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Three Armies on the Somme

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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Okt 2010 21:58    Onderwerp: Three Armies on the Somme Reageer met quote

Three Armies on the Somme' attempts to explain battle that remains misunderstood

The Somme, a quiet river that meanders across northwest France, lent its name to four battles, from 1914 to 1918. The second and greatest — fought in the lush fields of Picardy — lasted 4½ months and is still, a century later, a scene of national mourning.
The 1916 battle, which involved three armies and three empires, “scarred the British national psyche” and is still misunderstood.
William Philpott, who lectures on military history at King’s College in London, argues that although these Somme battles exemplified the horrors and futility of trench warfare — at a time when the tank and machine gun were just being introduced — the tactics learned in these brutal man-to-man conflicts enabled the Allies to prevail in future wars.
The scope of the Somme battles was enormous. While the principals were French, German and British, eventually the war involved millions of soldiers from 25 nations and all five continents. They confronted one another on a battlefield that stretched 40 miles.
Some were volunteers, others conscripts, but all of the combatants, says the author, were motivated by honor and duty, believing “it must be victory or extinction.”
Winston Churchill’s 1927 book on the battle, “The World Crisis,” was “one of Britain’s great historical myths,” says Philpott. This popular book, most recently republished in 2007, set the tone for many subsequent books on the subject. Calling Churchill “a trouble-maker and under-employed back-bencher,” Philpott says Churchill ignored the big picture: unimaginative and callous generals, ill-planned and futile battlefield operations, high and unnecessary casualties, atrocious battlefield conditions and a refusal to investigate new war-winning weapons, such as the tank.
As old myths and clichés continue to be recycled, it is Philpott’s aim to explain “for the first time,” why the armies of three great empires engaged in a 140-day test of strength on the Somme, and how this pivotal clash shaped our world “and remains with us still.”
To gain a clearer understanding of the monumental events of the Somme battles, the author revisits “the old front line” to demonstrate in stark terms how on the first day an inexperienced and partially trained force of British Tommies “went over the top” with deficient artillery support and suffered 57,470 casualties, the greatest loss and slaughter in the history of the British army.
Throughout this long and contentious volume, Philpott cites the works of other historians, usually dismissing their efforts in unflattering terms. He is harshest perhaps on A.J.P. Taylor. Noting that Taylor was 10 years old at the time of the war, he says Taylor was influenced by a mother and uncle who objected to the war on the grounds of conscience. Moreover, he writes that there was “little historical research in Taylor’s throwaway account.”
After calling Churchill an “arch-amateur strategist,” he accuses Lloyd George of having “selective memory” in his memoirs, and adds that his assumptions “are open to question.” At times, he seems to be settling scores.
As for Philpott’s own perspective, he writes that as the Somme war recedes into history, it becomes “unknowable and incomprehensible.” It was too complex and fragmented, he says, to allow a simple, unitary explanation. With new books being published on the subject, the essential facts of the Battle of the Somme may become mythical. To some, this may sound like a cop-out from a dyspeptic historian.

Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century
William Philpott Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pp., $35
Reviewed by Tom Mackin
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