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Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century", by William Philpott


656 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0307265852

William Philpott's Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century is an outstanding example of historical revisionism at its finest. In the course of 656 pages he not only manages to provide an extremely readable account of the Somme Campaign, but he also brings to light the heretofore nearly unknown (and largely successful) contributions of the French Army to the battle. If this were all he did, Philpott's book would be a worthwhile read, but he goes even further to provide an excellent account of the strategic context of the Somme campaign. A myriad of factors which shaped the Allied strategy are described and put in the proper context, including the German offensive at Verdun, the state of training of the British Army and the French Army's creation of an effective offensive doctrine. Philpott also examines why the Somme was sine qua non not only to the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917, but to the ultimate Allied victory in November of 1918.

While previous histories have documented the missteps of British command, no account has fully recognized the fact that allied generals were witnessing the spontaneous evolution of warfare even as they sent their troops “over the top.” With his keen insight and vast knowledge of military strategy, Philpott shows that twentieth-century war as we know it simply didn’t exist before the Battle of the Somme: new technologies like the armored tank made their battlefield debut, while developments in communications lagged behind commanders’ needs. Attrition emerged as the only means of defeating industrialized belligerents that were mobilizing all their resources for war. At the Somme, the allied armies acquired the necessary lessons of modern warfare, without which they could never have prevailed.  

The author considers the planning, the changes in planning, and the strategy, of the Entente and the Central Powers, leading to attrition being used on a wide scale. He argues the pros and cons of what went wrong, including, the chances of a breakthrough on the Somme, and persuasively shows exactly what went right for the Entente and why the Somme is one of the most important battles ever fought, even though the political actors at the time exploited the battle or failed to see that, while it damaged their armies, the German army was crushed and only depth, quality, availability of men and material, inertia and lack of initiative kept it from being destroyed.

Finally, the book looks at how the Somme is perceived since 1916 and how that effects our historical understanding of what actually happened and what people who fought there thought they were doing. Before the Somme, the Western Front was a siege war which could have lasted far longer than it did. After the Somme, the war became more mobile as first the French and later the British, Germans, and Americans adopted use of massive firepower and large sector advances to defeat the enemy leading to the end the war.

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