The Somme chronicles the events leading up to the battle as well as the carnage that ensued. It is this early part of the book that caused me to reflect on my war, the one in which I participated, Vietnam. It dwells not only on the engagement of forces, but also on the steps and missteps that led to it. We become familiar with the heads of state, mostly royal cousins, trading notes in familiar language, and their respective statesmen giving the appearance that they want to avoid the unavoidable, and yet secretly rushing to war. We learn how the armies came to meet on the bucolic plains of rural France where they had to improvise an infrastructure to support the men and machines of war. I paused to remember Vietnam after reading this part inasmuch as America's military victory in Vietnam, a place where so many others had failed, was largely based on logistics.
Ah, I can see that you are thinking. What does he mean, “...America's military victory...”?
One of the keys to the American victory was the highly mobile systems of logistics developed under the direction of General William C. Westmoreland. Although Westmoreland is honestly criticized for his overly optimistic views of the conduct of war, he was a very competent military strategist and tactician. He well-recognized the need for an army that could fight at any point in the theater of war and then quickly move to any other point at a moment's notice. Such mobility had to extend to the artillery and logistics as well as the infantry.
The battle of the Somme was quite a different matter. Unlike Vietnam, World War I was fought by armies facing each other along immobile fronts, lines of trenches that moved by inches and yards after months of careful preparation. The Somme describes these preparations better than any other book of war that I have ever read.
No, it's not dry reading. The author infuses the story with eyewitness accounts that breathe life into the story. We can share their discomforts and feel their fear as they crawl into no man's land to provide cover for the ditch diggers who worked at night to avoid annihilation. We marvel at their ingenuity and perseverance as they fabricate railroads, roads, water supplies, sanitation and living facilities to support massive armies in a land that never accommodated more than a few hundred peasants in any previous time.
The battle of the Somme, when hot lead and cold steel is traded, becomes almost an afterthought in this story, albeit a bloody one. The rewards of battle never fully compensate for its carnage, and this is never truer than in this battle. This is why this book is a must read for those who don't just want to be entertained or informed. It is a book for people who like to think for themselves. It provides them with fodder for their thoughts.