Second Lt. Jack Engall, of the 1/16th Battalion, London Regiment, wrote his final letter home on a warm night in June 1916. For three days, Lieutenant Engall had watched as the British big guns hit German positions along the Western Front, leaving the summer skies bruised by acrid smoke and the French landscape desiccated.
At dawn, the 1/16th Battalion would be among the first to climb “over the top” of the trenches and advance across “no man’s land,” toward enemy lines.
The stakes were enormous, Peter Hart explains in his stirring new history, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front. If Engall and his compatriots broke through, German leadership might capitulate, leading to the end of one of the bloodiest stalemates in European history. Fail, and the Allied forces could be sent scurrying across the French countryside, this time all the way to the sea. The direction of the Great War hung in the balance.
“My dearest mother and father, I’m writing this letter before the most important moment of my life,” Engall began. He had a “strong feeling that I shall come through this safely; but nevertheless, should it be God’s holy will to call me away, I am quite prepared to go; and I could not wish for a finer death.”
The next morning, July 1, 1916, Jack Engall was killed, mowed down alongside thousands of British troops, some culled from the ranks of the regular Army, but many more plucked from the citizenry – most inflated by patriotism and keen to prove their own worth. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended in November, more than 130,000 British soldiers were dead; of that staggering figure, 19,240 were killed, like Engall, in the first 24 hours. The French, who fought alongside the British, suffered more than 200,000 casualties, and the Germans, better armed and more ably trained, counted somewhere near half a million injured or dead.
And yet despite the brutality of the fight, the Allies had little to show for their efforts. Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British forces, counted only meager inroads into enemy-held territory, and the German Army managed to hold the line until the following February, when it was finally forced to pull back into northeastern France. As a consequence, in the 20th-century imagination, the Battle of the Somme came to represent not just a failure but a ghastly demonstration of the follies of modern warfare. The poet-soldiers Wilfred Owen (“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”) and Siegfried Sassoon depicted the conflict in terms both apocalyptic and angrily sardonic; filmmakers and artists saw only a mass of barbed wire and hastily dug trenches, thick with blood.
But Hart, oral historian at London’s Imperial War Museum and the author of several books on World War I, reasons that men such as Jack Engall were not “helpless victims.” Nor, he writes, can we ever “allow ordinary people to abrogate their role in the genesis of the Armageddon, either then or now. War in 1914 was the near-inevitable results of the frequently expressed wishes and prevailing attitudes of the British population – it was hence a national responsibility.”
This argument, which Hart lays out in his introduction, should not be confused with a rote “blame-the-victim” defense. “There is no doubt that the Somme was a tragedy and the massed slaughter and endless suffering it epitomizes cannot simply be brushed away by the justification of cold-blood military necessity,” Hart writes. Yet for many of the British troops amassed along the Western Front, service in the Great War was an honor, and “many were actively looking forward to the moment when they could finally prove themselves as fully-fledged ‘warriors.’ ”
“The Somme,” heartbreaking and inspiring by turns, uses as its backbone a trove of unpublished interviews, diaries, memoirs, from British, Australian, and German soldiers. Hart is a solid enough writer – although his prose can occasionally feel wooden – but it’s these accounts that create the brightest spark. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the memoirs of William Colyer, a lieutenant serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers:
“I was not very dismayed by [the prospect of death], in spite of my not being a very brave man.... Once more there returned to me the old feeling of wonderment at the perversity of mankind in making all these elaborate preparations for the sole purpose of slaughtering one another and destroying the fair face of the earth.”
Hart’s history will stand as an impressive feat of scholarship and synthesis – the narrative, organized by the chronological progress of the battle, and further split by accounts from each division, hurtles along toward its inevitable and jarring conclusion. But the true measure of “The Somme” is its extraordinary emotional ballast.
Separated safely from the conflict by almost a century – and not safely enough from more modern wars – one feels a sense of wonderment at the resolve of troops both Allied and German who, hunkered down in their dugouts, watched the bullets fly overhead.
“All men fear,” Lieutenant Colyer wrote later, “but it is the degree with which they control the emotion which stamps them as brave or otherwise.”
Matthew Shaer is a Monitor staff writer.