- Bloody Victory at the Somme:An Interview with William Philpott
What drew you to write a book on the Battle of the Somme?
A combination of influences. First, I spent the early years of my academic career within a strongly revisionist strand of British historiography, which posits that the First World War is a much misunderstood conflict and that the real nature of British achievement in that war needs to be properly studied and acknowledged. Second, I wanted to look at the Battle of the Somme from the perspective of an international historian. It cannot be understood by focusing only on the British army in mid-1916. Third, I enjoy the advantage of possessing professional expertise in the history of Anglo-French relations and the French army, which is central to a proper understanding of the Somme offensive.
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There have been other historical accounts of this battle. What makes yours distinctive?
Three Armies on the Somme contextualizes the British military experience, mining French, Australian, United States, and German sources to produce a rich, incisive picture of a world event that changed both warfare and the societies that fought. This is the first complete international history of the Somme offensive, ranging beyond the belligerents to Allied and neutral onlookers. Moreover, it reviews events in the Somme region from 1914 to 1918, putting the 1916 battle in its proper context, as well as showing how the repeated fighting in Picardy was both central to the war and a microcosm of its wider development. It stresses the key (perhaps even principal) role played by the French army in the 1916 battle for the first time, suggesting that this was France's most important and effective Western Front offensive. It also explores the German army's experiences [End Page 31] and their impact on the German home front, arguing that after the Somme, Germany was in an impossible position and could no longer win the war. As such, it is also the first study to relate battlefield events directly to home-front developments, exploring themes including mass mobilization, political and social change, and cultural memory.
From the perspective of military and strategic history, the book argues that the Somme was the proving ground for modern operational warfare. By examining General Ferdinand Foch's leading role in directing the Somme offensive for the first time, it identifies how the methods he conceptualized in Picardy in 1916 underpinned his defeat of the German army in the field in 1918, when he had risen to be Allied supreme commander. In doing so it restores the military campaign on the Western Front to the central place it occupied in Allied strategy and victory.
You argue that the Somme campaign—indeed, World War I itself—is frequently misunderstood. Why is that the case? Is that because we respond to the bloodshed with horror rather than making the effort to comprehend what was going on?
Yes, indeed. Societies and individuals tend to have an emotional reaction to the horror and bloodletting of the trenches (never more horrific than in 1916 at Verdun and on the Somme), which makes it difficult for rational historical accounts that explain the interrelationship between military and socio-political developments to penetrate popular consciousness. Until very recently Great War veterans have sustained a living link with this traumatic societal experience. As the centenaries approach, we may see a positive shift from this emotive response as the war finally moves from memory into history.
Were there viable alternatives to a strategy of attrition in World War I?
We have to look behind the battlefield to understand the nature of the war. In an age of mass industrialized societies, with full mobilization and strong popular commitment to the conflict, the war was always going to be long and intensive. The static, vicious trench battles—a product of a temporary dissociation of military strength and weaponry with doctrine and logistics and communications technology—have come to epitomize...