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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.

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