Andrew Macdonald, author of First Day of the Somme, is a former New Zealand and international journalist turned military historian with a PhD in the subject from the University of London. Two previous books of his that I have read, On My Way to the Somme and Passchendaele: the Anatomy of a Tragedy were based on the experiences of New Zealand soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War.
There were no New Zealand formations involved on I July 1916, the epic first day of the battle of the Somme – they were not involved until September. Thus, Macdonald has stepped beyond the safety of his kiwi connections and taken on the history of one of the most talked about and written about days in the military history of the British Isles. In the 24 hours of the first day, 19,240 British soldiers were dead, 35,493 were wounded and 2,737 were missing or prisoners of war. German losses were 12,000 including approximately 3,000 dead.
Macdonald’s account is excellent. The endorsements of the back cover from the likes of the President of the British Commission for Military History , Major General (Retired) Mungo Melvin CB, OBE, are testament to that: “Meticulously researched, acutely analysed and eminently readable, this fascinating new study deserves to become a standard work.”
An important aspect of this book is that the battle is not told just from the British point of view. Macdonald has had access to and has researched, deeply, the war diaries of members of the German formations, German histories of the battle as well as published letters of those German officers soldiers at the front.
While Macdonald, as I am sure every other writer on the subject, lays the blame for the tragedy on the British General Haig, he also suggests that the lessons of the Somme were recognised, leading to the British army largely re-organising and retraining. New tactics were developed, all of which led to the eventual victory of the British and French armies in 1918. But what a terrible cost for a few lessons from German field commanders who were far more astute and tactically flexible than their British counterparts. Macdonald analyses the planning behind the battle, and the arguments about strategy between Haig and his senior officers, particular General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Then the author gets down into the trenches, writing about how the troops were organised, trained and equipped. He quotes personal experiences of officers and troops, British and German, to bring out the emotions and realities of the conditions that they faced.
From the accounts of his research, it is clear that Macdonald has walked nearly every yard of the battlefield, identifying almost minute by minute in some cases, how formations moved out from the trenches and advanced across no-man’s-land. He also describes in great detail the German response with machine guns, rifles and artillery, not to mention barbed wire and grenades.
There were some British successes during this campaign – the village of Mametz was taken – but the attempts to take a key objective Fricourt was a disaster, as was nearly everything else.
Macdonald notes that after the disaster of the first day, the Battle of the Somme “spluttered on until November”. There is an interesting angle to this: if one thinks of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil war, that ended within a couple of days when the Confederate Army failed to dislodge the Federal troops. General Robert E. Lee then withdrew his Confederate forces away from the battle field, and the Federal forces did not follow. It was not so much a huge victory for the Federal troops but it was not a loss, and Lee lived to fight another day. General Haig did not have the luxury to leave the battlefield, although he had suffered severely. Macdonald explains political agreements with the French on overall strategy meant that he had to stay there. “…the coalition of Allies was under a ‘mutual obligation to go on’.” And thus he concludes that “…the first day of the Somme should nonetheless be seen as a strategic positive for the Allied cause, although definitely not a victory.”
So the first day of the Somme was an unmitigated disaster for a whole generation of men from both sides, but a strategic positive for General Haig and the politicians. Eventually the German’s withdrew to a shorter, stronger defensive line and other disasters, primarily Passchendaele, were still in the future.
No doubt the analysis will go on, as will the arguments: now however, Macdonald has provided a world class piece of military history that provides a huge depth of information that will no doubt be used by debaters on both sides of any argument.
Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
First Day of the Somme: The complete account of Britain’s worst-ever military disaster
by Andrew Macdonald
Published by HarperCollins NZ