Fighting the Somme: German challenges, dilemmas and solutions
by Jack Sheldon
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2017
ISBN 978 1 47388 199 0
Hardback. 205 pages (including chapter end notes) plus appendix, bibliography and index. Illustrated.
Reviewed by Chris Baker.
The name of Jack Sheldon is likely to be known by anyone with a serious interest in studying the Great War. He has earned a strong reputation through a series of books examining the work of the German Armies, drawing upon original documents from archives in Germany. They are all good, refreshing and bringing a different perspective to the English-language reader. This one, “Fighting the Somme”, I consider to be his best by some margin. It has certainly made me think again about many aspects of the Battle of the Somme. But it goes much more deeply than assessing that fighting, for it takes us into the deep-rooted military pysche and methods of the Germans. I would go so far as to say that it should be required reading for the many students at MA degree level studying military operations, and for anyone who works as a battlefield guide.
Sheldon opens with a concise chapter on the development of German military thought and staff work since the Prussian reforms of the early 19th century. It is masterly. Not least, it brings to the fore the concept of schwerpunkt; a point of focus of such importance that military resources should be committed to it, regardless of risk that this might mean for other areas. As the book progresses, he goes on to demonstrate that the Entente forces of France and Britain has assembled considerable material superiority on the Somme and that commander-in-chief Falkenhayn’s focus stayed too long on Verdun. Add to that, a scene of many tensions and personal disagreements amongst Germany’s highest commanders. Under such enormous attack, lesser armies may have broken very quickly. It was the deeply ingrained logic of defending the schwerpunkt – correctly identified as the Thiepval ridge, and particularly the defences of the Schwaben Redoubt – that caused reserves to be deployed to overcome the initial shock of its loss to the 36th (Ulster) Division. To the German staff, this was an entirely correct move even if it did mean giving up ground at Montauban and Mametz, or being less able to defend against the French attack. The way the battle developed begins to fall into place in ways that I believe no British-viewpoint history has ever adequately explained.
The rest of the book assesses particular phases of the battle: Australian readers will find the section on Pozieres to be of acute interest; the discussion of the fighting between Delville and High Woods is fascinating. A theme that emerges is the defensive and counter-attacking capability and tenacity of the German units; showing tremendous courage and fortitude even when the situation was stretched, grisly and confused beyond words. Another is the relentless battering that the British Army delivered and that it continued to develop its methods in doing so. We see the beginning of the German learning that eventually leads to concepts of elastic defence. Flaws in the British handling of the battle, particularly with fleeting opportunities being missed, become very evident. Haig and his staff do not seem to have fully grasped the conceptual basis on which German staffs made their decisions and on that basis predicted what they might do next. Had they done so, they may not have expended so many lives and such resources on, for example, the piecemeal fighting eastwards in Bernafay and Trones woods in early July 1916.
There is a welter of detail here, and I found myself having to re-read some parts when a number of unfamiliar German units were involved in an action – not least as they sometimes changed their names half-way through. That’s not cricket, but not the author’s fault!
Jack Sheldon’s final chapter is titled “Pyrrhic victory or bloody stalemate?” but in truth we are right at the end before we find his take on who won in this “time of trial without precedent”.