The Somme: a Safe Place on the Western Front?

By | December 21, 2020

[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.

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

Lessons Learned.

  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Somme
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “The Somme: a Safe Place on the Western Front?

  1. Greg Heyman

    Are movies a good way to learn about events before our time? I think they are better than nothing but should be taken with a critical mind.

    Reply
  2. Dennis Mathes

    Thanks, Gen. Sattefield. Well done! I like it when you incorporate a bit of history into your articles and esp. whenever you use them to lay out the lessons we should learn from them.

    Reply
  3. Willie Shrumburger

    Some historians believe the war could have been avoided. I doubt it but I’m also no historian. I believe that peace is unusual in human history and warfare the norm. By that time, everyone was in the mindset that war was the solution to everything.

    Reply
    1. Jerome Smith

      Hmmmm, I’m not so sure. The real question, is what would have happened if not for WWI? How would Europe been aligned? What would have become of the old Ottoman Empire?

      Reply
  4. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    The level of violence was far greater than ever experienced in warfare. The huge artillery was extremely destructive but slow to move and expense to operate. Today, we don’t have guns that large because of that reason. These battles were just a punching bag where one side took turns to hit the other. Terrible way to run a war. But more important, and what is lost in this discussion, is why did WWI start? What was the purpose?

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      To understand the long-term origins of the war in 1914, it is essential to understand how the powers formed into two competing sets that shared common aims and enemies. Both sets became, by August 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side and Russia, France, and Britain on the other.

      Reply
    2. Ronny Fisher

      The answer is not so easy. Scholars look at such factors as political, territorial and economic competition; militarism, a complex web of alliances and alignments; imperialism, the growth of nationalism; and the power vacuum created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

      Reply
      1. Mikka Solarno

        This is what I know, by the time the war was over and the Allied Powers claimed victory, more than 17 million people—soldiers and civilians alike—were dead.

        Reply
    3. Wendy Holmes

      Other important long-term or structural factors that are often studied include unresolved territorial disputes, the perceived breakdown of the European balance of power, convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, and military planning.

      Reply
  5. Linux Man

    I’m glad that you note the criticism of the tactics (and general lack of strategy) during WWI. This is why so many were killed. Everyone knew the tactic to be used but grossly underestimated the destructiveness of defensive warfare that relied on the trench and the machinegun.

    Reply
  6. Gil Johnson

    Good article. My great grandfather fought at the Somme and was injured by a bullet to the leg. He was lucky. He only lost a leg. Nearly everyone else in his unit died.

    Reply
    1. Harry Donner

      Thank you for the story about your great granddad. I’m sure you are proud of him.

      Reply
  7. JT Patterson

    Once again, Gen. Satterfield, you bring out the essence of the story. The Somme battle was horrific in many ways. I too watch the movie (actually a drama-documentary as you note) and got to see for myself the fruitless attacks that were ordered and for no good reason.

    Reply
  8. Max Foster

    One of the greatest and least effective battles in human history at the time. Attrition warfare was considered “the way” to destroy the enemy. This attrition warfare technique was also used during the Korean War and to a degree in the Vietnam War. You would think we would have figured out the moral depravity of that by now.

    Reply
    1. Yusaf from Texas

      Max, you are right. Just to throw soldiers into battle with little effort and less thinking is evil. To throw lives away on a vision that is based on a complete lack of understanding of the enemy, the ground, or the political situation is madness. That happened all the time in WWI and I’m afraid also in later wars.

      Reply
    2. Army Captain

      Excellent comments Yusaf and Max. The “ordinary” foot soldier is the one who takes the brunt of such madness.

      Reply
      1. Doug Smith

        Thanks guys for making an excellent point about the meta-ethics of the battlefield. When “seen from the top” things do look a little different and human life is not considered as it should be.

        Reply

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