The First Day on the Somme (Revised Edition), Martin Middlebrook

The First Day on the Somme (Revised Edition), Martin Middlebrook

The First Day of the Somme has become infamous as the most costly single day in British military history, and it provides the most popular mental image of the fighting on the Western Front. This is a classic account of that disastrous day, covering the formation of the army of 1916, the situation on the front, the reasons for the attack, the British plan, the events of the day itself, and the aftermath (into the post-war period).

This book has become a template for the majority of studies of major battles, combining a detailed narrative of events based on official records with extensive extracts from eyewitness accounts of the fighting provided by all ranks, but in particular by the private soldiers, NCOs and lower ranked officers. Although this is now a standard technique, it was rare at the time - earlier histories often used quotes from senior officers, but rarely from the lower ranks).

I read this book alongside a similar work on a late attack at Passchendaele in 1917 (Moonlight Massacre, Michael Locicero), looking at a much smaller scale, but no more successful attack. Although the attack being examined was a failure, it is still amazing how much more sophisticated the British tactics were in 1917 than on the first day of the Somme. It is also a tribute to this book that Locicero's book essentially follows the same format at Middlebrooks).

Middlebrook was writing before the current revival in the reputation of the British generals of the First World War, but even so he was surprisingly understanding of the problems they faced. Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army, which carried out the main British attack, gets the most blame, but even then Middlebrook gives convincing reasons for Rawlinson's decisions (mainly to do with the limited experience of most of his troops), and reminds us that Rawlinson learnt from his experiences, and was in command for the victory at Amiens in 1918. Haig gets a good press, and is only blamed for failing to overrule some of Rawlinson's less successful chooses. At lower levels he paints an impressive picture of most battalion commanders (many of whom were killed or wounded) and the lower ranks.

Middlebrook was writing at a time when many veterans of the Somme were still alive and available for interviews (he spoke to over 500 of them), but when the number of visitors to the Somme battlefield had dwindled away to very low levels. He was thus in a good position to state that most of the soldiers eventually lost faith in most of their generals, although this often happened after the end of the war (and Haig was still held in high regard at his death).

The overall picture of the events of the first day hasn't changed much since 1971 - more recent books still focus on the problems of communication between the fighting troops and the British lines, the German dominance of much of no man's land, the inability to use the British artillery effectively once the timetable for the day had gone wrong, and the uncertain news that reached senior officers from the front lines.

This is a very moving and thoughtful account of this notorious day in British history, but is also impressively well balanced, and stands up well despite the passing of over four decades.

1 - The Men
2 - The Western Front
3 - The Somme and the Germans
4 - The Plan
5 - The Preparations
6 - The Last Few Hours
7 - Zero Hour
8 - Review at 8.30 A.M.
9 - The Morning
10 - Review at Noon
11 - The Afternoon
12 - Review at Dusk
13 - The Night
14 - The Aftermath
15 - The Cost
16 - An Analysis
17 - The Years that Followed

1 - Order of Battle of British Infantry Units
2 - Order of Battle of German Divisions Facing the British Attack
3 - Senior Officer Casualties

Author: Martin Middlebrook
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2016 revised edition of 1971 original

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