Saturday 2 July 2016

Somme-ber Reflections

I am not, and do not intend to become, a First World War wargamer. There are a number of reasons for this, as I have noted before, along the lines of the sheer size of most of the Western Front battles, and the horrid experiences of the participants. I do accept that the Western Front can be wargamed, it is just not for me.

However, the memorials of the events are now passing us by, and there is a debate to be had over the ‘meaning’ of those events. Was the Battle of Jutland a victory for one side or the other, or a defeat, or a draw? What could have happened if the battle had gone in a different direction? A similar debate is raging about the Somme. Some argue that it was wasteful and tragic but not futile. Others claim that it was all three.  All seem to be seeking some sort of meaning in the destruction and loss of life involved in both battles, and, for the matter of that, in the whole war.

There are historiographically, a number of views which can be taken, but broadly the debate splits into two. Firstly there is the idea that the whole war and the Somme in particular, was a huge waste of effort and of lives. This is broadly speaking the view of many First World War poets and the ‘Lions Led by Donkeys’ and ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ sorts of commentary. It is possibly worth noting that this view did not really gain purchase in the popular consciousness until the 1920’s, with such texts as Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’.  Possibly we could also add to that list ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. The point is that the cultural interpretation of the war shifted from it being a victory to it being a disaster.

At alternative ‘revisionist’ view of the Somme is that it was a vital learning curve for the massed British Army. The historians who support this view regard the battle as part of the learning curve for the generals and the units involved in how to win a battle in the military and technological context of the early Twentieth Century. They observe that while Haig did make mistakes, the army as a whole did learn how to do things better, from artillery barrages to communications, the introduction of the tank different ways of assaulting enemy trenches. They point out that, in fact, British troops did not just climb out of their trenches and walk across No Man’s Land into a hail of machine gun fire. The precise tactics adopted varied unit by unit, and was not imposed by high command.

Was the battle a disaster? Well, it depends on what you mean. For those involved it most likely was a disaster, but the British Army was not broken by 1st July and the battle kept going into the autumn. Politically, of course, the British had little choice. The French (who were meant to be more heavily involved than they were) were being bled dry at Verdun, which is a fact that rather few British historians care to recall. For the British to stop an offensive while their allies were attempting to stem the German assault (and later recapture ground where the Germans had gone onto the defensive) would probably have been alliance-suicide. Only the alliance of Britain and France was going to enable victory; Haig had to keep the alliance intact.

There is a further view that the Somme made the German High Command take notice of the British Army, which they had previously rather disregarded. The later withdrawal to the Hindenburg line is taken, by revisionist historians at least, as evidence that the German High Command had decided that the British were a potent enough threat to require special handling. Alternatively, of course, the withdrawal can be taken as strategic, freeing units from the German Army to be transferred east to knock the newly revolutionary Russia out of the war entirely. In that sense, of course, it was successful and the troops were then transferred back west for the 1918 spring Offensive.

Is there a wargaming way of understanding this? To some extent, there might be. For example, what might have happened in 1st July if Gough’s Reserve Army had been ordered forward rather than stood down? An optimistic view suggests that while gains may have been limited, ground would have been gained and held. A pessimistic view would argue that the ground had been so badly damaged that any reserves would not have made any difference and possibly been destroyed in attempting to reach the new front lines. As it is, it seems likely that Haig was not aware of Rawlinson’s order standing down Gough’s army, but it does seem that the impact of this could be wargamed and a view taken as to the impact of the decision.

A wargaming answer to these sorts of questions is, of course, speculative. But is it possible that something along the lines of Phil Sabin’s ideas about mapping out the possible result and parameters could be achieved here? It could certainly be argued that, at least, careful and creative wargaming of the battle could provide models for the arguments about the possibilities and mistakes that were made. While we cannot, of course, base our historical assessment on wargaming alone, we might at least develop some models of what happened and why, rather than relying on the arguments of historians which are becoming, to be honest, rather sterile, in that one side says ‘X’ and the other says ‘Not-X’, and there the debate gets stuck.

So, there you are, all you modern wargamers, a real challenge. What would have happened if Gough’s army had advanced at, say, midday of 1st of July? Would be be celebrating a British victory, albeit at heavy cost, of an even more tragic waste of life?

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