uncut wire all too many times. Ultimately, the intelligence staff must bear some blame for that, as must the Royal Artillery.
What’s your take on Haig?
I usually take very strong views for or against people. I’ve been attacked quite a lot for my pro-Napoleon stance, for instance. Although I think I’ve been objective about him, a lot of people who have written in about my [BBC] TV and radio shows don’t think that at all.
I certainly don’t go along with the ‘Haig was an idiotic donkey’ line that Alan Clark and various other people have come up with. Equally, I think that – though they’re very fine historians – several of Haig’s apologists have gone a bit too far. He was in command of the army on the day that the British suffered the largest number of casualties for the smallest amount of ground in the history of warfare. He must take some responsibility for that, regardless of whether or not he was fabulous in the last three months of the war.
But I think Haig was a good moderniser. He was a highly intelligent man, and the idea of writing him off as some ignorant blimp is monstrous libel. He learned from his mistakes, and it was only because he and the army were capable of doing so that we did eventually have those last three months of victory.
Why didn’t the bombardment work?
Some historians argue that as many as a third of the shells were duds. We were buying a lot of shells from the US at the time, and there are various conspiracy theories about sabotage in munitions factories where German-American people worked.
I don’t personally give very much credence to that sort of thing. I think the war office ordered the maximum number of shells in the minimum amount of time and, as a result, people cut corners and sold things that ultimately didn’t work. I also wonder if there was a bigger reason, though: even if all of the shells had gone off, it takes more than shellfire to cut barbed wire. And British forces hadn’t developed techniques such as the ‘creeping barrage’ – infantry closely following advancing artillery fire – until much later in the operation.
After the bombardment, the order was given for the men to start advancing. What did the Germans make of this?
They were shocked. They couldn’t believe their eyes. It’s important not to generalise too much: there were battalions that crept out before the whistle blew at 7.30am, and there were battalions who made a run for the German trenches. But, in the main, the men were ordered to advance at walking pace because the commanders didn’t want them to be exhausted when they captured the first lines of trenches.
You can understand their concern: men were carrying any combination of their kit, rolls of barbed wire, Lewis guns, Bangalore torpedoes, stretchers, water – most cumbersome of all – and more. It could be half their body weight. To do it even at a trot would leave men completely breathless by the time they got across no man’s land. So in a way the decision to have the men walk did make sense – they should just have organised it so that some of the equipment came up after the trenches were captured rather than at the same time. But they did believe that the Germans were going to be surrendering, not firing back.
How unfair is it to paint the British soldiers as inexperienced and naive?
I think that it’s misguided. Many hadn’t seen action before, but by no means all of them. Lots had seen action at Gallipoli, and most had been volunteering in the autumn of 1914, so had 18 months’ training. So while it’s true to say this was a baptism of fire, the men nonetheless performed just as well as soldiers who had seen action for years. They were pretty fit and healthy; some had been getting better food than they had ever eaten before, which is astonishing. The British Army did manage to give three hot square meals a day to soldiers who had been pretty much undernourished until then, particularly those from working-class backgrounds.
Which personal testimonies particularly stood out for you?
The ones that really hit me were from the people who went back into no man’s land when they didn’t need to and weren’t ordered to, in order to save their wounded comrades and bring them back. Many of the wounded ended up in enormous shell holes and had to wait till dark to get back.
Can you imagine having to wait there for hours? For many of the battalions, the whole thing was over in 10 minutes, between 7.30am and 7.40am. They then had to spend the entire day in the boiling heat, with only
a limited amount of water, waiting for darkness to fall so the machine guns would not get them. Anyone who deliberately went back in to that situation to rescue a wounded comrade shows a level of heroism that I’ve never seen in my life – and I hope never to have to. It leaves one absolutely staggered with admiration.
The volume of the wounded can sometimes be overlooked, can’t it?
For every man killed, roughly two were wounded. That scale of wounded men was unexpected, and therefore there weren’t the nurses, the medicaments or the clearing stations, let alone the trains, to bring them back. This is where that overconfidence we mentioned earlier resulted in terrible things happening. Many more men died as a result of being wounded than would have been the case if they’d been a bit more pessimistic.
What psychological effect did the huge number of deaths have on the British Army?
It’s fascinating that it didn’t break the morale of the army completely. It had suffered a 50 per cent casualty rate, which is an unbelievably large number for any engagement at any stage in history. It’s a testament to the cheerfulness of the British fighting and working man. These guys had come straight from farms and offices and factories, and volunteered, yet even an attrition rate of 50 per cent was not enough to break their morale.
The French mutinied the following year; the entire Russian army mutinied; and in 1918 the German army mutinied. But there was no question of that happening with the British. The bravery they showed, the sheer doggedness and willingness to carry on fighting month upon month upon month, is very moving. To survive from the beginning to the end of the battle of the Somme, when certain death faced you on a daily basis, is something that almost defies belief.
Is it right to see the slaughter as having been unavoidable?
It was important that we maintained the offensive. You couldn’t fight the First World War by stopping and hoping that the other side was going to fall to your machine guns. You don’t win wars by not going forward.
In many ways the most important point about the Somme is that the high command and the general staff, the officers and the junior officers, did learn lessons. Infantry tactics were completely altered, and things such as the creeping barrage were developed. So in that sense the Somme did ultimately lead to victory two years later. Was that level of blood loss necessary? The answer has to be: no. One can never say that the death on one day of more than 19,000 people was ‘necessary’, especially for so little ground gained.
How would you like your book to change readers’ views of this day?
I’d like to put an end to the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War – the ‘donkey’ theory of a château generalship of moronic upper-class twits, miles behind the lines, who didn’t care about their men fighting and being slaughtered. Equally, I think that the revisionist lot, who make out Haig to be better than he was, have now gone too far. What I’d like this book to do is to present a more rational and, to my mind, much more believable view than either of those two extremes.
Elegy: The First Day on the Somme by Andrew Roberts is published by Head of Zeus (320 pages, £20)