The Somme

The Darkest Hour on the Western Front

By Peter Hart
Pegasus. 589 pp. $35
March 22, 2008


Chapter One

The Rocky Road

We do not live alone in Europe but with three other powers that hate and envy us. Prince Otto von Bismarck. Chancellor of Imperial Germany

The Battle of the Somme was the direct result of the British government abandoning their traditional maritime geo-political strategy. In previous European conflicts Britain had sought to stand back and minimise her involvement in Continental land campaigns. Wherever possible Britain would use her economic strength to inveigle her Allies into bearing the bulk of the fighting while addressing herself to the far more profitable agenda of preying on the overseas colonies of her enemies. Britain's strength was based on the Royal Navy and the pre-eminence of her maritime empire. Unlike the Continental powers who were forced to raise huge armies able to compete with the equally powerful countries that surrounded them, the British Isles were just that - islands - unattainable unless her enemies could first comprehensively defeat the Royal Navy.

British global strategy in the nineteenth century could be encapsulated within three simple rules of thumb. Firstly, the Royal Navy would be maintained in accordance with a 'two power standard' - it must be equal, or better still, superior to the strength of the next two naval powers. Secondly, no one country should be allowed to secure domination of Europe - in particular the coastline of Belgium and the Netherlands should not be occupied or controlled by any of the Great Powers. In essence this was perceived as buffer territory, intended to prevent any army gaining a base from which an effective invasion of the British Isles could be mounted with minimal warning. Thirdly, the British Empire was to be defended, and where possible expanded, across the globe to provide the resources and markets that fuelled the economy. These 'eternal and perpetual' policies may have seemed defensive to the British, but they were highly aggressive to other Great Powers who found themselves constantly baulked by the British in attempting to chart their own course to a global empire.

The overall dynamic of power in Europe was complicated following the rapid rise of the German Empire. Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 successive British governments had devoted much of their time to suspiciously monitoring and countering the real and imagined activities of France and Russia. France was an obvious cause of concern - she already had ports just across the Channel and had thus been the traditional enemy since time immemorial, and she was still considered a potent threat to British colonial ambitions in Africa and the Middle East. Russia meanwhile was seen as a looming menace to the jewel of the British Empire - India. Now, however, there was a new Continental power. Germany had not only the military might to threaten domination of the European mainland, but also the burgeoning industrial and manufacturing base to threaten British economic interests.

Germany was determined to carve out a new colonial empire in China and Africa and equally determined to build a navy fit to challenge any fleet afloat. The successive German Naval Laws commencing in 1898 specifically set out the size of the fleet they wished to achieve and their promulgation struck directly at the heart of British concerns in a manner that they could not ignore. The massive German Army had already proved itself the dominant military force in Europe by defeating the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870. Ever since 1882, Germany had been at the heart of the powerful Triple Alliance alongside Austria-Hungary and Italy. Now the Germans appeared to want to supplement this with a significant element of naval power. If Germany was to achieve her aims then others must surrender power and as such her rise was a direct economic, colonial and naval challenge to the hegemony exerted by the British Empire. Inevitably Germany came to be perceived as the main threat and gradually her enemies came to be viewed as putative friends.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the French and the Russians had been driven to resolve their own multifarious differences by the threat posed by their common enemy in Imperial Germany. At first they merely pledged to assist each other in the event of a German attack, but slowly their affiliation deepened as the threat from the Triple Alliance was perceived to grow. Britain was soon determined to resolve her differences with France and Russia - differences that seemed to melt away with every battleship launched by the German shipyards. The relationship was formalised in the Entente Cordiale signed with France in 1904. Year by year increasing diplomatic tension and the precautionary countermeasures taken by both sides only served to create art overall mood of a Europe Simmering in crisis.

But what could Britain offer the Entente Cordiale? The first part was obvious - the power and global reach of the Royal Navy would deliver maritime superiority at a stroke. An arrangement with the French fleet left the bulk of the Royal Navy free to concentrate its power against the German fleet across the North Sea. What they could not offer was a powerful standing army. The British Army was established as a force to garrison the far-flung empire and as a mobile strike force to be swiftly deployed by sea to any developing point of conflict. It was certainly not an army capable of playing a significant part in a full-scale Continental war - it was simply too small. From the German standpoint the Entente Cordiale offered an encircling threat - with the Russians to the east, the French to the west and the British balefully eyeing them across the North Sea, they seemed to be surrounded by enemies. German diplomacy seemed unable to resolve the conundrum and various ham-fisted attempts to break up the Entente Cordiale merely had the effect of pushing their putative enemies still closer together. The expensive continuation and escalation of the naval race following the genesis of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 provoked a significant groundswell of anti-German feeling right across Britain.

Slowly the British Army began to be drawn into the Continental equation. The hearts and minds of the Royal Navy were concentrated only on a great naval set-piece battle with the German High Seas Fleet and they inevitably spared little thought for the type of operations that had typified the British approach in previous wars. In the resulting vacuum it became accepted in joint army staff talks with the French that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) - small though it may be - might mark the difference in the coming battle between the mighty French and German armies and ought therefore to be deployed on the mainland. Thus it was over the next few years mobilisation plans were laid for the six divisions of the BEF under the Commander-in-Chief General Sir John French to cross the Channel and enter the main Continental war alongside the mighty sixty-two divisions of the French Army.

War, when it came, was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in far away Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. In a sense war was inevitable: all the Great Powers harboured essentially selfish ambitions that could not all be achieved without thwarting the aims of other powers. No single power particularly sought war, but equally none did enough to avoid it as the crisis flared through the embassies of Europe during the next few weeks. Serbia was blamed for the assassination and threatened by Austria-Hungary: Germany supported Austria-Hungary, Russia supported Serbia; Germany threatened Russia: France supported Russia, and so the ultimatums and mobilisations began, until there was no longer any room for talking. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, Britain simply could not stand by. The German invasion of Belgium on 3 August triggered all the traditional British foreign policy concerns and if Britain abandoned her commitments to her European Allies it would inevitably lead to her utter diplomatic isolation - she would be alone in a dangerous world. Britain really had no choice and finally declared war on 4 August. To a large extent the British still saw their role as naval and although the BEF would be sent to fight alongside the French, as far as the British government was concerned this was an afterthought.

War brought massed crowds out in celebration on the streets of cities all across Europe. War was exciting, a break from the dull routine of the factory, the office, the mines and farms. It evoked strong notions of chivalry and national pride in the populations of all the belligerent nations. Underpinning this enthusiasm was the widespread conviction that the war would be relatively quick and painless; all nicely wrapped up with a crushing victory before Christmas. It is important to emphasise, however, that not everyone reacted with such jubilation and confidence: realists feared the catastrophic effect of war on society across Europe, and many socialist and workers' groups had real concerns and doubts. There were even pacifists opposed to the very idea of war on religious or moral grounds. Yet, nevertheless, the clear majority of people across Europe undoubtedly welcomed war. As such they did not act as a brake to the machinations and posturing of their governments but cheered them on even as they collectively careered towards the horror of the Great War.

The German war plan envisaged a violent thrust through Belgium to push on into northern France, swinging round behind the main French armies to seize Paris and thereby secure victory at a stroke. Meanwhile, a defensive front would be established in the East to thwart any attempted advance of the Russian 'steamroller'. The French Army had nurtured a blind faith in the powers of the offensive rather than its previous rather more pragmatic reliance on an immensely strong series of concrete forts, typified by those at Verdun, built to defend the Franco-German frontier. It would instead charge blindly forward into the 'lost' provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, forfeited in the aftermath of France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The results were predictable as the French, dressed in the brightly coloured red and blue uniforms more attuned to another age of warfare, were duly slaughtered by the weapons of the twentieth century. By the end of 1914 the French had suffered an incredible 955,000 casualties.

As the French charged to their doom, the German columns were marching through Belgium and the almost undefended Franco-Belgian frontier. Here they encountered an unconsidered trifle - the BEF under the command of General Sir John French, which in accordance with mobilisation plans had moved up to Maubeuge to take its allotted place on the left of the French line. The British found themselves right in the path of the onrushing German juggernaut at the Battle of Mons on 23 August. In the succession of desperate defensive actions that followed as the British fell back into France, the quality of the British regulars seemed apparent, but their trusty Lee Enfield rifles could not stop the masses of well-trained German soldiers who were equally committed to the cause of their country. As the situation teetered in the balance the firing Germans began to falter in their final approach to Paris, just as the French dredged up sufficient troops to launch a flanking thrust of their own and together with the BEF created the 'miracle' of the Marne. The Germans were forced back through France until they made a determined stand in swiftly dug trenches ranging along the easily defensible ridges behind the Aisne River.

The swirling, sidelong race to the sea followed as attempts were made by both sides to turn their opponents flank, bouncing and cannoning from each other in desperate encounter battles. There was much slaughter on both sides, but the battle for the key Belgian town of Ypres was fought with a particular intensity in mid-October. Ypres guarded the approach to the Channel ports, the linchpin of the BEF communications back to Britain. The German Army suffered grievous casualties at the Battle of Ypres, but at the same time the battle consumed the bulk of the original BEE The British fought to the end and at the last gasp managed to hold back the Germans from a breakthrough that at one point seemed all but inevitable. Stalemate ensued and the trenches stretched in unbroken lines from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Trenches were not a new development. They had been used many times in warfare especially during the sieges of fortresses and cities. What made the problem so intense for the generals of both sides was the power of modern weapons acting in concert. Belts of barbed wire slowed the approach of attacking infantry to the trench and gave the defending troops ample opportunity to pour in rapid rifle and machine-gun fire from the relative safety of their own trenches. But the real difference lay in the destructive potential of massed modern artillery. Superficially it appeared to offer the opportunity to easily sweep away the barbed wire and trenches in a welter of shrapnel and high explosive. Yet both sides had artillery. If the defending batteries were not knocked out of action, then they would let loose a devastating fire of their own when the attacking infantry advanced into the open across No Man's Land. Even if the front line was captured the support and reserve lines of trenches still stood in front of the attacking troops and the defending reserves would rush to counter-attack. Any kind of breakthrough was extremely difficult to achieve.

In 1915 both sides made attempts to break free from the constraints imposed on them by the lines of trenches, but the strategic imperative was clear: the Germans had possession of a large and economically invaluable tranche of France and Belgium. As this situation could not be allowed to continue, the French and their British Allies had to drive them out. The French launched numerous offensives and fought with a savage desperation to reclaim their homeland, but were held back by the brutal realities of trench warfare. The casualty lists grew, casting a black shadow over countless families across France. The British were also flexing their muscles as the BEF slowly began to grow in size. The first real attempt at a breakthrough was made by the First Army under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915.

Douglas Haig was born on 19 June 1861. Educated at Clifton College and Brasenose College, Oxford, he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst as a cadet in 1884. Here he had found his vocation and applied his considerable intelligence and disciplined personality to mastering his chosen career. After service as a regimental officer with the 7th Hussars he went to the Staff College at Camberley in 1896 where he gained a theoretical understanding of war that coloured much of his subsequent career. His first real active service experience occurred in a typical colonial conflict as a staff officer in the Sudan in 1898. During the Boer War, Haig was given command of one of the many small columns trying to snuff out the Boer commandos. By this time Haig had been marked out as a very promising officer and he was soon rewarded with command of the 17th Lancers and appointment as the aide de camp to King Edward VII. His career then flourished. He was appointed first as Inspector General of Cavalry and then promoted major general and became Director of Military Training at the War Office. At this point Richard Haldane, the Liberal Secretary of State for War, was engaged in a thorough overhaul of the structure of the British Army. Haig was tasked with creating a new Territorial Army out of the mish-mash of part-time volunteer units that served as Britain's second line.

Haig's capacity for hard work and analytical abilities were much prized and the next mark of high approbation was his appointment as chief of staff in India. He struggled with the inherent problems in the Indian Army until he was rescued by another promotion to lieutenant general and made commander-in-chief at Aldershot in 1912 - the home of the British Army. Here he was responsible for training and preparing the two divisions under his command ready to take up their wartime role as the I Corps within the BEF. Haig had already developed a firm belief in some of the classic principles of war, which decreed that any conflict would go through several stages: the initial manoeuvring for position, the first clash of battle, then the wearing out process of indeterminate length before one side began to fold and the decisive stroke could then be struck home. This conviction would endure throughout the war but his somewhat naive early belief that the power of 'the spirit' could overcome an inferiority of numbers, arms or training would soon wither from exposure to harsh reality. Haig also believed that any decision, even if misguided, was better than indecision and that a bad plan resolutely pursued was better than a good plan that was not pushed through vigorously.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE SOMME by PETER HART Copyright © 2008 by Peter Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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