The Battle of the Somme Cover

The Battle of the Somme

The Story of the Deadliest Battle in WWI

Alan Axelrod

Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2016, 291 pages

Book Review published on: January 4, 2019

The 1916 German offensive to seize Verdun interrupted Allied plans for a series of massive simultaneous offensive operations in all theaters to knock the Germans off balance. Initial success of the German advance coupled with significant French losses threatened the existence of the French army. Gen. Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of French forces on the western front, requested the British army to immediately launch a planned Anglo-French offensive on the Somme to relieve pressure on the French army at Verdun. Failure to launch the offensive at Somme, Joffre argued, would result in the French army’s destruction. Alan Axelrod, renowned historian and author of Miracle at Belleau Wood, The Battle of Verdun, and How America Won World War I, tells the story of the deadliest battle of World War I in The Battle of the Somme.

Axelrod opens in describing Allied visions and plans for victory arising from a series of conferences hosted by the French at Chantilly. The Allies would conduct a series of offensives in 1916 designed expressly to end the war. They were to be coordinated on the western front, Italian front, and Russian front with the intent to hit the enemy hard and repeatedly from all directions so that he could not build up reserves in any one front. Allied optimism for victory in 1916 was high. Axelrod follows in describing a British army that was neither ready nor properly led when Joffre insisted the British launched the planned Somme offensive early to relieve German pressure on the French army at Verdun.

The Battle of the Somme provides insightful lessons on operational warfare and leadership. Axelrod describes the failure of Gen. Douglas Haig in conveying his intent and vision to subordinate commanders for the British Expeditionary Force attack at the Somme. On 27 June 1916, two days prior to British forces going over the top, Lt. Gen. Hubert Gough met with Haig to complain that he was in the dark regarding his relationship as Reserve Army commander with the Fourth Army and his objectives for the attack. Gough had made it clear that the Fourth Army commander, Gen. Henry Rawlinson, had assumed control of the Fourth Army infantry divisions that Haig assigned to Gough for the attack. Haig reiterated the vague outlines for Gough to exploit any gaps of the German line with a cavalry attack to take Bapaume and then shift north toward Arras. Haig did not convene a meeting between his subordinate commanders to address the command relationship issues but dispatched his chief of staff to Rawlinson for laying out a procedure to turn over control of the Reserve Army’s infantry to Gough, assuming progress of the battle permitted.

Haig’s overestimation of the effects of fires is a challenge that plagues military commanders. British commanders falsely assumed little would be left following the firing of 1.5 million shells into German positions. Commanders conveyed this false assumption to their soldiers that their job would be merely to mop up what little was left following five days of preparatory fires. Many British infantrymen were told that victory was assured and that causalities were expected to be around 10 percent. British commanders failed in realizing the actual number of shells per square yard was far less than anticipated, quality of German positions, significant number of unexploded ordinance, German countermeasures, and unintended effects on maneuver of attacking British forces. Their misplaced confidence in fires resulted in a decision by Rawlinson to order a slow, steady, and orderly pace of advancing British infantry across no-man’s land to ensure more effective fire and to prevent small groups from being enveloped by defending German forces.

Axelrod challenges the traditional perception that infantries were idle during long friendly artillery fires on enemy positions. At the Somme, British infantry was often sent out at night during predetermined intervals in the British bombardment to raid German trenches. The intent for these forays was to further harass the Germans, assess the level of damage done by artillery fires, and pressure the Germans into manning their front lines. British forces would also periodically deploy poison gas by releasing gas from cylinders through long hoses stretched into no-man’s land. If the wind suddenly shifted or the forces were hit by German counterfire, a massive amount of gas was suddenly released within the British lines.

The Battle of the Somme provides the reader a British soldier’s perspective of struggling up a ladder with sixty plus pounds of equipment at 0730 hours; promises of a cakewalk quickly evaporating with the call of bugles from the German trenches; and interlocking German machine-gun fires, zeroed artillery fires, and rifle fire from the trenches quickly shredding attacking British infantry formations. The failure of the much advertised preparatory bombardment, sight of countless unexploded ordinance, slaughter of attacking British infantry, and intact German wire must have dismayed even the most resolute British soldier that morning. The British army would experience its worse single-day loss with 57,470 casualties on 1 July 1916. After five months, the British army penetrated six miles into German territory at the Somme at a cost of 420,000 casualties or 70,000 per mile.

Axelrod tells of three participants and their experience at Somme. Renowned military historian and theorist, Basil Henry Liddell, served as a captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the Battle of the Somme. He was wounded three times, badly gassed, and watched most of his battalion be wiped out. He would later conclude from the experience that all front assaults in modern warfare are bound to fail. Across no-man’s land, Corp. Adolf Hitler, who would be Germany’s supreme leader during World War II, received a wound in the left thigh when a shell exploded at the entrance to the dispatch runners’ dugout. American poet Alan Seeger would die on 4 July while serving in the French Foreign Legion at the Somme. His best known poem begins with “I have a rendezvous with death …”

The strength of The Battle of the Somme is Axelrod’s ability to capture the detail and brutality of the battle from the perspective of senior commanders and infantrymen alike. The Battle of the Somme is a great choice for anyone interested in history or World War I. Its leadership and operational warfare lessons make it a great choice for professional reading and inclusion on a military reading list.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas