I’m sure that the Somme vigils last night were very moving experiences, and it is absolutely right and proper to remember and honour the dead. I was very disappointed, though, with what I saw of the television coverage last night.
What follows may not be a complete account of the programme, since I am allergic to Huw Edwards when he is being pious, and switched off after a while.
The programme (or what I saw of it) only mentioned disaster and calamity. Edwards’s guests were Shirley Williams, channeling her pacifist mother, and Richard van Emden, who highlighted the worst part of the battle – men sent forward where the wire was uncut – as though that was the complete story. The picture was entirely of men being mown down, of horror and futility.
There is much to criticise in the planning and execution of the battle, There was a conflict between Rawlinson’s gradualist approach and Haig’s larger ambitions. There was over-confidence in the destructive power of the artillery. There was probably over-confidence in the capabilities of barely-trained troops.There were tactical failures. In other words, there were mistakes, as in all wars. The art of war is to make less disastrous mistakes than your opponent.
Such failings do not justify, however, seeing the Somme only in terms of victims, futility and pity. Later stages of the battle were more successful than the disastrous first day, and in terms of attrition, the allies won a difficult and very painful victory.
More important, though, the difficult truth is that it was a necessary battle. If Britain had not managed a large-scale summer offensive, the Germans would have been able to concentrate all their efforts on Verdun. The war would have been lost.
Presenting the battle as a matter of pointless sacrifice simplifies far too much. It avoids the issue that the only way of combating the Germans was by mounting attacks. Cavalry was the traditional attacking force, but cavalry charges were impossible in that terrain. The combined use of artillery and infantry was the only real weapon that Haig had, and the Army had to learn how to adapt to the new warfare as it went along. Before the Somme Haig prepared the ground for infantry by expending more shells than in any previous battle in history. They were not enough. Later the British would develop better ways of using artillery, and integrating aeroplanes and tanks into their plans.
The first day of the Somme was dreadful, and should be remembered, but it was not the only day of the Somme, and the Somme was not the only battle of the War. Pity makes good television, but can become an obstacle to understanding the actual history.
If there was better history in the parts of the programme that I missed, do let me know, and I shall apologise.