Review of Strohn’s “The Battle of the Somme”

The Battle of the Somme
edited by Matthias Strohn
with a foreword by Professor Sir Hew Strachan
published by Osprey, 2016
ISBN 978 1 4728 1556 9
Hardback, 232 pages plus end notes, bibliography and index.Cover price £25.

This collection of essays provides us with an international review of one of the key battles of the Great War, with essays from academics in Austria (Hoebelt), Germany (Gross, Stachelbeck), France (Soutou), United Kingdom (Corum, Mitchell, Mitchinson, Krause, Strohn and Melvin), New Zealand (Pugsley) and the United States  (Neiberg). As such, it brings a refreshingly broad assessment of the battle, placing it into proper global context and analysing strategies, tactics and operational realities from all sides across the months of fighting. It is a long way from the welter of British-centric studies that continue to concentrate on the minutiae of the infantry on the first day, 1 July 1916.”The Battle of the Somme” includes essays, for example, on French generalship, the war in the air, and the Somme experience of the German 26 Reserve-Division. In general, the essays are at a high level, concentrating on politics, high command decisions and trends: it does not deal with the experience of the men on the ground except in the broadest of terms and as such I did not find it terribly empathetic to their undoubted plight. It is inevitable that with so many different contributors that their writing styles should vary, and I found the quality of writing rather uneven.

The contributions include three that assess the British Army’s part, and they all follow the orthodoxy that has emerged in recent years from the Universities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and King’s College: that the Somme proved to be the vital learning and development ground for the army; that the terrible losses of attrition were an inevitable outcome of mechanical warfare and the approaches adopted by the belligerents; and that the Somme played an important part in the ultimate defeat of Germany. While that may all be so, this book places all of that into context and reveals the British to have been far behind the French Army in terms of battlefield learning and tactics. It was also of interest to read of the German Army’s “learning curve” on the Somme, too. Across the range of essays, few criticisms are made of the strategic choice to fight on the Somme at all; of the operational dispositions; and of the tactics employed, of either side.

I like the international approach of this book. It is high time that the Somme was better understood in its complete framework. “The Battle of the Somme” is, as such, not a bad read.