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Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme – William Philpott (my notes)


On how to cut a book of some 626 pages to 14 pages of notes. Each a nugget that had I not written them up like this I’d have them in the eBook version – but there is none. It is books such as this that are allowing me to clear the myths and cliché that have gathered about the history of the First World War over the last 100 years.

The next step here will be to seek original sources myself to get my take on it.

Bloody Victory: the sacrifice of the Some. (2009) William Philpott





Churchill’s POV

The World Crisis – one of Britain’s great historical myths. He had little to do with it. The luxury of dissociation. Familiar clichés: the product of a self-absorbed refusal to investigate the bigger picture, unimaginative and callous generals, ill-planned and futile offensive operations, high and unnecessary casualties, atrocious battlefield conditions, technophobe cavalrymen failing to appreciate the potential of new war-winning weapons.


Deeper Pockets

Falkenhayn hoisted by his own strategic petard having aimed at wearing France down over Verdun, the German army was worn away on the Somme. Germany realised that the enemy had deeper pockets.



Fricourt Village marks the far point of the German advance north of the Somme  – the front was ‘stalemating’. Hanotaux. Psychologie de cette guerre 26 augusr 1914, hanotaux, op.cit, p.80

‘Modern war was turning out to be butchery’ The spade and the gun.


Military School

steel, weaponry, science and technology. Though a static battlefield a ‘vibrant and dynamic military school, as tactical innovation and technical novelty tripped over each other’. ‘Human lives still lay at the root of strategy’


Attrition stared in 1914 and reached its apogee in 1916

The French attack to take the village of Quesnoy-en-Santerre indicative of the ‘scientific’ battles to come.


Problem of WW1

Small scale attacks aggregating into attrition dependent on management and resources, rather than hast and inadequate provisions.



Kitchener to Repington: the war would be long and its purpose would be to ‘wage war on a great scale’. Mobilise the empire’s resources. A war strategy to best place England when imposing terms of peace. The Times, 15 August 1914 Kitchener to Charles à Court Repington (who appears to have or got the ear of the leading players). He published French’s views on 14 May 1912 which brought down the Asquith government.




Lord K. usurped most of its duties without knowing
how to perform them


On Aug. 3, with the approval of the  editor of the Times, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, I made the  first proposal in the Press that Lord Kitchener, who was  at home on leave from Egypt, should be appointed War  Minister

I was on the best of terms with Lord K. at the opening of
the war and told him that I would do my best to support
him if he would trust me. We had several talks, and a few
days after he had taken office he sent for me to meet him at
Lady Wantage’s house in Carlton Gardens, when we had a
long talk for a couple of hours about his plans. The purport
of this conversation I published in the Times of Aug. 15,
and as he revised my proof of the article, and approved of it,
it stands as an authoritative account of his views at the

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He thought, in these circumstances, that the war would
last very long, and that it was his duty so to prepare our
land forces that by their steadily expanding numbers and
constantly increasing efficiency they should enable us to
play a part worthy of England, and at the peace to impose
terms in consonance with our interests.

He allowed me to hint at the need for
500,000 additional men as a beginning, and thought that
at the moment when other Powers were exhausted, we
should prove to be most capable of continuing the war.
There must, he declared, be no question of peace except on
our own terms, and he proceeded to outline and discuss with
me his plans for the Regulars, the Territorials, and the New
Armies, all of which plans were subsequently carried out.


Haig in brief

Enormity of the task

Brought personal qualities to bear




Press cliché and stiff, formal photographs unrepresentative of the man he was?

Born 1861

Clifton College

Brasenose College, Oxford

Sandhurst 1884 and top of his class




A deep shyness







Deep Christian Faith


Had an interest in European soldiering

Service experience under Kitchener in the Sudan

(Might have Haig looked up to Kitchener the way Kitchener looked up to Gordon?)

A protegé of Sir John French in South Africa

‘in need of a wife’ (Kitchener managed without one)

Very aware of complexities of fighting for an ally on their land.


Time, place, method

An attack has three elements: time and place (strategy) and method (operations).


Clausewitz on war

Policy to bleed France to death at Verdun


Falkenhayn and allies attrition

Falkenhayn may have initiated a war of attrition, but it wasn’t lost on the allies. Kitchener had raised the New Armies with this strategy in mind.


Haig had no choice

By the Summer of 1916 wherever Haig attacked the enemy had fortified.


The Somme planning in brief

A battle plan that was confusing and a compromise

Haig wanted to micro-manage

Rawlinson’s plan was unsuited to the changing relationship with their French ally or actions of the enemy


Kill Germans

Rawlinson ‘bite and hold’; Haig desired mobile warfare.


Fayolle on attrition

Not attempting more than his artillery could comfortably support.


Attrition   …. on brala Haig

Like Foch and Joffre, Haig and Rawlinson disagreed. Was the operation to be slow, methodical, materiel intensive and attritional, designed to grind down the enemey’s power of resistance until it collapsed? Or was it to be a sudden, powerful, disruptive thrust aimed at doing as much as possible in the first assualt and rapidly exploiting the resulting confusion in the enemy’s defence, as Haig intimated in his reaction to Rawlinson’s first proposal?


earns crap in


Haig stretches it too far

Fewer guns per yard that at Neuve Chapelle or Loos


Haig got plan for Somme wrong

He strove to get it right.

It was a concomitant of coalition planning as well as military mentality


Cue from Joffre

Haig took the cues from Joffre, though these prompts were shifting and contradictory, and further warped by Haig’s military logic.


Haig too sanguine, Rawlinson more realistic

At cross purposes with the French.

Like Kitchener, who when asked when he though the war would end had refused to make a prediction merely intimating that it would start in earnest in April 1916.


Foch on industrial war

and the long haul


Perceptive Chateris

Strategic attrition was a key element of the plan for 1916 from the first conference at Chantilly.

Charteris to his wife. ‘Fighting to wear down the German armies and the German nation’.


An intrepid woman

A female journalist managed to secure a pass from a town marshal then spent a week living amongst the 51st Highland Division.

Material intensive

The creation and support of ‘machine-gun armies’ … gas, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers, submachine guns, trench mortars, trench canon, fighter and bomber aircraft, tanks and self-propelled artillery.


The world’s greatest trading infrastructure

Four resources: manpower (men and women), industry, distribution of goods, finance …

Kitchener – when the war would end


Lloyd George

His biography to date in a paragraph. Former lawyer. MP for Caernarfon Boroughs. Chancellor of the Excheque 1914. Minister of Munitions 1915. Self-important, determined, changeable, scheming, loquacious, argumentative. Pacifist to war-monger and advocate of the ‘fight to the finish’.


Premature, duds, blinds

Faulty guns and munitions in June 1916

The machinations of the city to keep the war economy afloat.


Kitchener’s prediction

Kitchener correctly predicted in 1914 that the real war would start in 1916.


German interception

German interception of telephone calls leading up to 1 July meant they had a good idea of what was going on.

The prosaic nature of the role of the RFC supporting slow moving observation plains and shooting down observation balloons.


Grinotage – nibbling

The attritional nature of the battle spelled out in an 82 briefing document issued to French units. Reconnoitre, clear objective, coordinating, cohesion … foresight and practice.


the best weapon for each job

A hurricane of projectiles …

The French had: howitzers to destroy trenches, machine-guns, observation posts, light mortars, larger calibre mortars …



British assault tactics were more flexible than posterity acknowledged.


Learning, engaging

The idea of a ‘pushing forward at a steady pace in successive lines’ is untrue; the Fourth Army used deep formations in four waves with a high degree of flexibility.




long route marches along tree-lined country roads, rifle and bayonet practice, grenade and machine-gun practice, gas mask training … unlike the French the British had no pre-war training infrastructure. Training built confidence, perhaps over confidence?


French Tactics

Foch’s attacking methods … Fayolle’s cautious and precise preparations.


30th do well Somme

Got a head start … co-ordination of artillery and infantry.

Friendly fire kills Pickelhaube

Picking up and putting on a pickelhaube as a souvenir a soldier is shot in error by one of his own men.


Two tactical problems

Isolated machine-guns and pockets of resistance


La Briqueterie


The myth of the Somme – Liddell-Hart

For all the blame, when has the organised and effective German defence been considered? ‘The British did not fail by their own endeavours along, but in a gruelling flight with a professional, skilled and determined adversary’.


Poor communications

‘The slowness and uncertainty of communications meant that reports were generally out of date, incomplete or incorrect, and therefore difficult to interpret correctly’.


Making tea in battle – 60 seconds

Futile or stoical?


German first aiders aid Tommies – 60”

Carnage described in detail.

German first aiders bandage Tommies and ‘deliver them carefully to their own people’


The growth of the myth of what went wrong

‘Easier to manufacture a myth of heroic sacrifice than to investigate what had gone wrong under the conditions of modern warfare’.


The aftermath described

‘No more villages than a dustheap’.


Haig’s sanctimonious puffing

Joffre and Haig


Before one side cracked

Liddel-Hart et al, according to Philpott, ‘misconstrued the nature of modern industrial battle’.  Foch, as Britain’s ally, maintained pressure ‘in the hope that the rupture at the front would eventually occur’. Such attrition, according to Philpott, had always been a central component of the allied strategy.


The start of a process that would grind the life out of the German army


Evans’ splenetic tirade

‘The huge gap between the practical outlook of officers responsible for operations in the field and the gung-ho attitude of those who directed them from the safety of higher headquarters’.

‘They want butchers, not brigadiers’. Griffiths in Hughes.


False lift copied from French

Major-General Watts gave his commanders on the ground more discretion over the detail of the operation.


Hieronymous Bosch (Colin Huges Mametz, 1990)

‘Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling had … thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men. Limbs and mutilated trunks, here and there a detached head forming splashes of red against the green leaves, and, as an advertisement for the horror of our way of life and death, and our crucifixion of youth, one tree held in its branches a leg, with its torn flesh hanging down over a spray of leaf … a derelict machine gun propping up the head of an immobile figure in uniform, with a belt of ammunition drooping from the breech into a pile of stained red earth’. Griffiths quotes in Hughes.


Would pay dividends

‘Grey-clad corpses outnumbered khaki on the battlefield’ wrote Lieutenant Liddell-Hart … a sight that ‘sight, and contrast, deeply influenced my future military thinking’. Liddell Hart ‘memoirs’.

a a crushing military bombardment

tactical surprise – a night attack.


How cavalry was really used

Compared to vivid imagery and cliché. This cavalry attack, spearing sixteen Germans – charged and cleared the enemy outposts between High and Delville woods.

The mythology of the Somme

On how it become such a distinct and iconographic event – especially its first day.


Five days crawling around

Private Raymond Membrey. Memoir.


Hew Strachan on attrition

‘the application or acquisition of material superiority’

Quality of German defence

Nature of the topography giving the German defence a tactical advantage.


Haig – to his credit

Had Haig given into French pressure when committing troops before everything was ready on the 1st July 1916? ‘He seemed to be gasping the material basis of industrial battle and was determined not to attack on a large scale until his divisions had adequate artillery support’.


British ‘learning curve’ – why such an inappropriate metaphor

‘Such a regular parabola is probably too simplistic a conception to characterise a complex, up and down dynamic’  – it was a developmental process, albeit a jerky and sometimes uncertain one … ‘

1999 Feature futile ‘The Trench’. Jasper Fforde ‘The Fourth Bear’



Home Fires: Civilians and the Somme


‘The ordinary vulgar exaggeration of the battlefield’

Haig critical of The Times and Morning Post concentrating on the French. Press disguised the set backs but couldn’t avoid the lists of dead.

The ‘florid tales of daring-do from reporters like William Beech Thomas of the Daily Mail, rang hollow. Brown ‘The Somme’ p.271


Massacre of the Accrington Pals

1st July a date of bitter memory …

Equally dreadful for Newfoundland.


Newfoundland interpretation

Furnishing the public with a tale of collective bravery and endeavour.


On filming ‘the Somme’


Vera Britten ‘Testament of Youth’

‘the singularly wasteful and ineffective orgy of slaughter’. p. 276


Germany’s film ‘With our heroes on the Somme’

Filmed behind the lines and received a lukewarm reception.


Opinions then and now

Juxtaposed death and destruction with purpose, courage and derring-do.


Haig wants to push through three lines

Rawlinson wanted to take one line at a time, the French way, while Haig wanted to push through all three despite the third line being out of range of the guns.


use of artillery getting more sophisticated


Tactical lessons from earlier operations being incorporated into planning and preparation.

With more guns and shells the barrage could be twice as concentrated as 1st July.

High-explosive shells to cut wire, gas shells for neutralising of enemy artillery, long range indirection fire and creeping shrapnel barrage.


British tactics were becoming more sophisticated

Preliminary bombardment, tank, bombing parties, artillery-spotting aircraft …


Better tactics after three months

The fall of Thiepval was crushing for the Germans.


German response showing that Joffre’s attrition was working

Germany had to develop new defensive tactics.

Machine guns hidden in shell holes in Noman’s land.


Strategic attrition was a chimera


Haig’s battle plans misunderstood

By September 21 Joffre was feeling that the British army was no longer a weak partner.

Haig’s plans were operational schemes, not tactical directives.

The commander’s job to think big.


A push too far by Haig Oct/Nov – or to prevent German defences digging in?

Despair was setting in for German soldiers.


Rawlinson against Haig’s desire to keep on the offensive over winter.

Foch considered fighting on the Somme to be ‘the relief of Verdun of the Eastern Front’.


Building a sense of their own material skill


British improvements in Nov 1916 compared to July

Pushing the line up the slopes north of the Ancre

Consolidating the hold on Redan Ridge

Taking Beaucourt.  And the first snow fell


Politicians had little room

The ‘grinding process’ that was required needed more guns that Lloyd George couldn’t deliver until November.

Attrition considered central to defeating Germany.

Constraints of coalition, civil-military relations, public opinion and domestic politics.


Snowballing on the Somme


Kaiser’s peace offer suggested recognition of allied strength.


Success at Verdun thanks to the Somme

According to Fayolle Nivelle’s successes at Verdun were a ‘consequence of the Somme offensive’.


Why in Haig’s terms the Somme had worked

Preventing Germany reinforcing the Russian or Italian fronts. Inspiring a counter offence by the French at Verdun. ‘Manpower is our greatest ally’ The Observer, The War Week by Week. Evening Telegram 3 July 1916. In his despatch of 1st August: Verdun had been relived, German troops had been held in the West and worn down considerably.


Reduction in fighting capacity of the German Army

According to Chateris the Germans were not of the same calibre as the year before.


Understand the Somme July to November 1916

The disciplined, confident, conquering army of November 1916 goes less marked tan the self-sacrifice of 1st July.


Entente terms for peace


Attrition and blockade

Mandl was depressed at the state of Germany when on leave.


Australian ‘peaceful penetration’ Jan 1917


3 hour 1200 yards

‘Car Wars’

Germany’s cumbersome ignorance of PR


Haig’s dispatch on attrition


Return to ‘ no more gignotage’

Meticulous preparation,


British trying to mimic the defensive tactics of the Germans


Refinement of tactics – Australian trench raids


Duval knew how to replace men with machines – he knew how to industrialize war.

1624 light and heavy guns

over 1000 aircraft

A regiment of self-propelled guns

90 Renault FT17 fast tanks




Drawing in and using up yet more of their diminishing reserve divisions.



1st August 1932 inauguration of the Thiepval Memorial.

The memory of the war as subtly changing. (The pathos, horror and futility of war).


Michael Howard


Post Imperial jigsaw puzzle

Poles and Czechs sought to piece together their own states.


Europe was in a state of Civil War

Irish Republic, Soviet Union, German, Italy.


War behind 1920s, war returns 1930s

Ante-democratic left and right-wing politics.


The proper application of overwhelming force

Churchill. Quoted in Terraine p.67


How wrong was AJP Taylor and why

Taylor was imposing himself on the history of the battle. Liberal pacifist political convictions.


Reshaping memories

Measured satire of Graves

Establishing an image of waste and futility

Remembrance reshaped by changing values and the cascading of memory down generations.


Understanding the history of the Somme

Memoirists trying to reclaim the memory of their war from the politicians, generals and historians whose salvos of self-justifying political and military memoirs had drowned out the voice of the ordinary soldier.


It was attrition and it worked

The anti-Somme tends to hold the field as the politicians’ more eloquent voices than the Generals were heard by the British public.


Robin Prior on the scale, scope and complexity of an attritional war

Prior ‘World Crisis’ as history

Other key components of mass mobilization:

relative manpower reserves

industrial capacity

agricultural productivity

resilience of the financial resources


Haig stuck to the policy of attrition and beating the enemy in the field that Kitchener formulated.

Blinkered to Lloyd George who wanted to attack against a ‘soft front’.


An unfavourable force-to-space ratio’

Too many men in too little space which allowed the accumulation of strategic reserves behind fixed fronts which negated manoeuvre.

Haig and later Churchill provided the men and guns that Haig used to maintain his strategy of attrition.


An army learning the business of operational command

Haig was determined and meticulous; perhaps too much so as he interfered with his subordinates … as had Kitchener.

General as professional technicians

To expect acts of Napoleonic genius is to place them in the wrong age.

Communications of the 19th century, weapons of the 20th.


Why the British Somme casualties?

The French had alternative tactics to British methods.

Haig too busy scoring points at his ally’s expense to learn from their methods in a way his subordinates were prepared to.

The New operational method:

coordinated, interconnected and mutually supporting deep attacks

Whilst the Somme confirmed that war, warfare itself, had change profoundly, it remained the fundamental strategic truth that military victory, if it were achievable, had to be won against the enemy’s main arum in the principal theatre.


The real events of the coalition battle, and the actual relationship between Foch and Haig, belie the latter’s self-promotion.


Folk memories of WW1 and Blackadder

Tapping into folk memories

Veterans’ memoir’s ‘glimsped from the bottom a trench’

socialist and pacifist collective memory

learned experience …


Getting on with the job. Monteith

Soldiers as complicators ()


Jay Winter on not conflating history and memoir

Memory cascades down the generations; history is the product of its time.

British strategy becomes stale


Paradigm shift

Cultural memory versus historic accuracy


The porous boundary between fact and fiction

Western Front Association

Formed in 1980, now with branches in France, Germany and the US.


Long dead, very often unknown ancestors


Thiepval circuit du souvenir


Sepia-tinted pseudo-past. Their mindset and methods, and misunderstanding their milieu and methods.

The distorting lenses of memory and history dulled the perception of victory, the purpose of the Somme, if it was not to defeat the German army, was never adequately redefined.


Vs caricature


A three empire encounter


Those who fought it considered it a success


What went right vs. what went wrong.

What Haig and Rawlinson contemplated in 1916 was not impossible.

Undynamic operational methods stymied offensive battle in 1916

The ensuing long, attritional battle was both anticipated and possessed structure and purpose.

Two parts to the Somme: The shock offensive of July and the attritional phases than came afterwards.


Sir Douglas Haig by J P Harris (2008)


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Douglas Haig and the First World War (2008) J P Harriss

Nearly 600 pages that follow a chronology that is familiar. Insights on Haig are limited – perhaps reading Haig’s diary and a biography at the same time would help. This is written by a military historian with judgement of Haig’s command key. We get little insight into the man – if there is much a a personal life to probe. His diary appears to reveal little. What does come over is how often Haig was to blame for actions that were unlikely to succeed in doing much other than expending a good deal of munitions and men – time and time again he planned an offensive that would lead to a break-through, require cavalry support and put tens of thousands of men against barbed wire, machine guns and shrapnel. His greatest skill was to climb and keep climbing the ladder of promotion and to tread carefully around events which might have led to his being passed over for promotion … or his resignation asked for, or accepted.

My first read. A second read possibly to follow unless I can be pointed to a biography.

Notes as iPhone/iPad pictures with  annotations (Studio) and a mindmap (SimpleMinds)

Britain had been preparing for war with Germany as is clear from manoeuvres, in this instance with both France and Russia, in 1912 (Harris, 2008:51). Perhaps the re-organisation of the Army to have the Expeditionary Force, however small, was part of an anxiety and vulnerability – had Britain not also contemplated conscription?

As the nature of artillery changed – longer range, great accuracy and a diversity of shells types from high explosives to shrapnel it is staggering that proper thought wasn’t given to how destroyed the land was over which the armies would have to travel.

Typo alert! Actually there are a couple more but I so no value


Where tactics have failed to deliver why did Haig persist? How could more of the same possibly get better results next time? What part of his mindset made him stick to this? Does he lack imagination? He appears emotionally dry or aloof – his relationship with his wife and family hardly suggests a person with a close emotional attachment.

Haig’s greatest skill and purpose was to climb to the top of the Army ladder – what he did or could do when he rose to the top was another matter. This isn’t what makes a great leader – he is like a career civil servant. But what would a hot headed, womanizing, gambler of a man done with this power? If Haig made mistakes they need to be considered and compared with other leaders on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Had Britain a leader like Foch, Neville, Falkenhayn or Holweg … or the Russian aristocrats would we have fared better or differently? And if we’d had Robertson rather than Haig?

History written by a military historian is different to history or biography – the audience here is expected to learn and potentially apply at staff level the lessons from past battles. Haig’s diary is revealing because in this supposedly private moments he is reveals so little: statements of the weather, not what this could mean, statement of events without reflection on what he did well or badly. Self-control in both his public and private life.

To understand Haig then we need to know who the alternatives might have been and whether in reality they could or would have behaved differently: Robertson, Du Can and Rawlinson are different men.

My impression is of a deluded fantasist with no one able or willing to stand up to him … not even Lloyd George. Haig, with Royal patronage and few competing for his role, could and would do as he pleased. He resented having to play second fiddle to the French. In the early stages of the war he ignored orders or requests with potentially dire consequences yet he got away with it.

Haig’s tactics: more munitions, human dynamism and officers of the ‘thruster’ type – people who would risk all regardless. Is there anything we can learn from Haig’s achievements as a polo player from this? What does it require to win at polo?



Haig pressed on with tactics that would leave many thousands dead for little gain and he wasn’t able or willing to question what he could or should do differently.

How clear did failure have to be to get Haig to change his tactics?

Failure of this kind should surely have seen Haig replaced? To what extend did his ‘moral fibre’, his otherwise untarnished character, make it less easy to remove him?

Overexcited, overoptomistic, blind to failure, forever looking beyond the horizon, convinced cavalry had a role, yet able to try gas and tanks … anxious for his peers and superiors to shower him in praise and his subordinates to be fawning …

Self-righteous and self-assured – did his religious beliefs permit his unstinting view of the world? He had the image of someone who deserved authority and respected it. He was fit, sober and in a stable marriage. He worked hard and played the game well. Born into a different age could he have survived? He lacks the flair of Montgomery or Churchill. Described as taciturn, to what degree might or could his asthma have been a controlling influence?

He looked the part and was fastidious about his health – what else could as asthmatic do in the early 20th century? Did he know what the triggers were, or had he learnt from experience to avoid certain foods and situations – not least smoking? Was he prone to chest infections?

Whilst those around him realised all talk of a ‘break-through’ was unrealistic, this is what Haig constantly planned for and expected. Or was it simply wishful thinking?

Step by step is what occurred … as a result from efforts to breakthrough? A case of shoot for the stars and hitting the moon? That in Haig’s eyes step by step would have equated to inconsequential nibbling?

Obsessive, selective, fixated, God-guided, controlling, cavalry-orientated, driven obdurate, blind … consistent, controlled, tempered, magisterial … aloof and with tunnel-vision.

Able to comprehend, but unable to bend? Unable to think of any alternative. The world around him changed, but Haig stayed resolutely in the 19th century.

Chance the way the leaders played off against each other? Men like so many bullets or sandbags, simply a resource to count then stack in the knowledge that there would be great losses but that these could be shored up?

He didn’t like to have his feather’s ruffled. He wanted the game played in his way with him in charge.

A hypocrite who would fail to come to the aid of others … yet others to come to the aid of him. Too good or important to warrant risking his men, or putting his men under another’s control and willing only at the last minute to seek help when things looked desperate and he had no choice.

The Pity of War


The time taken to construct these digital ‘design’ doodles pays dividends as it obliges me to give far greater thought to what I say – in this case the considered construction of a one thousand word book review.

Do you recognise from old family photographs anyone featured in film footage or other archive from the First World War?


I’m looking at ways to engage the public in the wonders of the First World War of a hundred years ago. It strikes me that some of the great grandchildren of the 20 million who saw the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ in 1916 could be galvanised into helping put names to those featured in these films – who survived, who died – and what was their life story? Short or long?

Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push


Whilst specialist second hand book shops may from
time to time have specific books or partwork on the First World
War, today one off reprints from digitized catalogues make it
increasingly possible for the amateur hsitorian to research online
then purchase a book that interests them and have it infront of
them in a day or two. It may not have the look or feel of something
that would otherwise be over 90 years old, but its contents are
nonetheless fascinating. Reading a variety of sources has become
like switching channels. In time I have spent writing this I was
able to locate an eBook that ident is som of the combatants and
reer to it directly myself. ‘The Great Push’ makes extensive use of
stills or ‘grabs’ from film footage shot by Geoffrey Malins of the
Battle of the Somme. Partworks such as these fed an understandable
hunger for insight and news, whilst the hidden agenda of seeking
support for the conflict and its justification is obvious from the
ebullient language. With 50th, 90th and now the 100th anniversary
if these events upon us new generations of historians and amateur
sleuths are able to add yet more to the images, both still and
moving, that were captured at the time. As well as revisiting and
identifying the spot where a picture was taken, every effort is
made to identify any of those featured in the pictures. With the
power of tens of thousands via the Internet it is reasomable to
believe, that even 95 or more years on that yet more combatants
will be named and in so doing, as the relevant archives are so
readily available, to say who more of these people are – where they
were born and went to school, where they worked and where they
joined up, what service they have seen to date and how the war pans
out for them. The national habit has been to remember those who
died in combat, but of course all are now dead and the opportunity
therefore exists to remember a generation, not only those who took
a direct part, but those on ‘the home front’ who faced their own
trials and tribulations. I believe it is in this spirit that the
BBC is marking the events of 100 years ago. 20131017-030335.jpg

Keep died on the 17th July 1917 in the Ypres,
Salient. He was 24. As we can identify him, we can surely provide the names of his platoon and in doing so might others look through newspapers as well as their own family photographs to see if more names can bedpntdtocfacesc97 or more years after the event?


Not only do you often come across images taken from the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that make false claims to their content, but authors try to confer their copyright to the material. Whilst it was common practice of the times to quite crudely add black or white highlights to a photograph in an attempt to improve clarity. In an era of Photoshop these efforts look clunky.


How Geoffrey Malins filmed episodes of the First World War

20131016-173459.jpg My immediate thought here is that over 100 years
capturing events such as this have gone full circle – we are back
to one person and his kit trying to see the action. It also strikes
me as someone who is so familiar with activity on the Western Front
and action in the trenches that he misses much of the key action:
he cannot film at night, nor can he get in amongst the action, nor
of course is there any sound. Colour adds clarity as you can
differentiate more of the detail. In any one day at the end of June
and early July, the months that interest me, how much did his
cameras see? An hour one morning, a couple the following afternoon?
It is worth thinking how much wad going on when he was mot turning
the film through the camera. The kit was cumbersome and heavy. It
weighed 5 stone. Then there were cannisters of film he strung
around his neck. He has a canny turn of phrase. He describes the
Howitzers he films as a ‘horrible frog squatting on its haunches’.
p120. I wonder if the cameraman has as much of a story to tell
given the difficulties and dangers he must face getting into
position. There are many times when he describes what he hadn’t the
means to record: the frying bacon, the boiling water, the chat
between soldiers … laughing, swaering and humming songs. p132
What does war really mean? Is this a question such filmmaking hoped
to answer. There appears to be a niavety about the entire

I’m familiar with The Battle of the Somme footage so am delighted that it is brought to life by Malins’s words describing people and events before, during and after his bouts of filming. The dressing station sounds far more horrific than he feels. He must surely have fekt sensitive about filming people as they died.


I remember being in the brick factory on the Somme at Trones Wood. There was this huge crater, this was in 1916.  I was trying to boil some water. I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. The smell was dreadful. So I pushed my bayonet in and there’s a dead body.

When they started the war Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak. One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir and I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it. It was a dead German.

I got one in the end.

They Called it Paschendaele


For an insight into the life, death and frontline tactics along the Western Front controlled by British and Commonwealth troops you should begin with Lyn Macdonald’s ‘They Called it Paschendaele’. First published in 1978 it draws on interviews with some 600 veterans. I return to it often to expand on the record I got directly from my late grandfather John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson M.M. who was a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, serving in Neuve Chapelle, Arras, the Somme and then Ypres between April 1916 and December 1917 when he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained to be a fighter pilot.

In 1991 he visited the Imperial War Museum where he was able to sit behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun, then the following year he visited Ypres for the 75th Anniversary – a guest of Lyn Macdonald.

More at http://www.machineguncorps.com

The most iconic image from the 1916 film of the Battle of the Somme


The big push on the big screen of picture theatres across Great Britain in 1916


Augmented reality if memorials

I’d like to see augmented reality used to reveal a photograph of everyone named on memorials such as these – putting a face to a name, a life lost.


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