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Last Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Rethinking the Somme
By Peter Caddick-Adams
Military historian

Troops going over the top
Over the top in September 1916 - three months in, two left

What images do you associate with World War I? Trenches and barbed wire, mud, gore, gas and filth? Perhaps the name of a battlefield - "the Somme". It's an emotive word today, at its 90th anniversary, linked in many minds with military slaughter on an industrial scale - but this was not always so.

Until 1966 and the 50th anniversary of the Somme, the place always associated with British service on the Western Front during 1914-18 was somewhere else. Ypres - "Wipers" to the Tommy - in Belgian Flanders. Thousands died there, particularly during the Third Ypres battles of 1917, so the very name became synonymous with death or active service in the Great War.

All that changed in 1966. In July that year, the Times ran a series of features for the Somme anniversary. The flood of letters and eyewitness accounts altered our understanding of World War I forever.

That the Germans suffered heavier casualties than the British and regard the Somme as a defeat is often overlooked

The original intention for the Somme offensive was for a massive Anglo-French force to storm and capture the German trenches, following a week's artillery bombardment.

Allied cavalry and infantry would then pour through the gap, roll up the German line and finish the war. In the event, the date was brought forward and the battle fought largely to distract the Germans from their offensive against the French at Verdun.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig hurled 14 British infantry divisions at the German lines. By the end of the first day, 1 July, the British had lost 57,450 officers and men - 19,240 of them killed, 2,152 missing, the rest wounded.

Public fixation

Nine Victoria Crosses were won on 1 July 1916 and a further 41 during the whole campaign, an indication of the ferocity of the fighting. Nothing on the same scale had ever happened to the British Army before. Tragically, after so much loss of life, no breakthrough was made, but Haig continued the campaign for the next four months.

The Times correspondence gave rise to two well-known books about the Somme battles - Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme (1971), and Lyn Macdonald's Somme (1983). Both have run to many editions, demonstrating a fixation on the hitherto forgotten Somme campaign.

One of the letters that stirred the debate

Whilst Middlebrook and Macdonald both concentrated on the first day, there were 12 separate battles which together constitute the Somme campaign. It ended on 18 November 1916, when the 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont Hamel, which had been an objective on that first day of July.

The name Somme, as a result of 142 days of unrelenting combat, has a special place in British social and military history, as a common experience, shared by millions of Tommies, as well as soldiers from the Empire. It was as significant as Dunkirk or D-Day, and was felt to be so at the time.

The big attack was sold to the soldiers about to undertake it as the last "big push" that would finish the war. Many veterans remembered that they were actually looking forward to it.

French losses

The "Pals battalions" from the north of England, where whole streets or factories of young men enlisted together, were particularly hard hit on the first day. It impacted on tiny communities in a way still remembered today.

In the Somme region there are 243 Commonwealth War Cemeteries containing the graves of some of the 125,000 British and Empire servicemen who died on the Somme in 1916 - whilst another 300,000 were wounded in the campaign.

Poppies at the Thiepval monument
19,240 killed
2,152 missing
36,058 injured

That the Germans suffered heavier casualties than the British and regard the Somme as a defeat is often overlooked. The battle also saw a French army fighting alongside the British, which suffered 200,000 casualties.

Today, we remember that the Somme campaign of 1916 brought excessively high casualties for all the participants, yet failed to deliver victory. More than anything else, the battle polarises modern views on British generalship in 1914-18. But is it correct to label Douglas Haig and his generals as "donkeys", who sacrificed the lives of the "lions" in the British Army?

The "donkeys" school of historians, led by the late Alan Clark MP, emerged in the 1960s and seems to have been as much a reaction to Vietnam and an angry Beatles-generation expression against authority as serious historical thought.

Generals killed

Modern scholars tend towards the view that the Somme battles were part of a painful learning curve whereby the BEF weakened the skilful, courageous and highly professional German army. Without the Somme, argue Professors Richard Holmes and Gary Sheffield, the decisive victory of 1918 could not have happened.

Were Haig and his generals really "donkeys"? The evidence suggests not. Haig lost 58 of his fellow generals, killed or dying of wounds while leading from the front during the four years of war. Three died in the Somme in the first few days.

Map of the Somme Front Lines - 1916

So the General Melchett image of Blackadder - of arrogant generals safe back at headquarters - is unfounded. They were brave, and their challenge was commanding an army of several million conscripts and volunteers, for which they had not been prepared.

The Somme was a turning point in the war, though not evident at the time. Understandably, the casualties of that first day still distort the achievement of the rest of the campaign for us, which was never as costly or wasteful of lives.

Nevertheless, the awfulness of the campaign has had a profound and lasting effect on Britain. For this reason, historians have concluded that to study the Somme battles is to study British society and the British Army, and how the latter has evolved since.

Just one of many lessons that today's military commanders have learned from the 1916 casualties is to split up recruits from the same town or village, in case of military disaster, to avoid the blighting of small communities.

Although the intense shelling of 1916 turned the Somme area into a muddy, hellish landscape, it has since returned to its pre-war state. Where once there was the thump of artillery, now there is only the chatter of children and coach parties.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The major problem faced by people now looking back at the first world war is a lack of empathy. In 1914 Britain had not fought a major war for 60 years and the skills required were sadly lacking. Rather than attack the generals understand them, they were fighting a war they were totally unused to and it took some time for them to adjust. It was only in 1917 and 1918 that tactics emerged to brealk the deadlock as generals came to grips with this new form of warfare.
Owen , Guildford

Peter from Nottingham talks of generals having to base their plans on 'little intelligence'. I whole heartedly agree! Poor intelligence can almost be accepted for the first day of slaughter...what about the further 141? Educated idiots leading from the rear. and it will never change Will it Mr Bush!
Rhys Jones, aberdeen

The evidence of people actually involved in battle (such as grandfathers) is evidence of how painful it was to be involved, not evidence of whether Haig was a good general or not. Victims are not un-biased observers. To argue that Haig was a bad general, you'd first have to point to someone better. The fact that all generals seem to have performed equally badly in WWI suggests it was the war that was at fault, not the generals.
Mike, Reading

The debate over the Battle of the Somme will continue for many more years yet. However, any discussion on the battle needs to put it 1916 context. As the article points out, the original plan was for a massive Anglo-French offensive, the timetable for which was several weeks later than 1 July.

As Professors Holmes and Sheffield (amongst others) point out, Verdun changed all that. 90 years on, we forget that it was France who was the major partner on the Western Front and had France been defeated then the war on the Western Front would have been lost.
David Flintham, Romford, UK

Haig's funeral was attended by over 200,000 ex-servicemen. This would suggest that he was not universally regarded in a negative way by those who served under him. Ultimately, Haig emerged victorious, which is just what he was hired to do. So is Haig-bashing really a product of the agendas of the modern age, rather than a product of the facts? Can anyone suggest a commander in the Great War who didn't incur major losses amongst his troops?
Paul, Stoke

Peter of Nottingham. The generals had the reports of army recce and fighting patrols, the debriefs from German prisoners, reports from French and Belgian patriots in occupied territory and hard-won aerial recce photos and reports. Haig chose to ignore them all.
Kevin Lohse, Hythe, Kent

My grandfather was in the RAMC and served in a number of the most hideous battles, including at Gallipoli. To his dying day he cursed Haig and Churchill. The latter for his role in Gallipoli. He knew Haig for an arrogant fool who saw men as numbers and so long as he could throw more forward than the Germans that was acceptable.
Paul Coyne, Glasgow

I remember doing a Somme reconstruction computer programme during history lessons at school. We had to try to kill less people than the generals did by adjusting the amount of artillery, the formation etc. None of us came close.
jmw, Reading

As usual Prof. Holmes is right. The Allies fired a million heavy shells at the German positions in the week before the attack. By rights nothing should have survived this & our troops should have had an easy attack. The generals had no way of knowing how deep the German positions were (this is 70 years before spy satellites) and had to plan a battle on the limited intelligence available.
Peter, Nottingham

There's no argument, the men at the front were sacrificed by incompetent leadership. General Haig spent much of his career as a cavalry officer and his tactics still revolved around opening up holes in the german lines to finish the war off with dashing cavalry charges. It's alleged that Haig said "the machine gun is a much overrated weapon", those that died in the mud of the Somme would disagree.
Ramon Russell, Edinburgh

I have no idea where you researched this piece of revised history, but you might like to read, amongst others, Liddell-Hart's "History of the First World War" and Montgomery's "Concise History of Warfare" Both fought in the War, so can hardly be described as the angry Beatles generation. Lloyd-George was not in revolt against authority when he described Haig as "brilliant to the top of his boots". I agree that many generals died bravely, but that was not what they were paid for. Hague was not only dim, but so suspicious of intellect that he removed any member of his general staff who showed any understanding of the conflict or initiative in fighting the war. Furthermore, the armistice was not a decisive victory. Germany stopped fighting because of the ever-increasing number of US troops joining the conflict. At the time, a major political figure said Versailles "was not peace, it was war in 20 years". He was right.
Kevin Lohse, Hythe, Kent.

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