[December 21, 2020] I never was a big fan of watching television or going to the movies. To me, it was a waste of time. However, readers of my leadership blog will note that I occasionally refer to films because of their value in understanding leadership. One such documentary, The Somme (2005), is one of them.
Are movies a good way to learn history?
Many historians and philosophers will disagree about any definitive answer. Yes, we can learn history from movies, but only when the movie motivates us to learn more about the events taking place. One movie, The Somme, is a drama-documentary recounting the events of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front during the First World War.
The battle was named after the River Somme in France.
By early 1916, battle lines were mostly static as trenches made for strong defensive fortifications. The British and French Third Republic Somme offensive’s goal was to hasten a victory for the Allies.
The attack started with a week-long heavy artillery bombardment, using 1.75 million shells. The aim was to cut the barbed-wire obstacles, interrupt communications, and destroy German army defensive positions. On the morning of July 1, eleven British divisions and five French divisions advanced on an eight-mile front.
For the men manning the frontlines, the Somme was considered the safest place on the Western Front. Little action had taken place since the beginning of the war, two years earlier. By the time the battle was over, more than three million men had fought in the battle, and one million were wounded or killed, making it one of the deadliest battles in human history.1
- The violence was extreme. It was warfare on an industrial scale. Using modern artillery, machine guns, and mortars, in conjunction with 18th Century strategy and tactics, was a recipe for disaster.
- An inexperienced British army was destined to struggle. The British 4th Army was nearly without experience on the battlefield and attacked a well-led German field army with an intimate understanding of war. The results speak for themselves.
- Attrition warfare is a failed strategy. Methods of attacking an entrenched army on open ground guaranteed a high casualty rate. After the war, the view of the battle was that it was a “mud, blood, and futility.”
- Transportation and Communications was a failure. Once the battle began, there were insufficient transportation assets to carry sufficient men and material to sustain the operation. Communications were inadequate as well. The combination of poor transportation and communications produce horrific results for the frontline soldier.
In 1916 Winston Churchill, then out of office, criticized the British Army’s offensive to the British Cabinet. He rightly claimed that though attrition strategy was damaging the British armies more than the German armies. Though Churchill was unable to suggest an alternative, a critical view of the British on the Somme has been influential in English-language writing ever since.
I recommend the film The Somme (2005). You can find it on the Internet and watch it for free.