The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme by John Keegan
 Over 1,, soldiers perished between July 1 and November 19,  Keegan's own father had experienced the battle, which no doubt added a . grave, recording name, age, rank, regiment and date and place of death.  John Keegan, The First World War, (London: Hutchinson, ), At am on July 1, , thousands of British soldiers began an attack The First Day on the Somme (Pen & Sword); John Keegan: The Face of Battle The name Serre and the date July 1st is engraved deep in our hearts. The Battle of the Somme also known as the Somme Offensive, was a battle of the First World War fought by the armies of the British Empire and French Third Republic against the German Empire. It took place between 1 July and 18 November on both sides of the Date, 1 July – 18 November ( days).
Come the day, 1 July, the Kitchener men and boys were thrown into the Fourth Army's attack against a battle-hardened, well-entrenched enemy occupying all the high ground. A second- or even third-line German trench could overlook not just the trenches opposite, but fire over the German first line, and in places rake the waves of attacking troops from two or even three directions. Many attackers died making their own way forward to their own first trench.
The Germans had had since late to excavate defences dug deep enough to ensure enough of the machine-gun teams survived the initial bombardment to emerge from their shelters and re-occupy their own front trenches before their attackers reached them. The 'first day' on the British and Dominion sector of the Somme followed a week-long bombardment of the German trench and artillery positions by heavy and 1, field guns, unprecedented in its ferocity but still insufficient for the increased length of line the French now insisted their ally assault.
The British leadership clung to the idea that the shelling would cut the German wire and entomb the first-line defenders, permitting the leading waves of attackers a 'walk-over'. It was not to be. The British were not ready to field the quantity or quality of artillery, shells or trained artillerymen required to knock out the German defenders.
Wave after wave of Kitchener volunteers dutifully plodded up the now corpse-strewn slopes towards uncut barbed wire and unsilenced machine-guns. All this in a battle at a time and in a place that the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, did not want. There were no railheads or other valauble objectives behind the German trenches on the Somme, and Haig had made his name in the defence of the Ypres salient and wanted to wage the British campaign to break out of Ypres and recapture Antwerp and other channel ports.
Nonetheless, Haig had to defer to the wishes of the French, the superior partner in the war on the Western Front. In his The Face of Battle Keegan — then a Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Sandhurst — observes 'Even sixty years later it is very difficult to discover much that is precise, detailed and human about the fate of a great number of the Fourth Army on July 1st'. Though the analogy is what an academic reviewer would call unhistorical, there is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of July 1st, about those long lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape towards their own extermination inside the barbed wire.
Accounts of the Somme, Keegan continues, produce in readers and audiences 'much the same range of emotions as do the descriptions of the running of Auschwitz': There were excellent regimental histories in which the official daily record, the unit War Diary, was 'supplemented and illuminated' by personal reminiscence from 'literate and articulate survivors'.
But such histories tended to be those of the London Territorial regiments, which had a strong and established sense of identity, a middle-class character and personal connections with metropolitan journalism and publishing. The Regular Army battalions of the Guards and other regiments of the line were also able to update their histories, but the Somme was 'predominantly a battle of humbler and more transient groups'.
The Regular regiments to which the greatest number of 'service' wartime volunteer battalions were attached were often the least affluent and based further from London, and so tended to be of lower social status and have fewer monied officers.
Regiments such as these were less able to produce exhaustive regimental histories. Then there was the problem with sources. During the war, it was the job of the intelligence officer to update the battalion War Diary daily.
If, however, that officer were an amateur and most Kitchener officers were in the diary entries might be sketchy. If the action was intense and casualties heavy, the War Diary might be days in arrears and written up hastily 'for form's sake from a single, sometimes second-hand memory of events'.
Thus, notwithstanding all the corpses, the opportunity of leaving a fitting record of 'Kitchener Mob' experience could have been lost, especially as the survivors of the Somme began to fade away. Before this happened a Lincolnshire farmer, Martin Middlebrook, in whom a chance visit to the war cemeteries of the Somme in the late s had aroused an obsessive curiosity about the nature and fate of the Kitchener armies, embarked on a quest to discover survivors of 1 July, and in a truly heroic effort of historical fieldwork, found and interviewed of them, the majority with the exception of a few who were under age when they enlisted men of 70 or over.
Middlebrook also interviewed German as well as British and Commonwealth survivors although not French, as he was not interested in the French-held section of the line. This helps explain why one wave of volunteer youngsters after another was sent forward to be shot down in their turn. Next to nobody in authority at the front could see what was going on in the smoke and din, and even if had they been able to, telephone and telegraph communications were not up to reporting 'upstairs' and to receiving and passing on any amended orders.
Although Middlebrook offers perspective on the whole battle, his focus was on reconstructing the 'first day', calmly setting it in the perspective of the political and strategic imperatives of the time. He blended his vast haul of survivors' reminiscences with existing archive material to produce what was then novel, a 'bottom-up' history that followed the men on the ground throughout the day, instead of the customary 'top-down' narrative told from the point of view of the generals and the politicians.
Middlebrook had 'humanized' an army and a battle. Middlebrook drove forward his even-handed broader narrative by interweaving it with the detailed story of ten men, seven of whom were to survive 1 July. A clue as to how he hit upon this compelling device may lie in the last of the 22 entries in the book's slender bibliography, 'John Harris, Covenant with Death fiction London, '. Harris, the son of a Somme veteran, published his novel inits mainspring being a Kitchener volunteer's account of the raising, training and destruction of his battalion on the Somme.
The account appears to be based upon what happened on 1 July to the Sheffield City Battalion 12th Bn.
Battle of the Somme
Their casualties for the day were Middlebrook himself recently recalled how as a young man he had been overwhelmed by the 'density' of military cemeteries on the Somme. At one point on his first visit he could see four without having to move. Noting how many men had been killed on the same day, 1 July, he said to his wife the late Mary Middlebrook 'I'm going to write a book, the first day of the battle of the Somme'.
He thinks of that work and his many subsequent books of military history on 20th-century warfare as 'writing the sort of things about ordinary people that ordinary people like to read'. He began work on The First Day on the Somme by sketching a synopsis on the back of a programme for an Egg Marketing Board exhibition while on the train journey back from Olympia to Boston.
He does so with reference to three battles, two of them — Agincourt and Waterloo — nationally celebrated as victories.
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The third — the Somme all days of it — had long been assumed by many, including some popular historians, as a national calamity. Before and for some time afterwards, however, it was not the Somme but the Third Battle of Ypres or 'Passchendaele' that was widely seen as typifying the horrors of the Great War's industrial-scale slaughter.
Keegan's book played a part in that change. In view of his encomium on Middlebrook's research, moreover, it could appear that this influenced Keegan in plumping for the Somme rather than for Passchendaele as the third of his chosen battles.
It ought to be painted and hung in all the picture galleries of the world, in all the school and public buildings, and our children should be taught to regard it as the standard of man's self-sacrifice.
Soon he will be back in London to edit it.
Bibliography of the Battle of the Somme: Part 1 [of 2] | Reviews in History
Although it includes pictures of men dying on camera, and of dead bodies, it only seems to inflame patriotic feeling. Malins gets the Military Cross. Nobody shoots at him. After the capture of Montauban he was sent back to the old British front line to fetch more grenades.
The Battle of the Somme, as it happened on July 1,
The strangeness of easily strolling over what was once a kill zone is intensified by the fact that this may be the only sector on the whole front line where it no longer is. Wounded men lying in the hot sun call out to him, but he is under strict orders to come back soon and dares not slow down. They hide in shell holes and wait. Once the Germans have gathered the all start throwing bombs into the trench. And when the last one explodes they charge in with bayonets.
The Germans are wiped out and the Inniskillings start collecting their ammo. Nearby, Young Citizen Volunteers use bangalore tubes — incendiary explosives designed to cut through barbed wire — to trap and burn the Germans alive. Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Crozier of the 9th Royal Irish confronts a "strong rabble of tired, hungry and thirsty stragglers. They can't give a straight answer.
He marches them back to the water reserve, makes them drink, and shoves them back into action. Minutes later he sees a larger and more determined group attempting to leave via the south. A young officer sprints up to them and stops them. He draws his revolver and threatens them. They take no notice. Down drops a British soldier at their feet. The effect is instantaneous. They turn back to the assistance of their comrades in distress.
Infantry press along Staufen Trench, under fire from British machine guns on three sides. But the sheer weight of bombs gives them momentum. The Germans are experts, working in teams of two — carriers and throwers. They lob in explosives, secure each traverse with bayonets and revolvers, and move up, erecting sandbag barriers behind them as they go. It's a rhythm, a war dance. A soldier of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles recalls: Blood lay like a layer of and, do you know, you couldn't tell one blood from the other He is leaving the battlefield.
Once more the stretcher was slid into an ambulance, and I found myself in company with a young subaltern of the Ks. The German logistical machine is clicking into action. Without warning three British aeroplanes pounce from above. One of them drops a bomb into the ammunition shed, producing a huge explosion. Ammo wagons in the station itself go off and soon the train itself is ablaze. In the crush to escape, men are killed or wounded.
The reinforcement is delayed by 18 hours. Railways are one reason why the First World War favours defensive warfare. Neither side yet has good enough motor vehicles or fuel industries to mount large, long-range movements over new terrain. To get out of the sun he has been placed in the officers' hut. One man has forgotten his own name and argues vociferously with an ambulance corporal.
Another believes he is still fighting: Give me a bomb, sergeant.