There are two main themes here. The first is that the battle was necessary, and that it was fought with a reasonable amount of skill given the circumstances of 1916 and the limited experience of Kitchener’s New Armies. The second is that the modern image of the disillusioned British soldier isn’t true, and that instead most soldiers in 1916 believed that their cause was just and the battle justified.
To a certain extent Liddle’s views have entered the main stream since the first edition of this book was published in 1992, helping to replace the over simplistic view of the battle that had dominated, so the book no longer seems to be so revolutionary. The old image was dominated by the disasters on the first day, and by the memoirs of Lloyd George and Churchill, who painted Haig as unimaginative and uncaring, addicted to costly and pointless frontal assaults. The battle was seen has having failed to achieve its objectives, as there was no breakthrough and only a limited amount of ground was taken. Over time this has been moderated - the disasters of the first day are hard to argue with - but an acknowledge of the German point of view has forces us to alter our overall view of the battle - many on the German side felt that the Somme completed the destruction of their excellent pre-war army, and forced them to restrict any future offensive plans at Verdun, thus achieving one of its aims.
His work on the soldiers’ view of the battle is of great interest, based as it is on diaries and letters produced at the time. It is clear that most of the soldiers of 1916 felt that the ‘Big Push’, and the war it was part of, was entirely justified, and were proud of their role in it. His aim is to separate the wartime views from the post-war disenchantment that came after many felt that the promise of a land fit for heroes had been broken.
Liddle does a good job of both tasks. The second is perhaps the easiest, as the soldiers produced plenty of evidence to support his case. The first has become less radical since he first wrote, but his work is still valuable, and provides a good counterbalance to the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ view of the battle.
1 - The Battle of the Somme: Concept, Planning and Preparation
2 - The First of July
3 - After the First Day: July to Early September
4 - The Fifteenth of September: A New Major Effort and a New Weapon
5 - Through October into November and a 'Slough of Despond'
6 - A Verdict
Author: Peter Liddle
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military