The Somme – From Defeat to Victory

Will it make a difference? The public perception of the Battle of the Somme is of a terrible failure, the flower of Britain walking stolidly across No-Mans-Land like lambs to the slaughter. The presence of Gary Sheffield’s name among the advisors to last night’s BBC1 programme meant that it avoided the most obvious misreadings of history, but it still had to simplify like mad to get five months of battle into an hour.

The story the programme told was essentially in two halves – terrible setbacks and slaughter on the first day, solid achievement and improved tactics in the later months, and the Allies winning the attritional body-count at the end of the day.

The account of the first day focused on Thiepval and gave just a sentence or two to the units who actually achieved their objectives in the south. It blamed poor artillery work for failures in the north, but this is hindsight. The more interesting story is that this was the biggest artillery barrage ever, and nobody had any way of knowing that it wouldn’t be enough. The successful units in the south were ones that did have massive artillery superiority (I owe this knowledge to the Somme Day School at Birmingham last week).
The account of later tactical improvements was again a bit simple. The creeping barrage had actually been used by some divisions on the first day. The tank was given a bit too much credit – but you can understand the film-makers; if they’d got a tank, they’d jolly well want to use it as much as possible.

As it was, this film oddly reminded me of Ian Hay’s Carrying On (his sequel to The First Hundred Thousand). In that morale-booster, he wanted to give an upbeat account of the Somme. So he gives a full account of preparations, with emphasis on what sterling chaps the soldiers are. He admits that there were some problems with enemy machine guns on the first day, and then diverts attention from the fact that the battle had become a long attritional misery by making a big fuss about that new super-weapon, the tank. Like Hay, these programme-makers wanted to give a positive picture of the army as a learning and cdeveloping organisation – but the tank wasn’t actually the best example of this. Integration of infantry, artillery and air resources was skipped over in a sentence. Less easy to show on telly.

The programme was a bit of an awkward mixture of genuine footage, reconstructions made at the time, and modern reconstructions. Couldn’t producers put a little label in the corner of the screen to show the status of the film they’re using? And the caricature of the German officers could lead to a replacement of the British-Generals-are-Donkeys stereotype with an equally unfair German-Generals-are-idiots stereotype.

Will this film change public perceptions of the battle? I doubt it, if only because the slaughter of the first day has more emotive power than the small successes of later. And the whole programme maintained an elegiac tone – the reconstructed sequences were filmed in a washed-out colour that looked mournful, and the final focus was on the massive Thiepval memorial by Lutyens. And from the telly, it’s the pictures that people remember.

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