Somme: Into the Breach by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the “bloodiest day in British Army history”, said Saul David in The Daily Telegraph. At 7.30am on 1 July 1916, 120,000 British and imperial troops positioned along 16 miles of front line “climbed out of their trenches, or rose from prone positions in no man’s land”, and walked towards the German defences. The hope was that they’d reach the enemy line before the Germans emerged from their dugouts. Instead, they were “mown down like corn”. By nightfall, just under 20,000 had lost their lives. Yet the attacks continued for four-and-a-half months, during which time the Allies suffered more than 600,000 casualties, while advancing their line “just seven miles”. In this “magisterial” history, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore reconstructs these events in “forensic detail”, drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished sources. By alternating his perspective between the “combatants and their families back home”, he renders a familiar story “strange again”. Written with “great style and sensitivity”, his book will “set the benchmark for a generation”.
Sebag-Montefiore’s talent as a historian is “never to lose sight of the variety of individual experience”, said Daniel Todman in the FT. To read Somme is to be “struck afresh by the ripples of mourning and anxiety spreading out from the battlefield in France”. He is also “clear” about why the first day went so wrong: the assault was spread over “too wide a frontage”. He lays the blame for this “squarely at the door” of commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig, who insisted on broadening the offensive beyond what the Army could realistically achieve.
Haig’s poor tactical decisions “cost countless lives”, but by the standards of the War, he was not a notably bad leader, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. The image of absurdly incompetent generals, created by works such as Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, is a “parody” that should be “erased from the historiography”. We forget that the Somme served a valuable strategic purpose, relieving the “desperate strain” imposed on Britain’s allies by the German assault at Verdun. And for all its horrors, it was not “qualitatively more terrible” than other battles. The French, for instance, lost 27,000 men on a single day in August 1914. Sebag-Montefiore’s book is the “best new narrative of the battle”. And it shows that the real reason the battle continues to make such an “emotional impression” is that its participants were the “most articulate and literate sacrificial victims in history”.