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.
©2009 William Philpott (P)2012 Audible, Inc.
This book, to put it quite simply, is a detailed analysis of the Battle of the Somme which took place in the latter half of 1916, and when I say detailed, boy do I mean it. Philpott doesn't just break down the battle, he uses it as a springboard to break down strategic goals and ideas held throughout the war, from 1914, to 1918, again in detail, as well as a breakdown of how the Battle of the Somme is viewed throughout history, all the way up to 2006, sometimes in mind numbing detail. By framing the Somme in the context of the war as a whole, he offers an insightful view of what was truly accomplished during what is widely considered a parriac victory, if not an actual defeat of British forces during 1916. His analysis and view of the entire Western Front, including the often glossed over role of the French Army, allow for an in depth look at Industrial Warfare and its execution as the Entente armies transitioned into a more modern form of fighting, as well as an example of Attritional Warfare executed in perhaps it's most pure form.
To do this, the book pulls from memoirs and writings of soldiers who fought in and around the battle, as high command officers from both sides in order to create a reasonably complete picture of how the strategic situation was forming and being received, and the political masters who tried to either control the strategic situation. Additionally, Philpott goes into exhaustive detail about troop movements and objectives, and home front politics and reactions to the ongoing war.
In the end it can get to be simply too much information, especially during the troop movements, where it can go on for several minutes in long stretches of listing army groups and corps, and a list of their objectives, mind numbingly too much. However if you're able to look past these stretches, you'll come away with an interesting new view of this battle, and if you've never heard of it, you'll learn a valuable part of history of an important battle that helped shape national identities, if not how the entire world looked at the war.
The narrator, James Adams, is a perfect choice for the job. His English accent and clear concise way of speaking allows him to convey the information in the book without getting tangled up in the long intermingling lists of French, English and German names and is all around pleasant to listen to for long stretches of time, which you'll need because this is a long audio book. He is able to convey the gravity and the breadth of the information without becoming droning or boring, however that is mainly my own opinion, and no doubt there will be those who could fall asleep to the narration.
When all is said and done I'd highly recommend this audiobook, the information is detailed, the subject matter is interesting, and the narrator is excellent. Philpott comes across as a reasonable scholar, debunking misconceptions and outright untruths, while presenting well sourced information and alternative outlooks on this battle based upon facts and the situation as it was viewed at the time.
I would have liked to have the spellings of the French names and places. The narrator makes a decent effort at pronunciation but falls short in a number of places. If you don't speak French then you may not notice.
The French generals are painted as real people with an analysis of their military effectiveness nicely borne out in the progress of the battle. English accounts of the Somme ignore the vital role of the French.
First person accounts are nicely woven into the narrative of the battle as it unfolded
By the end of the book whatever conception you had of the Somme battles will be forever changed. I learned quite a bit about weaponry, tactics, and strategy; even having a strong background knowledge of WWI. This book is a must read for anyone wanting to know the intricate details of a WWI battle.
I have one of the medals shown on the cover of this book framed and hanging on my wall. It's from my grandfather's service in the British army during WWI. Aside from that medal and a side plot on Downton Abbey, I knew very little about the Great War. William Philpot cured that an exceptionally detailed analysis of the battle that changed the course of the war. The detail is great (you may want to have a map of France in front of you while you listen), but it's the analysis of the Battle of the Somme's place in both the course of the war and the evolution of modern warfare that sets this book apart. Philpot does a deep dive into the strategic challenges of what he calls the first "industrial war" where armies are too big and complex to be defeated in a single battle but instead have to be ground down by attrition. He makes sense out of the eventual allied victory in 1918 where Germany launched a successful breakout that pushed the Allies back 30 miles only to suffer a catastrophic collapse because the previous two years had depleted military reserves needed to sustain its presence on the battlefield. Philpot makes a convincing argument that the Somme, for all the carnage suffered by the British, was the beginning of end for Germany.
Philpot also places the Somme in the larger evolution of modern warfare. This is the battle that began with soldiers forming up in long lines to be mowed down by machine gun fire and ended with the arrival of the first primitive tanks destroying those same machine gun nests. If you have any curiosity about the first world war, this book is the place to start.
This is a very detailed narrative that covers the military history of WWI from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The author's discussion goes through to the end of the war but the emphasis is from July 1, 1916 to the end of 1916. The characterization of the battle as the first battle of the twentieth century is emphasized by the author's constant reference to the battle as the beginning of industrial war.
There is much more to the book than just a description of horrific casualty figures. The author provides a very good analysis of the changes that were brought to the battlefield by the increased industrialization of society. One of the major changes is that WWI is the only war where the majority of casualties were caused by artillery and not guns and bullets.
The author does a good job of explaining how the French beginning with the Battle of Verdun developed tactics that made greater use of artillery on the battlefield. The English had such great casualties on July 1, 1916 because they refused to utilize the knowledge that had been gained by the French. Slowly the English changed their tactics and developed greater manpower resources than the French. This allowed them to take the greater burden of the fight against the Germans.
With the beginning of the Somme the Germans slowly began losing the war. The author provides a good description of the changes in tactics made by Ludendorff in the German offensive of early 1918. However, industrial war became a contest of resources which Germany could not win.
This book introduced new ideas into the discussion of how WWI was fought. It also provided a good narrative of the battlefield action and the personalities of the leading generals. The author's new insights made it a very good book about a conflict that has been overshadowed by the rest of the violence of the twentieth century. I did think it was a bit long but it was never boring.
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