Sunday, June 26, 2016

Stories of the Somme


The brick arches of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing rise high above the battlefield of the Somme. Inscribed on the 16 supporting piers below are the names of more than 72,000 British and South African servicemen who were killed in the surrounding area and who have no known grave.

With its echo of an ancient triumphal arch, its celebration of the Anglo-French alliance (equal numbers of French and Commonwealth soldiers are buried to each side) and its central, Kipling-chosen promise that “Their Name Liveth for Evermore”, Thiepval is ultimately a victor’s monument. It is also one built around absence. The great arch frames empty sky. The names of the dead are all around, but at the heart of the memorial is the gap they left behind.

A hundred years on from July 1 1916, the first day on the Somme remains an iconic moment in British history. Recently, there was much newspaper outrage when a National Army Museum survey suggested that 43 per cent of respondents could not identify in which war, or in which country, the battle had taken place. Another way to read the same statistics is that a narrow majority of people could do both, which probably puts it ahead of Gallipoli, El Alamein and Kohima, as well Waterloo and possibly Hastings too.

The Somme’s continuing notoriety is built on the calamity that befell the attacking British infantry on 1 July. Their losses — almost 20,000 killed, nearly another 40,000 wounded — were the worst ever suffered in a single day by the British army. This was only the beginning of a campaign that would last for another 140 days. By the time the fighting drew to a close in November, the British had suffered nearly 420,000 casualties, the French more than 200,000 and the Germans at least 400,000. Yet Britain’s new mass army and munitions industries had started to come of age, and the long-service professional core of the German army had been terribly eroded in the slogging battle of materiel.

Both in its scale and duration, the Somme was different to anything the British had done before. With wartime volunteers involved en masse in the most intense combat for the first time, the impact of the battle was felt throughout the Empire. The second world war saw combat that was just as horrific — and a global slaughter that was much worse — but Britain avoided the same enormous and prolonged commitment of its army to the task of breaking the strength of a great power opponent on land. The scar tissue left by the Somme was not concealed by subsequent suffering. As time went on, its mythology became more parochial. After the Great War’s more awful sequel, later generations reified the battle not just as a distinctly British tragedy, but also as a moment when the illusions of the pre-1914 order were shaken to their core.

More recently, historians have cast the Somme in a different light. Seven years ago, William Philpott’s monumental Bloody Victory brilliantly widened the perspective, to portray the Somme as a key point at which the balance tilted against Germany in an international war. Bloody Victory is still the book you should read if you want really to understand what was happening — to the world as well as to Britain — on the gently rolling hills around Thiepval.

With a new batch of books rolling off the presses for the centenary of the battle, one can only admire and sympathise with any author who chooses to take on the Somme. The rhythm of the battle makes its story difficult to tell. Inevitably, the first day takes up a lot of space; but the fighting has barely begun. Orchestrating the different layers of historical analysis — the politicians in their cabinet meetings, the generals in their châteaux, the troops on the front line, the grieving relatives at home — risks bathos or overload. The long summer of smaller British offensives and German counter-attacks gets repetitious. As the campaign drags on into the autumn, and just as tactical and technical innovations emerge on both sides that would shape the fighting in 1917, the dangers of exhaustion grow. Like Siegfried Sassoon in his poem “Attack”, author and reader can both find themselves appealing to the heavens: “O Jesus, make it stop!”.

In Somme: Into the Breach, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore puts the focus squarely on the soldiers. These include both well-known eyewitnesses, such as the academic turned New Army NCO RH Tawney, and less familiar participants who have emerged from the author’s researches in British, German and Australian archives. As in his previous book, Dunkirk (2006), one of Sebag-Montefiore’s talents as a historian is never to lose sight of the variety of individual experience. In among the gothic of rotting bodies trampled underfoot are glimpses of a hinterland beyond the battle — including a striking description of a trip to a French strip club in summer 1916. Once the fighting is under way, Sebag-Montefiore repeatedly returns to the relatives waiting anxiously at home, and the length of time that it took to confirm the fate of missing men. It is impossible to read this book without being struck afresh by the ripples of mourning and anxiety spreading out from the battlefield in France.

The intangibility of some of his presumptions about senior officers’ motivation is sometimes apparent in a rush of ifs and maybes, but Sebag-Montefiore is also clear about why the first day went so wrong. The initial bombardment was spread over too wide a frontage of trench. He lays the fault for this squarely at the door of Douglas Haig, and his insistence on broadening the scope and objectives of the offensive beyond what it was actually within his army’s capability to achieve.

In the detailed description of the fighting that followed, the arguments that Sebag-Montefiore says he wants to put forth — that the Somme was a necessary battle, that the British improved and that the Germans were worn down — are made very much sotto voce. Readers will probably finish the book with a stronger memory of the condemnation of British generals for not caring enough about the welfare of their men, and particularly of Haig for wasting the newly invented tank and never really getting to grips with the attritional nature of the war.

These are not new criticisms. What is underplayed — particularly as summer turns to autumn 1916 — are the implications that the battle had for France and Germany, and the range of problems that the British, including Haig, had to overcome: the lack of experienced staff officers in a massively expanded army, the difficulties of logistics (this is very much a front-line history), and the need to combine new tactics, mass-produced munitions and new technology. There is a good argument to be made that the “breach” into which the British were moving was the gap between a war of men and one of machines. Here, Sebag-Montefiore might have taken more explicit advantage of the adapted Shakespeare of his title.

In Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, 1916, Taylor Downing brings together the military and psychiatric histories of the battle. He plots the emergence of “shell shock” as a term to describe the range of symptoms presented by men exposed to the trauma of combat, the responses of the medical community and British society at large to this apparently new phenomenon, and the reaction to the explosion of cases as the military commitment escalated in 1916. Again, this will be to some readers a familiar story: shell shock is the iconic condition of the Great War. It is, however, one that needs retelling, particularly given the frequency with which the labels attached to psychological damage caused by extreme experiences — shell shock, combat fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder — are conflated without regard to the differences between the ways in which they were constructed by society over time.

What is innovative about Downing’s approach is the interleaving of “the crisis of shell shock” with the military history of the Somme. He tells both histories concisely and with good balance: you finish the book with a sense of the battle not just as an extraordinary moment in the war, but also in the mental health of the nation. Downing is too clever a historian to rehearse clichés about things never being the same again. As he shows, depressingly, lessons about the power of modern war to destroy combatants’ minds had to be repeatedly relearned in later conflicts. Estimates of the number of those actually shell shocked on the Somme and an account of the diagnoses that preceded shell shock — including the “soldiers’ heart” of the Boer war, are relegated to appendices. Both are so good that they might have been better integrated into the main body of the book.

Significantly, for all their titles’ talk of “breach” and “breakdown”, neither Sebag-Montefiore or Downing grapples with what is surely the key fact of Britain’s Somme: that neither the disastrous losses of the first day nor the months of ensuing struggle led to a widespread popular rejection of the war. Instead, all the suffering upped the political ante: only victory could validate the pouring out of so much blood. The belief that sacrifice must be redeemed kept the great nations of Europe at war past any reason; a point that is important to bear in mind amid the parroted rhetoric of remembrance at the centennial commemorations.

If writing new histories of the Somme is hard, writing new poetry about it is even more difficult. Simon Armitage’s Still — the book form of an earlier exhibition — is a brilliant work of art. It combines photographs taken during and after the fighting — including aerial shots and an astonishing panorama of the battlefield — with Armitage’s translation of selected passages from Virgil’s Georgics: a massive “suite” of poems about life in an ancient countryside through which armies march, winds and rain howl, and men wonder about the fate that will befall those who come after. The connection between the classical and modern worlds is the straight line of the Albert-Bapaume road. Roman-built but shell-battered, it bisects the Somme battlefield and cuts through many of the pictures in this book.

The effect of juxtaposed text and image is deeply moving. Armitage repositions the Somme as a profoundly human event, and one located in a much wider canvas. Significantly, the photographs are not in chronological order: the battle’s details lost in the tide of history. Opposite an aerial oblique of the smashed village of Courcelette in October 1916, Armitage puts his version of Virgil:

A time will certainly come in these rich vales 
When a ploughman slicing open the soil

Will crunch through rusting spears, or strike
A headless iron helmet with his spade, 
Or stare, wordless, at the harvest of raw bones
He exhumes from the earth’s unmarked grave.

More than anything else published so far this year, Still is a book to make you contemplate anew the true meaning of the Somme. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Somme: Into the Breach, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Viking, RRP£25, 656 pages

Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, by Taylor Downing,Little, Brown, RRP£25, 416 pages

Still: A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield, by Simon Armitage, Enitharmon Press, RRP25, 80 pages

Daniel Todman teaches history at Queen Mary University of London and is author of ‘Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941’ (Allen Lane)
All photographs from Simon Armitage’s ‘Still: A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield’ (Enitharmon Press £25)

De FINANCIAL TIMES, 25-26/06/2016

British reinforcements moving up towards Martinpuich, September 1916. From Simon Armitage’s ‘Still: A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield’ (Enitharmon Press)
34th Division attack on La Boisselle, with men in the foreground taking cover, 1 July 1916
Smashed German trenches at Ovillers looking towards Albert, July 1916
Destruction around Pozières, 20 September 1916
Aerial oblique above the village of Courcelette, 19 October 1916 

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