Review of First Day of the Somme: The complete account of Britain’s worst-ever military disaster – Andrew MacDonald

Posted: October 15, 2018 in history, Review, war
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A groundbreaking history of the first, horrific day of one of the most notorious, bloody offensives of all time, from its inept planning to its disastrous execution.

It took several million bullets and roughly half an hour to destroy General Sir Douglas Haig’s grand plans for the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916. By day’s end 19,240 British soldiers were dead, crumpled khaki bundles scattered across pasture studded with the scarlet of poppies and smouldering shell holes. A further 38,230 were wounded. This single sunny day remains Britain’s worst-ever military disaster, both numerically and statistically more deadly than the infamous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in 1854. Responsible were hundreds of German machineguns and artillery batteries waiting silently to deal death to the long-anticipated attack. Someone had blundered.

Working back from the “butcher’s bill” of mass casualties on the battlefield, to the inept planning in London’s Whitehall, the author penetrates the “fog of war” to explain how and why this was a human disaster waiting to happen. Told fully from both the British and German perspectives for the first time, this book sheets home blame for the butchery (a total of almost 60 thousand casualties) directly to widespread British intelligence and command failure. It further finds the outcome was very definitely a German victory over a so-called British defeat, and, again for the first time, identifies how talented German commanders mostly outclassed their opposite numbers and inflicted the galling bloodletting. Taking that terrible first day of battle as his focus, Andrew Macdonald casts new and damning light on the true causes of the disaster.

First Day of the Somme: The complete account of Britain’s worst-ever military disaster

Andrew MacDonald

HarperCollins

Supplied by HarperCollins New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

The Battle of the Somme during WWI got off to a poor start for the British army, resulting in their worst one day military losses ever. Naturally, this has attracted many authors and historians, New Zealand historian being the latest. His book benefits from examination of not only British but also German archival documents.

The Somme Offensive needs to be placed in context of the overall military and diplomatic situation of the war. MacDonald does this, as well as examining the geography and weather leading up to and on the day. Both were important. Equally important was the intelligence the Germans had gathered observing British preparations and interpreting the behaviour of the forces opposite them. If General Haig had wanted a surprise attack, events beyond his control prevented it.

MacDonald examines the first day of the battle from both British and German perspectives, with diary entries adding colour. The Germans, for their part, after suffering several days of bombardment, were itching for revenge. Surviving the bombardment depended on the quality of the German commander.

As a general rule, the day’s events are mapped out from north to south, although one British Corps is seemingly discussed out of order. The book would have been stronger to have this corps lead. Completion of objectives set by Haig improved the further south one went. This was due to a number of factors, not least German strategic appreciations. MacDonald also comments on and compares French performance during the battle with that of the British.

Military disasters are not usually due to one cause, and MacDonald goes to great lengths to prove this. He also examines the broader length of the Battle of the Somme, demonstrating that what started as tragedy ended as an Entente victory. For those interested in WWI, this is a worthwhile book and I thoroughly recommend it.

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