Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front
Reviewed by Ron Drees

The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front
by Peter Hart
Published by Pegasus, 2010

The Somme contains hundreds of personal accounts of the battle (which lasted from 1 July through November 1916), each connected by analysis and commentary. All ranks contributed to these accounts, from privates through General Haig and Winston Churchill. Since the battle was a continuously frustrating charnel house, the vivid descriptions become repetitive, bordering on the redundant, as one seems to be reading about the same battle over and over and cannot separate one part of the slaughter from another.

The British used the same tactics continuously, never really learning, even when they did something different that worked. After several hundred pages, the accounts lengthen the text, decreasing interest, and making the reading tend toward the tedious. Fewer accounts would have moved the narrative along at a better pace and those accounts would have had a greater impact.

Interestingly, in his preface Hart seems to make excuses for the generals yet castigates them in the text. Haig had realized that battles could be more effectively directed and put out a memo to that effect but did not follow up with personal visits. It is not hindsight to believe that Haig and Rawlinson should have learned faster and reacted more effectively. While slogging through 1 July 1916, Hart hammers home the extent of the disaster by listing the casualties of the major units, yet he never discusses the German casualties.

Past the midpoint, the narrative changes when Hart describes the medical treatment received by British soldiers as surgeons fight dirt, disease, and the lack of time in a frequently futile effort to save lives. Then it's back to another continuing set of hard-fought but pointless small attacks. What finally ended the battle was winter, with its rain, sleet, and snow. While Haig thought he had driven the Germans to the breaking point, he had actually pushed his own army into the same situation. The backbone of the 4th Army — officers, NCOs and specialists — were dead. Haig needed time to rebuild.

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The Somme has many maps including one showing the start and finish of the British battle lines. After 624,000 British and French casualties, the front line had moved east one to nine miles, depending upon the location. The Germans had lost about 525,000 casualties.

Hart does a thorough job of presenting the battle from the viewpoints of the British infantryman, artillery gunner, and pilot while also explaining the thinking of the high command, greatly influenced by the political situation. After reading this book, the reader will feel like he had been there. Knowing what the German soldier was thinking would have really made this book insightful. At the end of the narrative, Hart reminds us that Arras, Ypres, and Passchendaele Ridge were yet to come.

Note that this is a book about English soldiers written by an English author in English, not American. Be prepared for new words or new meanings of familiar words.

Ron Drees

1 comment:

  1. Wasn't it about British soldiers--English, Welsh, Scots, Irish--rather than just English? Apart from that, this is an excellent review and has helped me decide whether to read the book or not. Thank you!