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"Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word." - Friedrich Steinbrecher, a German officer.
World War I, also known in its time as the “Great War” or the “War to End all Wars”, was an unprecedented holocaust in terms of its sheer scale. Fought by men who hailed from all corners of the globe, it saw millions of soldiers do battle in brutal assaults of attrition which dragged on for months with little to no respite. Tens of millions of artillery shells and untold hundreds of millions of rifle and machine gun bullets were fired in a conflict that demonstrated man’s capacity to kill each other on a heretofore unprecedented scale, and as always, such a war brought about technological innovation at a rate that made the boom of the Industrial Revolution seem stagnant.
The enduring image of World War I is of men stuck in muddy trenches, and of vast armies deadlocked in a fight neither could win. It was a war of barbed wire, poison gas, and horrific losses as officers led their troops on mass charges across No Man’s Land and into a hail of bullets. While these impressions are all too true, they hide the fact that trench warfare was dynamic and constantly evolving throughout the war as all armies struggled to find a way to break through the opposing lines.
The arms race before the war and the attempt to break the deadlock of the Western and Eastern Fronts by any means possible changed the face of battle in ways that would have previously been deemed unthinkable. Before 1914, flying machines were objects of public curiosity; the first flights of any account on rotor aircraft had been made less than 5 years before and were considered to be the province of daredevils and lunatics. By 1918, all the great powers were fielding squadrons of fighting aircraft armed with machine guns and bombs, to say nothing of light reconnaissance planes. Tanks, a common feature on the battlefield by 1918, had not previously existed outside of the realm of science fiction stories written by authors like H.G. Wells. Machine guns had gone from being heavy, cumbersome pieces with elaborate water-cooling systems to single-man-portable, magazine-fed affairs like the Chauchat, the Lewis Gun and the M1918 BAR. To these grim innovations were added flamethrowers, hand grenades, zeppelins, observation balloons, poison gas, and other improvements or inventions that revolutionized the face of warfare.
Needless to say, the First World War came at an unfortunate time for those who would fight in it. After an initial period of relatively rapid maneuver during which the German forces pushing through Belgium and the French and British forces attempting to stymie them made an endless series of abortive flanking movements that extended the lines to the sea, a stalemate naturally tended to develop. The infamous trench lines soon snaked across the French and Belgian countryside, creating an essentially futile static slaughterhouse whose sinister memory remains to this day.
The Battle of the Somme is still controversial for the British to this day. On July 1, 1916, the first day of fighting, more British soldiers were killed or wounded than at any time before or since, including D-Day in World War II. The commander, General Douglas Haig, was revered for most of his lifetime, then dubbed the Butcher of the Somme, and now is viewed as a skilled man in a very difficult position who made a number of avoidable mistakes. British schoolchildren are still taught about the devastating battle, which saw over 3 million soldiers participate and over 1 million killed, wounded, or captured, and its effects on the rest of the war.
The Battle of the Somme: The History and Legacy of World War I’s Biggest Battle analyzes one of the Great War’s most important conflicts, and how it was emblematic of the stal