'The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War; brave helpless soldiers; blundering obstinate generals; nothing achieved'.
So wrote the historian A J P Taylor in his 1963 book The First World War: An Illustrated History. Despite – or more probably because of – its mixture of irreverence and boldly voiced opinion, this book can still lay claim to being the most read English language history of the war. Its success has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that this sentence rings as true for many today as it did half a century ago.
But this was far from the view of the battle during the First World War. The Battle of the Somme saw the first major action of Britain's New Army – the volunteers who had responded to Lord Kitchener's 1914 call for recruits. It was also the first Western Front offensive in which the British Army would take the leading role, rather than acting in support of its French ally.
The government and War Office ensured that the battle was covered not only by carefully selected journalists, but by literary figures such as John Masefield and John Buchan. Official photographers were despatched to the front for the first time and the British public were soon able to see and purchase drawings of the battle by Britain's first official war artist, Muirhead Bone. Above all though, they flocked to see the film The Battle of the Somme and its follow-up The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. An estimated 20 million Britons watched the former following its release in August 1916, with the battle only recently commenced.
In all these representations the battle was depicted as an arduous but worthwhile endeavour, undertaken by cheerful but determined men. Perhaps surprisingly, given the terrible casualties sustained in the battle, this vision was shared by many soldiers. Despite the ghastliness of the battle, they believed that, for the first time, they had gained the upper hand on the Western Front. An American visitor to the front reported that 'the general feeling seems to be one of disappointment that more was not accomplished, but also of satisfaction that marked superiority had been shown to the Germans in much of the fighting'.
Only after the war did less enthusiastic views of the battle begin to circulate. The most influential came from the pens of two wartime politicians: Winston Churchill in The World Crisis Vol III (1927) and David Lloyd George in War Memoirs Vol II (1933). Both had personal reasons for denouncing the conduct of the battle, as both had been advocates of a strategy focused away from the costly Western Front.
Another interwar advocate of an 'indirect' strategy of this sort was the military writer, Basil Liddell Hart – himself invalided out of the Army after being gassed on the Somme. He acted as military advisor to Lloyd George for his memoirs and promoted his own views in books and as a military correspondent for newspapers. For Liddell Hart the Somme represented all that was wrong with Britain's conduct of the First World War.
The publication of these views coincided with a broader expression of 'disenchantment' with the war, in novels, poems and memoirs. All of this chimed with the mood of the times, with the British people determined to avoid another 'Great War'. When war did come, fears of another costly Western Front, of another Somme, pervaded British military thinking.
From the late 1950s there was a resurgence of interest in the First World War, with several new books of popular history taking up the 'disenchantment' theme once more. It was this renewed interest which spawned A J P Taylor’s book and, finally, the BBC documentary series The Great War. This series achieved huge viewing figures. Interestingly, its take on the Somme was far from condemnatory – a fact that prompted the very public resignation of Sir Basil Liddell Hart as historical advisor to the series.
'One sacred day'
From 1967 the official papers for the period of the battle became available to historians, but this did little to reconcile the opposing views of its conduct. An unfortunate side effect was that the battle became viewed narrowly as a British affair. Only recently have historians begun to take a broader approach, examining the important part played by the French Army and the experience of the Germans who fought there. But this work has had little influence on public perceptions of the battle.
A further development in recent years has seen the Battle of the Somme come to dominate British understanding of the First World War as a whole. Battles and campaigns such as Passchendaele or Gallipoli, the names of which were once equally resonant, have faded into relative obscurity. What is more, our focus has narrowed still further by being concentrated largely on the disasters of 1 July 1916. Historian David Reynolds has recently suggested that the whole 'meaning of Britain's Great War' had been 'whittled down' to this 'one sacred day'.
The Battle of the Somme continues to inspire authors and historians, but the availability of books that offer complete and nuanced studies of this titanic five-month battle has had only a limited impact on popular perceptions of it. In most people's imagination the Somme is the overriding emblem of the Western Front and indeed of the war in its entirety. However, it can hardly be considered surprising that the most costly battle in Britain's most costly war should feature so strongly in our shared memory.
- Bond, B. The Unquiet Western Front. 2002
- Philpott, W. Bloody Victory. 2009 (Chapter 17)
- Reynolds, D. The Long Shadow. 2014
- Simkins, P. From the Somme to Victory. 2014 (Chapter 2)
- Todman, D. The Great War: Myth and Memory. 2005