Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The 1916 Battle of the Somme - Reconsidered

The 1916 Battle of the Somme - Reconsidered by Peter Liddle, came to me via the NWS as a review copy provided by Pen & Sword.

First up this is the work of a professional historian that aims to rebuke both some popular views as well as the work of other historians on this major battle in 1916.  To say major is a bit of an understatement. It lasted four months and saw a million casualties,

In terms of land captured it does not look very successful, but then that was only a secondary aim. The battle was to engage the Germans in a war of attrition to draw off their resources and manpower from other fronts and thereby help the other nations in the alliance.  On Liddle's assessment it was successful (although obviously at horrendous costs to both sides).

More controversial is his view that the man in the trench (and their officers) actively believed in the war and its conduct.  He supports this view by having gone through much personal correspondence which he finds does not support the popular views that came about in the 1960s and 70s due to various movies and stage productions.

Context is everything as Liddle continual points out.  This includes the observation that you had to be there and be of the times.  Looking at the battle (and the war) with the knowledge of WW2 and the "enlightenment" of modern times then the Somme does indeed look like an unmitigated disaster.  It is therefore well in need of a reconsideration and this book makes a strong case.

I did not find it the easiest of books to read.  It is not long (just over a 150 pages) and not doused in technical jargon.  However the author's style is academic and the content requires careful reading to be able to follow the points that are being made.  A book to be read when fully alert and surrounded by peace and quiet.

The aspect I found disagreeable though, was the author's put downs (or "slagging off" as it seemed to me) of his fellow historians (and perhaps lesser folk - I say that as I am not familiar with other works on this battle and so I'm at a loss to know if the names he gives are of learned writers or amateurs or even just sensationalists).

Drawing on personal correspondence of participants is a fine way of illuminating a battle or campaign and has become very popular and successful by writers such as Anthony Beevor or Stephen E Ambrose for WW2 or Antony Brett-James for the Napoleonics period, to mention a few I am familiar with.  Liddle does not quiet spin the observations he captures into a narrative of the battle, although I don't think he intended to do so, concentrating more on using such commentary in supporting his positions on the battle's meaning (and mythology).

So, a book for the expert or for someone who wants to obtain a different, more positive outlook on the great battle of the Somme that took place a hundred years ago.

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