by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. viii, 358.
Illus., maps, tables, notes, biblio., index. $35. ISBN:0-300-10694-7
In this ground-breaking revisionist study of the controversial operation in 1916, the authors delve deeply into original sources to demonstrate that traditional views of the battle are wrong. Although the book covers the entire months' long “battle,” its focus is natural the infamous “First Day,” on which the British suffered some 60,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 dead. Their most telling argument, backed up with considerable evidence, is that the traditional notion that British troops attacked in steady lines that walked into enemy fire is flat wrong, based on generations of soldiers and scholars repeating hearsay, often – as in the case of Liddell Hart – in order to further their own notions of how wars ought to be fought.
The evidence presented shows that no such attacks actually occurred, but rather that, with official sanction, divisions were encouraged to adapt their tactics to their situation, and did so. The authors examine, with numerous maps, the tactical arrangements of each of the attacking divisions, to demonstrate the many ways that commanders attempted to adapt to the situation. So some divisions actually infiltrated troops into No Man’s Land prior to the official start of the offensive, while others exploited favorable terrain in order to get at the enemy.
Failure, the author’s contend, was due not to tactical blundering, but to the highly unfavorable terrain, which offered the Germans excellent fields of fire regardless of what the British were likely to do, and, of course, to flexible and deep German defensive arrangements. A work that is likely to spark a great deal of scholarly fireworks.