from Duff Cooper, Haig (1935/6)


The Battle of the Somme


There are still those who argue that the Battle of the Somme should never have been fought and that the gains were not commensurate with the sacrifice.   There exists no yardstick for the measurement of such events, there are no returns to prove whether life has been sold at its market value.   There are some who from their manner of reasoning would appear to believe that no battle is worth fighting unless it produces an immediately decisive result, which is as foolish as it would be to argue that in a prize fight no blow is worth delivering save the one that knocks the opponent out.   In point of fact the final blow may be one of the feeblest, and even the finest judge of the noble art watching the ring most closely would hesitate to lay down definitely which of the blows delivered in the contest contributed most to the result.

As to whether it were wise or foolish to give battle on the Somme on the 1st of July, 1916 , there can surely be only one opinion.   To have refused to fight then and there would have meant the abandonment of Verdun to its fate and the breakdown of co-operation with the French.   When Falkenhayn struck at Verdun he believed that he was striking at the heart of France , and that if he could win Verdun the beating of that heart would cease.   Who shall say that he was wrong?   There lived no shrewder judge of his fellow countrymen than Clemenceau and we have seen how he believed that even a small disaster might produce a peace party, who would bring the war to an inglorious conclusion.   If the proud boast Ils ne passeront pas had once been falsified, where would those who had made it have found the spirit which would have enabled them to continue the fight?   And if Verdun had fallen, if the sacrifice of 200,000 lives had been made in vain, what would France have thought of her Ally, who had stood by unmoved, never raising a finger, deaf to those passionate appeals for help?   All military writers are agreed that the Battle of the Somme saved Verdun and if no further justification were forthcoming that alone would suffice.

But the Somme did more than this.   The British Army that advanced so confidently on the 1st of July was a citizen army, only half trained to war.   The survivors in mid November were veterans who could have discussed the military profession as equals with their ancestors who had passed through all the South African, the Crimean or the Peninsular campaigns.   As the final test of a new weapon must be the battlefield, so also is the battlefield the only furnace wherein are forged the armies of victory.   It was the survivors of the Somme who two years later formed the backbone of the force that smashed the Hindenburg line and drove the invaders off the soil of France .

The German Army, on the other hand, came into battle not with the courage of ignorance but with the confidence of knowledge.   The world has never seen a more highly trained and perfectly disciplined machine.   From birth every German had been taught to think himself a soldier, he had been fed from childhood on the glorious traditions of Sadowa and Sedan , he had been trained from youth in the exercise of arms, and the military supremacy of Germany had been with him the first article of faith.

On the Somme they were not taken by surprise; they had had full time to prepare the fortifications behind which they awaited the coming onslaught, and the elaboration, ingenuity and intricacy of those earthworks marked a new epoch in trench warfare.   Even Germany could produce no finer soldiers than the men who manned them.   Yet after a bombardment such as they had never imagined they found themselves driven at the point of the bayonet out of positions they had believed impregnable.   Fighting fiercely, disputing every inch of the ground, inflicting fearful punishment upon the foe, they were none the less compelled to relinquish the trenches they had sworn they would hold to the last.   Falkenhayn had given orders that "not a foot's breadth of ground must be abandoned".   Von Below had laid down that "only over our dead bodies may the enemy advance".   And for the German soldier the result of the Somme was not the loss of a few lines of trenches nor the bitterness of temporary defeat; it was the end of a great tradition, it was the bankruptcy of a religious faith: Two instances were brought to Haig's notice of German officers who, being prisoners, had attempted to commit suicide - a fact of profound significance.

German writers have frankly admitted the psychological effect produced.   The historian of the 27 ( Wurttemberg ) Division writes, "In the Somme fighting there was a spirit of heroism which was never again found in the Division, however conspicuous its fighting power remained until the end of the war."

Captain von Hentig of the General Staff tells us that "the Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army and of the faith in the infallibility of German leadership....   The most precious thing lost on the Somme was the good relationship between the leaders and the led."

Another German writer asserts that "the tragedy of the

Somme bottle was that the best soldiers, the stoutest-hearted men were lost; their numbers were replaceable, their spiritual worth never could be."

But the most conclusive of all evidence is the testimony of General Ludendorff As the result of the Somme fighting he admits that "we were completely exhausted on the Western Front… If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable...   I cannot see as I look back how the German G.H.Q. could have mastered the situation if the Allies had continued their blows as they did in 1916.” ('My War Memories, by General Ludendorff, vol.1, pp. 292-307).

When certain British politicians, alarmed by the number of the casualties, rallied to the cry of "No more Sommes", they little knew that their latest slogan was also the muttered and heartfelt prayer of the whole of the German Army, from the men in the trenches to the Commander-in-Chief.

These then were the results of the first great battle fought under the supreme command of Haig.   Verdun was saved, the maintenance of Anglo-French co-operation was assured, the British were taught to fight and the heart of the German Army was broken.