Monday, April 25, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME” by Andrew Macdonald (Harper-Collins, $NZ39:99) ; “DARK JOURNEY” by Glyn Harper [paperback reprint of book first published in hardback in 2007] (Penguin-Random House, $NZ39:99)
It’s the week with Anzac Day in it and we are once again reminded of the First World War, with plenty of cues from the media about the Gallipoli campaign and all its overstated nationalist trimmings. I’m pleased, therefore, to look at a book which has nothing to do with Gallipoli, even if it was written by a New Zealander.
Andrew Macdonald is a youngish military historian, now residing in London, who specialises in the Western Front in the First World War. First Day of the Somme is his third book in this field. It is a comprehensive account of a single day, probably the most notorious and certainly the most lethal day in the history of the British Army. This was 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, in which the British suffered 57,540 casualties, comprising 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded and 2737 “others” (missing or p.o.ws.). The German total casualties in the same day’s fighting were about 12, 000 including approximately 3,000 dead. Notoriously, on this day the whole Newfoundland Army Corps ceased to exist.
This single day has been covered before by many other writers, but usually only from the British point of view. In his introduction, Andrew Macdonald remarks that this was the case with the last major scholarly book on the subject, Martin Middlebrook’s “soldier-centric” The First Day on the Somme, published in 1971. Macdonald’s aim is to restore balance by giving as much of the German perspective as the archives permit, as well as the British one. And this he proceeds to do, with methodical accounts of preparations on both sides of the lines, and the sufferings of ordinary soldiers.
He begins (Chapter 1) with British high command and its ambitions. General Sir Douglas Haig believed that he could mount a major attack, which would punch through German lines and resume a war of movement as opposed to the trench warfare in which the conflict had become bogged down. In some respects the French supremo General Joseph Joffre supported this strategy, but was modifying his opinions somewhat as the prolonged meat-grinder that was the Battle of Verdun was going on. The subordinate generals of Haig and Joffre - Generals Rawlinson, Allenby, Foch and Petain - were very sceptical of this grand strategy and were more in favour of the “bite-and-hold” technique, knowing that a war of attrition would follow but that it was unavoidable. Before Britain’s Somme offensive began, the French general Fayolle wrote presciently:
We have understood that we cannot run around like madmen in the successive enemy positions. Doctrine is taking shape. If there are so many defensive positions, there will need to be as many battles, succeeding each other as rapidly as possible. Each one needs to be organised anew, with a new artillery preparation. If one goes too quickly, one risks a check. If one goes too slowly, the enemy has time to construct successive defensive lines. That is the problem and it is extremely difficult.” (quoted p.18).
Macdonald argues that were many changes of commitment to the offensive by the French (who were preoccupied with Verdun) and the British. “In short, the British army’s final attack orders were the laboured sum of the shifting sands of coalition warfare.” (p.38) His introduction to high command all suggests a mighty mess in the making.
Whereupon (Chapter 2) Macdonald takes us to the lower ranks and gives a more worms’-eye-view of the prelude to battle. Of Haig’s 19 divisions, a high number were new to Picardy and under-trained. Conditions in trench life were already dreadful but by all objective measures, the morale of the troops had been rising in the months before the offensive. Tommies had picked up the idea that there really would be a major breakthrough that would hasten the war’s end. There was less insubordination and there were far fewer field courts-martial. Logically Macdonald then (Chapter 3) gives us the view from the German side of the lines, both officers and other ranks. The preparations for the British offensive were open and observable enough for the Germans to understand that a major attack was in the offing, especially when their binoculars saw thousands of lorries bringing up materiel to the British front lines and when they observed large changes of personnel in certain sectors. The German Commander-in-Chief Falkenhayn had the worry of having to send off a considerable part of his forces to the Eastern Front to counter a major Russian offensive. Germans in the trenches were regularly harassed by Allied air power which was numerically much superior to German air power. Even so, Germans had learnt in 1915 to dig much deeper defensive positions than either the French or the British, as often as possible capable of withstanding prolonged artillery bombardment.
So we come (Chapter 4) to the British bombardment of 26-30 June. This was intended to shatter German morale, kill most German front-line troops and cut the heavy barbed wire entanglements that stood before the German trenches, making it easier for British infantry to pass through. The bombardment was meant to last three days only, but went on for five full days as weather was bad and on some days, poor visibility meant difficulties with ranging. Even so, hundreds of thousands of shells rained down on German positions. Macdonald notes that there were pockets of scepticism about the effectiveness of this. Some shrewd Tommies realized that the whole bombardment would put the Germans in a state of high preparedness for the coming attack. British patrols observed that in most places, German wire was not cut at all, and British infantry trying to pass through would be easy targets for German machine-guns and riflemen. Also, piles of rubble in the nine villages that were completely destroyed in the British bombardment still made excellent defensive positions for German infantry. Says Macdonald: “German soldiers were, overall, well prepared to meet the British attack when it eventually came, and many were motivated by a desire to exact bloody payback for their ordeal by shellfire.” (p.122) Furthermore: “Senior British intelligence officers… ignored the abundance of available warning signs that the shellfire-torn German positions remained not only defensible, but also defended.” (p.129). Germans had had to remain in their deep dug-outs when the shells were falling, but only a very small proportion were in fact killed or wounded by the preliminary bombardment.
And so, from Chapters 5 to 10, there follows the detailed, scrupulously-documented, agonising tale of the day’s disaster in each sector.
It begins (Chapter 5) with VIII Corps’ failure at Serre and Beaumont Hamel. A huge British mine detonation was set off ten minutes before it should have been, giving Germans a clear warning that the attack was immanent. “German infantrymen raced up from dugouts and into the shellfire-torn trenches, propping rifles and machine-guns on broken parapets and shell-crater rims; they were ready and waiting 5-10 minutes before the British attack even began.” (p.147)

Macdonald is merciless in documenting the incompetence, or unfounded optimism, of many British field commanders. Chapter 6, chronicling X Corps’ bloody failure at Thiepval, is very personal in condemning Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Morland. A large British force – many of them Ulstermen – did manage to push through German forward trenches after the bombardment ceased, and pressed hundreds of yards into German-held territory, making what amounted to a mini-salient. But Morland kept insisting on more full-frontal attacks on German forward trenches, rather than taking the many opportunities he was given to out-flank German strongholds. Result? By the end of the first day X Corps, for all its valour, was rolled up by vigorous and well-organised German counter-attacks, no ground was gained, and the pile of British corpses was as big as it was anywhere else on the battlefield. Says Macdonald “Tenth Corps’ failure was the result of Morland’s bungled corps command. This included his artillery’s failure to neutralise German defensive obstacles and mechanisms, his deployment of the 49th too far back, and his myopic planning. All these factors were decided before a single X Corps soldier stepped into no-man’s-land on 1 July. Morland had handed the pre-battle tactical advantage to [his German opposite number] Soden.” (p.206)
A similar scenario played out (Chapter 7) where III Corps had their lives squandered in an attempt to charge into Ovillers and La Boisselle under the incompetent field commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Pulteney. Macdonald depicts him as promoted beyond his level of competence and totally unprepared for the conditions of battle that the men under his command would have to face. Some tactical British successes are recorded in Chapter 8, but they are not properly exploited for the intended capture of much more German-held territory. In this case, Macdonald is fairly merciless about both the competence and the moral character of the field commander:
The job of busting this defensive network fell to 55-year-old details man Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Horne. Before the war, Horne had served in India and South Africa, where he burned Afrikaner farms in a failed attempt to quell resistance. His previously non-descript career bloomed in 1914-16. Being a Haig protégé helped, as did the fact that both men were deeply religious. Horne sometimes went to church twice on a Sunday. But his rise to corps command in 1916 had more to do with Haig’s and Fourth Army commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s appreciation of his scientific, open-minded approach to warfare and a ‘meticulous and indefatigable personal attention to details of organisation and execution.’  Colleagues thought Horne courteous, charming, modest, honest and unpretentious, but Afrikaner families probably still saw him as a war criminal. While artilleryman Horne was said to be sociable and even humorous among friends, outsiders thought him sparing of words. He possessed a ‘wise, kindly look, with a suspicion of a smile coming through his seriousness.’ He liked horse-riding, hunting and fishing, found coarse language distasteful and later hypocritically raged against German scorched-earth tactics.” (p.250)
The climax of stupidity is the account (Chapter 10) of VII Corps’ assault on Gommecourt, this time under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow who “habitually talked a better game than he delivered” (p.325). The assault was intended as a diversionary attack, which Snow mistook for a mere “feint” – and after all his men had been duly slaughtered in a pointless assault on a strong position, Snow comforted himself with the thought that at least they had tied down some of the enemy troops for a while. Macdonald’s comment on this particular sector could describe most of the others:
The 46th’s failure was the result of mostly intact German wire, numerous defenders who sat out the preparatory bombardment in shell-proof dugouts, and large numbers of operational enemy artillery batteries that intervened when the attack began and ultimately decided the outcome of the battle.” (p.353)
In his summing up (Chapter 11), Macdonald is at pains to explain that the outcome of the first day of the Somme was not just the result of poor British planning, incompetent British field commanders and the over-confidence of British high command. It should also be credited to the greater skill of German troops in trench warfare and the greater professionalism, and ability to adapt to changing conditions, of German field commanders. Macdonald concurs with the judgment (pp.380-381) of the French supremo General Joffre that British artillery and infantry were at this point simply less skilled than either German or French artillery and infantry. On the first day of the Somme, the French contribution was the only part of the allied offensive that succeeded and met all its objectives.
            Instead of the knockout blow and the breakthrough to open country that Haig had expected, the first day of the 4-month battle of the Somme led merely to a long campaign of attrition. The Western Front war became, as it remained until 1918, slow-motion, grinding-down slaughter. There were no marvellous breakthroughs.
There are some miscellaneous things that I should note about Macdonald’s book. More than once, in post-conflict analysis, he uses the term “butcher’s bill” for the statistics of dead and wounded. This might sound cynical and callous, but regrettably it is justified by his unflattering accounts of field commanders and their attitudes. Just occasionally I wish there was a glossary of specialist military terms (okay, I know it’s some sort of entrenchment, but what exactly is a “Russian Sap”?). I admire Macdonald’s habit, in each chapter on operations, of first giving us the view of the top brass, then cutting to the experiences of the ordinary soldiers in the front line – and then switching to the German perspective, which is the key novelty of this book. And as a sideline, it is interesting to find vignettes of people who much later became well-known – Cecil Lewis (later the author of the flying classic Sagittarius Rising) flies overhead with the RFC. The soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, to one side of this battle, gets a long shot of the action. Later famous as a theorist on military strategy, Captain Basil Liddell Hart [his middle name for some reason misspelt “Liddle” in this book] gives his soldier’s-eye view of action at close quarters (pp.257-258 and p.275). Sergeant Richard Tawney (later the illustrious economic historian R.H.Tawney) is knocked over by rifle fire and spends 30 hours lying wounded in no-man’s-land before he is rescued (p.264).
Of course the story this book tells is large-scale tragedy. Of course words like “futility” come to mind. Of course the horrors pile up, as does the sense of the pointlessness of it all. There are tears, curses, remorse, the honeyed self-justifications of officers, and slaughter, slaughter, slaughter reported in all its grisly detail. For some readers, Macdonald’s approach may seem a little clinical as he works methodically through the different sectors of this one day. But this is how military history should be written – giving us both the big picture and the individual experience. First Day of the Somme is a wrenching experience but also a documented one. True history in other words, and a great book.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

The only reason that I do not spend as much time on Glyn Harper’s excellent Dark Journey is because it is the paperback reprint of a book first published in 2007. Dark Journey includes the text of two of Harper’s earlier military histories, Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story and Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme. These make up the first two parts of Dark Journey, to which has been added the third part “Bloody Bapaume”. The original edition bore on its cover the subtitle “Three key New Zealand battles of the Western Front”. The new paperback reprint alters this to “Passchendaele, the Somme and the New Zealand experience of the Western Front”.
Like his fellow military historian Chris Pugsley, Harper is performing the valuable service of reminding New Zealanders that the greatest number of casualties this nation sustained in the First World

War were not in the Gallipoli campaign, about which we talk so much, but on the Western Front. The October 1917 attack at Passchendaele was the most lethal phase for New Zealanders (yes, I have a great-uncle buried somewhere there – but then thousands of New Zealanders of my generation could say the same thing.) But countering the German Spring Offensive of March and April 1918 was no picnic either; nor was the New Zealanders’ action in Bapaume in the last stages of the war (August-September 1918). At least one can say, however, that these two latter actions contributed to final victory. As Harper notes, they were hard fought, but casualties were fairly even on both sides and the German army was dislodged and pushed back. There is tragedy, but there is not that awful sense of futility one gets from reading about Passchendaele (or the first day of the Somme).
Dark Journey is well-illustrated, lucid in its prose, and very clear about unearthing memories of individual soldiers and their battlefield experiences. It is good and accessible military history.

Foolish Footnote: I cannot hear the name Bapaume without at once remembering Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter poem “Blighters” about idiotic civilians who turned the war into a cheap joke even as it was being fought. The poem was written in 1917, a year before New Zealanders were involved in action near Bapaume, and of course has no place in Glyn Harper’s history of the New Zealanders’ action. But here it is anyway:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin 
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks 
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din; 
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls, 
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,” 
And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls 
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

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