Book Reviews




The Somme -- 
Heroism and Horror in the First World War

by Martin Gilbert

Review by Richard Sheppard


"His name is inscribed on the Thiepval Monument."

The above quote is among the most frequently used line in author Martin Gilbert's concise account of one if history's bloodiest battles, the English/French attack against the German trench line roughly athwart the Somme River in northeast France. Throughout the author's telling of English and French soldiers climbing over the tops of their trenches into the horrific teeth of machine gun bullets and artillery shells, Gilbert extends some personal accounts. He introduces a soldier or officer, and relates their bio and background. And then he will describe how the man died, and conclude with, "his name is on the Thiepval Memorial." It gets so that when he mentions an individual within the story of the battle, you already suspect the poor fellow is going to be signed off with, "His name is on the Thiepval Monument," because it usually is. Or, the departed solider is buried in one of the numerous battlefield cemeteries, thankfully with an identifying headstone so his descendants may know where he rests.

Well Over 1 Million Casualties

Either way, the names of these unfortunate missing, vanished soldiers ended up on the largest monument to the Somme battlefield: The Thiepval Monument, which contains the names of 75,000 "missing." And that huge number is but a small percentage of the overall casualties of well over 1 million from what is surely one of history's bloodiest killing battles. (By comparison, with the Thiepval Monument, America's Vietnam Memorial contains just over 58,000 dead and missing total combined.) At the Somme, there's an additional monument to just the missing Commonwealth soldiers, which has an additional approximately 35,000 names inscribed. These are just monuments for the missing; there are numerous cemeteries which hold the bodies of those who were killed and identified, too countless to imagine.

The Plan

In early 1916, Britain's commander in France, Sir Douglas Haig conceived a breakout from the Allied trenches along the Somme River in Northeast France as a way to put pressure on the Germans through superior manpower. The French were holding out south of the Somme at the fortress city of Verdun, but were wavering. Along with the Russians, who were fighting the Germans in the east, the French needed a British offensive to draw pressure away from their lines. Haig set the offensive for July 1, 1916, and his objectives were for miles and miles of penetrations through the multi-layer German trench defenses. It did not go as planned, not nearly.

The Execution

The Germans had prepared their defenses well; particularly their underground bunkers designed to shield trench troops from the absolutely hellacious British artillery bombardment which preceded the initial attacks. Once these barrages lifted to allow the assaulting troops to cross no-man's land and engage the Germans, the Germans were there to fend them off with machine-gun fire. The artillery was nearly ceaseless for weeks and months on end from both sides, and churned bodies and mud alike to such a state, the Thiepval Monument with its gigantic toll of missing was inevitable. The Brits and Germans maintained prodigious rates of fire and counter-fire throughout the Somme campaign, which went full bore for four and a half months, until November, 1916. 

The Result

The blood-soaked generation-killing offensive itself never achieved the ambitious breakthroughs predicted by Haig. At one location along the line, no forward progress was made at all until very near the end of the battle in November. The offensive did, however, yield some indirect benefits: it did as planned take pressure off the French at Verdun. It did cause significant manpower shortages for the Germans, but paradoxically, by causing the Germans to make a separate peace with the Russians in the East, this shortage rebounded on the Allies, because once that eastern peace was achieved, the Germans went on the offensive in the West, and recaptured much of the British gains on the Somme. It wasn't until fresh manpower arrived for the Allies in the form of United States troops did an exhausted Germany and its equally exhausted partners sign the Armistice.

Tanks and a Young Adolph Hitler

Some additional facts emerge in the telling of the bloody Somme battle. It was during the Somme campaign that tanks were first used; they would change everything on the battlefield and unlocked the stalemate of the trenches. Adolph Hitler won Germany's highest military decoration, the Iron Cross, as a courier during the battle. And of course, the Somme was a battle in the War to End All Wars, which, sadly, needed to be refought two decades later, this time with the Corporal as Chancellor. And while the losses on the Somme battlefield were staggering, even these dead and missing couldn't in magnitude reach the scale of death and destruction of World War II.