This morning I commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Big Push on the Somme by listening to a rendition of Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire [https://youtu.be/B28BWhdnfx0]. Perhaps because accounts of such colossal human suffering are likely to dredge up a volatile mixture of emotions, there were second thoughts, but once fully alert and as intellectually detached as a scholar should be, I nevertheless embraced my choice. That sublimely irreverent ditty, now in its umpteenth version, captures the worst day in British military history in a way that disinterested analysis cannot. Never mind that most mainstream historians of the past 40 years have at least partly rehabilitated the song’s villains — the chateau generals and Colonel Blimps so derided by Liddell Hart, Fuller and, of course, Alan Clark, who probably fabricated that “lions led by donkeys” trope in the first place. While we’re at it, let’s also ignore the opposite end of the historiographical spectrum — the seemingly steadfast determination of amateurs and professionals alike to find some unduly transcendent meaning in what so many Tommies simply referred to as “The Great Fuck-up.”
In his recent Washington Post commentary, “A Battle That Continues to Haunt Europe” [https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/2016/06/29/51556], columnist George Will tries to nail down some of that transcendent significance, and we should not take him to task for doing what so many professional historians do. After all, overstating an otherwise accurate observation in order to make sure that one’s readers get the point is an understandable tendency — especially if the point to be made is an important one. Yes, the big battles of 1916-17 most certainly underscore the old quip about amateurs talking tactics while professionals talk logistics.
That said, I find it difficult to classify this particular battle — more properly, series of battles — as some sort of Road to Damascus moment for the world’s armies merely because their 1916 incarnations fired more rounds and planted more soldiers than in the previous year’s smaller engagements. If we want to establish the centrality of logistics, we can just as easily cite the Shell Crisis of 1915 — a shortage of artillery ammunition so severe that it contributed to the Asquith ministry’s downfall. So, too, had the importance of railroads been aptly demonstrated earlier; in that case, 55 years earlier. Modern siege artillery, belt-fed automatic weapons, and repeating rifles had consumed so much ammunition and inflicted so much damage during the Russo-Japanese War that Aylmer Haldane, Henry Reilly, and other Western military attachés were sounding the appropriate alarms a full decade before the guns of August 1914 fired their first salvo. Their warnings, readily available to today’s commentators, indicate quantum leaps in the physical dimensions of battlefields and the intensity of battles — quantum leaps that predate the Somme by a noticeable margin. That those warnings were also readily available to the attachés’ own superiors in 1904 is, of course, less apparent. One need only consider the casualty counts for the 9th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Newfoundland Regiment, and a handful of other British units on 1 July 1916 to know that doctrine’s right and left hands –the theorists and the practitioners — still were not pulling together. For anyone in search of damning statistical inferences, over 57,000 total British casualties on that day (a full one-third of them KIAs) is icing on the cake. To steal that gutless phrase from countless ecclesiastical historians, “mistakes were made.”
Even so, some of those mistakes had been made before and would be made again. So, if the Lechenfeld von Loos (Corpsefield of Loos) preceded the opening action on the Somme by nine months and the “senseless campaign” (David Lloyd George’s description) of 3rd Ypres succeeded it by a year, can this battle or campaign qualify as a defining moment? Equally important, can we extrapolate any observations about historical turning points in general? I would argue that, like this five month slugfest that produced over a million casualties, turning points can themselves be long, drawn out affairs. Equally to the point, few who actually stand on historical watersheds are likely to recognize them until later. The idea of a turning point is, above all, a pedagogical crutch.
For me, the takeaway from Griffith, Johnson, Travers, Terraine and others of what we might call the “they weren’t really that stupid” school, is that an army’s official warfighting doctrine struggles to keep up with changes on the battlefield, and that it invariably lags behind — sometimes by a great distance and, in the best case, only by a little. Big or small, that gap is unavoidable. Yet, as a systemic problem, it does not necessarily produce failure after failure unless a perfect storm of other conditions exists. Chief among those other conditions is a culture of micromanagement which, unfortunately, Field Marshal Douglas Haig promoted. Those closest to the front see War evolve the soonest, and so on up the chain of command. While neither endorsing nor impeaching the old indictment of chateau generalship it must be said that, numerous after action reports to BEF headquarters notwithstanding, Haig was bound to learn the important lessons last. A cavalryman and the only senior commander on the Western Front in 1916 who still believed in breakthroughs, he wrongly tweaked Fourth Army’s original operations plan for the worse instead of trusting its commanding general, Henry Rawlinson. An infantryman who had envisioned a less ambitious, more deliberate opening assault similar to that which the French XX Corps launched on his right flank, Rawlinson thus lost any chance he might have had to win. Tellingly, the French enjoyed success that day, and Haig — not Rawlinson, whose field army did the attacking and most of the dying — is known as “The Butcher of the Somme.” At least the “lions led by donkeys” school tends to cut Rawlinson some slack on that account.