Book reviews: Guardian

 

 

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GUARDIAN

 

 

As far as is known, this review was HW's sole contribution to the Guardian.

 

 

GARDNER, Brian: The Big Push (Cassell, 1961)

 

 


 

12 May 1961

 

THE SOMME OFFENSIVE

 

Brian Gardner's "The Big Push" (Cassell, 21s.) is a documentation of the battle of the Somme, covering the preparations leading to the infantry assault on July 1 at 7-30 a.m., a radiant summer morning, to the official ending of the battle in the dreadful grey quagmires of November, 1916.

 

Mr. Gardner appears to have read many books about the battle of the Somme. The bibliographical list includes both German and British official histories and personal records of such authors as Sir Winston Churchill, Earl Haig (his "Private Papers"), Sir Osbert Sitwell, Captain W. B. Liddell Hart, John Masefield, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Charles Edmonds, Robert Graves, Richard Aldington, A. D. Gristwood, Max Plowman, and others. Some of the "Frocks," too, including Lloyd George, whose antagonism towards Haig led to the retention of a million and more reserve troops in Britain in the winter of 1917–18, in spite of the knowledge of the tremendous German attacks being mounted, an act which nearly lost us the war in the following March – had not the Germans switched after a local success and departed from their plan, a fatal procedure for them.

 

There are tremendous difficulties for all concerned in every war. Mr. Gardner refers to some of these in "The Big Push", but his sympathies are mainly with those who suffered physically, and hardly at all, if ever, with those who bore tremendous responsibility upon being given a mission to destroy an enemy whose soldiers were as brave, resolute, and certainly as resourceful as our own: at what cost only those who lived, and died, in the crater zones of the Somme can fully know. Here in Picardy, Champagne, and Flanders the giants of Europe bled themselve white in siege warfare on terrain destroyed by gunfire and ruined to near impassibility by rain and the passing and repassing of hundreds of thousands of boots and wheels and hooves. The present reviewer was there, and like all front-line troops, found the mental and physical weights endurable only by – enduring.

 

But no one believed at the time (as Mr. Gardner appears to believe today) that "the Staff" did not know of the conditions. Of course, all the staffs knew them – from battalion staff to brigade staff, and so to division, corps, army and GHQ. All saw, together with day-to-day reports, a great many aerial photographs – some of which are reproduced in this book.

 

To discover the feeling of troops at the time – a different feeling from afterwards, when the weights of memory conglomerate following action – future historians might do worse than read "The Big Push", published in 1916, by Rifleman Patrick MacGill, a stretcher-bearer in the London Irish (territorials) during the battle of Loos in September, 1915. MacGill's genuine war book was written in the trenches while awaiting the call of a stretcher-bearer and finished in hospital. However, there is no copyright in titles. Mr. Gardner's new book is a collation of historical facts, together with a synthesis of other men's experiences spoiled by the personal opinion and judgement of the author, who was, presumably, not there. Some of his remarks are indeed offensive. For example, he describes an old acquaintance of mine who served in a neighbour regiment under Messines Hill in 1914 as "that master of humbug." We, who saw Bruce Bairnsfather's early charcoal sketches on the walls of Russian Farm behind Hill 70 in November of that year well understood his jokes. Farcical humour, arising out of grimness and at times despair while standing day and night in yellow clay water to the waist through November rainstorms, lifted the mind from a reality which at times it refused to contemplate.

 

Again, Mr. Gardner writes that "it is not easy to forgive his (Haig's) errors, his lack of contact with the fighting man, his blind rush into the mud of Passchendaele in 1917." Mr. Gardner, if he sets out to be an historian, should find out all the facts before he assumes an attitude of blame or forgiveness. Haig kept on fighting in 1917 during a phenominally wet Flemish summer (it was dry in September) because over forty French divisions down south were in mutiny. Haig, to prevent any German concentration for a drive to Paris, drew 82 Eingreif divisionen to the Flanders battlefield, which had only two small railway lines available for the German reserves, and destroyed them. Nearly every junior officer in France and Flanders knew of these French mutinies as early as May, 1917. It was common knowledge in every EFC canteen.

 

Reverting to the Somme battle, it is true, as Mr. Gardner states, that "Intelligence" failed before July 1. The British Fourth Army plan of attack was based on annihilation of all German positions by gunfire. Then the infantry was to advance, fully laden with wire, screw pickets, and so forth across the area of total annihilation to await, and smash, the German counter-attack. Then the cavalry – used as mobile infantry – was to move through the breach, beyond which was the soft administration which fed the front-line defence.

 

"Intelligence" did fail to report that bombardment would not annihilate the German defence. But what was the "Intelligence"? The fact is that no battalion report after any raid for identification purposes – there were scores before the battle – stated that the German dugouts had 40 wooden steps into the dugouts in the chalk – unlike the ten-foot shelters in the chalk of Loos in September, 1915, which were smashed by medium howitzer shells. Only 9.2-inch howitzers would shake the Somme dugouts. There were 216 British infantry battalions, 54 infantry brigades, 18 British divisions kicking off on July 1, while Haig, according to Mr. Gardner, had "starry visions." But how else could GHQ have known about the formidable depth of dugouts unless those who presumably knew – the infantry – reported this fact. At least GHQ knew that the German wire did not have "barbs as thick as a man's thumbs," as Mr. Gardner curiously describes it.

 

 


 

 

This review prompted two letters, one from the author of the book, published on 18 May 1961:

 

"The big push"

 

Sir, — In his review of my book on the Battle of the Somme, "The Big Push", Henry Williamson suggests that future historians consult "genuine" war books, i.e. those which, unlike his own novels of the Western Front, were written at the time, as the "weights of memory" are not reliable.

 

He does not seem to have noticed that, quoting at length, that is exactly what I have done in my book; more so, indeed, than in any other similar account of the Western Front. For I too believe that afterthought, often charged with sentiment and pride, tends to cloud the issues. — Yours &c.,

 

R. B. Gardner.

c/o Cassell & Co., Ltd.,

London WC1.

 

 

Haig's generalship

 

Sir, — I should like to congratulate Mr. Henry Williamson on his justifiably severe review of "The Big Push", in your issue of May 12. The campaign against Haig, started in malice, has been continued through ignorance, and modern historians of the 1914–18 war choose to concentrate their prejudiced opinions on the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele. Perhaps one of them will write a book with a full account of the final advance, which began on August 8, 1918, and finished triumphantly on Armistice Day. — Yours &c.,

 

G. H. Chamberlain.

12, Sandringham Drive,

Liverpool 17.

 

 


 

 

 

 

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