On July 1, 1916, British and French forces launched the first attack on the German armies lined up along the Somme in what was to become the defining battle of World War I. To this day, July 1 is often remembered for being the bloodiest day in British military history. Indeed, the British suffered some 62,000 casualties in that one day of fighting alone. As gruesome as that statistic is, it's just one of the many dark legacies left by the Somme Offensive. Among the others can be found all the sundry inhumanities of modern trench warfare: infantry lined up opposite machine guns; trench conditions in which vermin and disease were rampant; no-man's-land scattered with dead and dying; vicious gas attacks; soldiers rattled with shell shock. And yet, Philpott reminds us, without having fought and won this crucial battle, the Allied forces might never have prevailed over the Germans.
Here, Philpott boldly and convincingly breaks with the predominant view among historians, most of whom regard the Battle of the Somme as the worst of military tragedies. Three Armies on the Somme is an attempt to finally set the record straight: Many of the histories and memoirs written about this important battle - including those of the statesmen Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, both of which Philpott powerfully rebuts - recount the missteps of the British command but fail to account for the fact that General Haig was witnessing the spontaneous evolution of warfare as he marched his troops to battle.
It's often said that Haig was fighting a 20th century war using 19th century means. As Philpott shows, however, 20th century war as we know it simply didn't exist before the Battle of the Somme. New technologies developed, such as the machine gun and the armored tank; equally important were the technologies that couldn't develop fast enough: communications capabilities lagged far behind the commanders' needs for a battle of such scale. New methods of engagement were being drawn up along both lines, and as World War I raged on, it became clear that tactics aimed at attrition were the only feasible route to defeating powerful industrial nations that had made all their production and work force available in the name of war.
Allied forces initially billed the Battle of the Somme as a knockout punch to the Germans. Although this goal was almost certainly out of reach in 1916, the British and the French forces actually came much closer to defeating the Germans at the Somme than is popularly believed. At the very least, the Allies' hard-won victory in Picardy gave British and French soldiers the experience, confidence, and knowledge necessary to bring the Great War to an end.
William Philpott has given us an exciting and indispensable work of history - one that challenges our received ideas about the Battle of the Somme and about the very nature of modern warfare.
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