The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered III

The production of trench news-sheets offered a legitimate vent for frustrations expressed as humour as did the popular songs which ridiculed aspects of army life and authority. In his book on troop morale and popular culture, J. G. Fuller informs us that the R.M.R. Growler, the trench journal of the 14th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, announced to its readers that ‘our columns are open to every grouch in the Battalion, and a growl on any subject whether the grievance be either real or fancied, will be joyfully received and have immediate insertion’.

For those men who welcomed or needed it, there was Communion, Christian Fellowship with others of like mind and for all men the opportunity to draw what sustenance they could from denominational services. It is clear that certain Padres, exceptional men in their own right, played a part in uplifting individual and perhaps even collective morale in particular units but it would be baseless to see religion as a potent factor in the maintenance of the morale of the BEF. Efficiency of administration was another matter.

If the administration of a unit were efficient then its effectiveness was strongly reinforced and the men’s morale sustained. When inefficiency led to persistent unredressed grievance, the reverse was the case. In the same way as work to do and familiar responsibilities to perform took away some of the ground for fear or introspection in time of danger, being well-occupied out of the line vaccinated a unit from the disease of wider, co-ordinated grumbling. Given the nature of the battle, the organisational scale of providing rest and recreation for so many men and the relative inexperience of the Staffs of so many of the units concerned, the BEF record for this period is remarkably good and has to have a bearing on the total absence of evidence of there being a serious breakdown in the morale of any unit.

Training and discipline in the United Kingdom and then in overseas service had played their essential part in the development of military efficiency. They were a prerequisite of good morale and in this respect John Baynes, in his fine book Morale, made convincingly what some may consider a surprising point, that drill, when well-conducted, can be an inspiration and through efficient conformity can develop individual confidence. There is satisfaction in doing something efficiently with others. It is a shrewd observation and it may be that not inconsiderable numbers of men in the New Army were getting such satisfaction for the first time in their lives. Such a view would find no echo in Fuller’s book as this author scorns the ‘bull’ of the BEF as a congenital and distinctive defect. Never mind how distinctive by comparison with French and, within the BEF, Commonwealth practice, it may be that Fuller is deriding an integral element ensuring the resilient cohesion under stress which the British forces maintained.

It is of course reasonable to put forward against the evidence that good training produced good morale, the question of the consequence of musketry training being proved inadequate and tactical training inappropriate? It has to be recognised that the shock of the Somme, its initial crushing of confidence on 1 July, faced all who survived with the need for emotional adjustment. It required a harsh realignment of their expectations which did not at the same time diminish their resolve. There is abundant evidence that men coped with this adjustment. The nervously introspective William Strang, in an overstretched battalion, asserted in his diary concerning his own morale at a time of severe demands in October, that ‘I shall be better in the morning. I shall stick it to the end.’ This extendable capacity to endure, a dogged tenacity, saw men through. When they did not cope it was as individuals and not as sections or platoons of men, still less as units of greater size. However, the fate of the poor man who did not cope could bring him into trouble, even Court Martial disciplinary procedures, the outcome of which might be the firing squad. It is this ultimate penalty and perhaps the humiliating indignity of Field Punishment Number One which retrospectively seems to dominate thinking about military discipline. Such a starting-point is ill-judged. Military discipline began on the very first training barracks square, and then later the defaulters on parade before the CO and the loss of pay and privileges for minor infringement. There may even have had to be a Court Martial for more serious transgression. As training progressed, fewer men were involved in the disciplinary procedures and they were usually the very same men. The proper perspective for looking at discipline in the Army is as part of the educational process by which men were conditioned to know what was required of them and held to it. To fall short was to fall into trouble and most men sought to avoid trouble. To this extent men were accustomed to military discipline before they crossed the Channel. Conformity avoided the rigour of military law and in France, with the newly-testing circumstances, the clean rifle, the feet protected from trench foot, the alertness of the sentry at his post in the trench, all were as recognisably essential as they were burdensome in their fulfilment. Of course circumstances could be demanding to a degree hitherto unimaginable and when all the factors already mentioned and others to be considered failed to steel the nerves of a man being tried beyond the limits of his control, then a failure to perform his duty could result. This might be in running away, acting in a cowering inability to obey an order or in a direct refusal to obey an order. Out of the line, one may presume, agonies of indecision could lead to desertion by men whose apprehensions offered no other recourse. Before an infantry assault, men were chosen temporarily from a battalion to act as Regimental Police under the command of an NCO of the Military Police Corps. They were stationed as stoppers against unwounded men straggling back and for the guidance of men who had lost their units. There is no fully substantiated evidence of such police summarily shooting men fleeing from the line and in an interesting article on Military Police, Gary Sheffield informs us that on 1 July 1916 ‘there were very few stragglers … The APM of 4th Division recorded only seven stragglers on 1st July and none at all during operations conducted on the 23rd of that month.’

In Anthony Babington’s book For the Sake of Example, and in Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill’s The Unknown Army, some of the tragic cases were more publicly exposed than had been the case before. From a succession of the contemporary General Routine Orders, names, units, the charge and the date of the carrying out of the execution are listed. ‘The accused absented himself and remained absent for six months.’ ‘The accused absented himself from the fighting zone till apprehended, a week later, in the vicinity of a base port.’ ‘The accused from motives of cowardice, left the trenches during a gas attack.’ ‘Misbehaving before the enemy in such a way as to show cowardice.’ ‘On two occasions he absented himself after being warned for the trenches till apprehended at some distance from the firing line.’ Together with the personal disaster behind such phrases, a disaster compelling our sympathy, perhaps something stronger still, must be a twofold awareness. First the scale of the problem: for all British troops of the BEF during the period of the Somme, the figure for men executed after Court Martial for offences of the nature outlined above is in the region of forty-eight. To set against such a figure, one might relate the 19,000 killed on 1 July or the ten officers and 305 men of the 10th Battalion West Yorks who were killed or died of wounds received on that day. If one were then to put forward the figures of one estimate of the total British casualties of the battle, 420,000, and multiplied that by a factor of three for the numbers of men who are likely to have served there, then the scale for which we have been looking is evident.

The second point which has to be made is that there are arguments for the army of a nation at war to have an ultimate sanction. Anthony Babington, it may be presumed, carefully selected the title For the Sake of Example faithfully to reflect a viewpoint which saw no such usefulness in merciless punishment visited upon the heads of those whose cases he describes as being inadequately represented. He presents the mixture of misfortune and injustice in certain cases better than the poor men were represented in 1916. He may be right but, more objectively, it may be thought that, sympathy even shame, does not wholly efface the thought of ‘awful necessity’ in the context of the period.

The discipline which played its part in holding together the collective will of the BEF in 1916 was not out of keeping with the circumstances of the hour. It did not give rise at the time nor later to widespread outrage at its brutality and no one has painted a convincing picture to show thousands of men with sullen resentment nailed to their duty by fear of official retribution. Much is made of the disapproval of Australians at the strictness of discipline manifest in United Kingdom units, something which went quite naturally with their disrespect of the required formality of officer/man relationships in British regiments. Different societies, even kindred societies, do things differently and let there be no doubt about it, the ways of the Australians were not universally admired among men in the ranks of New Zealand units, never mind British.

Is there any evidence to show that the rewards the Army could offer, such as promotions in the field or decorations for gallantry, served as an inspiration to high morale? There is a need to be cautious in accepting the evidence of men openly disparaging awards when they might well privately have esteemed them. ‘Awards coming up with the rations’ is a phrase not infrequently met in letters and diaries and the dismissive implication is clear. Traditionally such awards and promotions were the practice and whether or not they were an inspiration to more than a small fraction of men as is evidenced in their personal documentation, the procedure must have been considered normal, necessary and of some stimulus. Writing to the father after the Military Medal had been awarded to his son, Sam Kelso, in July 1916, the soldier’s Company Commander was ‘sure all ranks of the Company share the honour as it was well deserved as a symbol of work done’.

To see worth rewarded is good in the eyes of all but the small-minded and must be a proper procedure in the management of men. The soldier promoted in the field or whose brave action was officially recognised in some way, medal or certificate, was a good example, a figure worthy of emulation and this had a measure of relevance in looking at one basic ingredient in the fighting efficiency of a unit – the maintenance of a man’s self-respect before his fellows. It was of importance to a man that his conduct was sufficient to hold him his place in their eyes and it was important in the close-knit fellowship of a group of men that none risked being weighed and found wanting. The social stigma of exclusion from what has been called ‘mateship’ was a burden none would contemplate lightly. Of course it embraced stealing for the good of all, quite happily, but it was a strict code nonetheless. Men bound inextricably together, to live and fight for each other, gave each man a greater strength than he on his own possessed. Their earlier kinship, perhaps as miners or railwaymen, or Royal Scots Fusiliers, or as Canadians, was forged by war into something still stronger. Private Hedges, in a locally recruited Gloucestershire Regiment, wrote from France to his local parson about the loss of a man known to both: ‘Friendships out here seem to be so much more binding and sacred than at home … when we have our own chums and friends with us we can help each other and everything seems so much brighter.’

Within groups of friends who would feel the obligation to fight for each other as well as for themselves, leaders would have emerged. If such a group were to have an NCO as leader, his authority would have a special character. In general terms, NCOs had earned their stripes by showing, not least, that they commanded respect among their fellows. There will have been a small percentage unworthy of its salt, perhaps bullies, perhaps corrupt in the exercise of their power, but the average NCO was sound, a figure on whom man and officer could rely. It was his worth and the worth of the regimental officer which do much to explain why the fabric of the Army held so effectively against disintegration during the Somme.

The quality of command exercised at its lowest commissioned level, the subaltern over his platoon, stood up to the sternest battle testing. It ought not to be presumed that this was exclusively the result of the sense of responsibility, the duty of leadership, inculcated in the Public Schools and in those schools which followed a similar ethic. The Army as such had played a significant role in codifying the duties of an officer in the exercise of his command and in giving professional training for the production of a new officer corps principally resourced from the phenomenon of the citizen in arms for the duration of the war. There is ample evidence to refute J. G. Fuller’s repetition of a 1919 judgement that during the war new officers in training had been prepared by the Army for the exercise of command with a total lack of comprehension of the ordinary man’s psychology.

The notebook of Captain N. B. Chaffers at the Third Army Infantry School of Instruction, in February 1916, provides evidence to challenge Fuller strongly in his stricture and in some aspects just as strongly to contradict the charge of being distant from the reality of the test to be faced. It is in the area of human psychology and the importance of understanding it and acting upon it that there is something particularly impressive in Chaffers’ notes. ‘Men do not like their feelings wounded’ by the inefficiency of their officer, it makes them ‘ridiculous in the eyes of their fellows or other troops’. ‘We are all parts of the machinery which maintain the Army as a going concern and provided each individual does his best and with the knowledge that right and justice are on our side and that materiel and personnel are equal, we must in the end prove victorious.’

The notes make it abundantly clear that good leadership can be developed as well as being naturally within some men. If a real effort were to be made to understand human nature, to set a correct example, to show intensity of purpose, to do all in one’s power to help the men concerning adequacy of billeting arrangements, security in the line, putting the men’s comfort before one’s own, then the goodwill of the men will be earned and such an officer ‘can always be assured of a ready response to any call he makes or any special effort he may demand’.

It is stressed that a soldier knows he is entitled to justice and where injustices occur then ‘officers have not applied their minds to the study of human character and at times [have] treated their men as though they were machines’. Officers must be ‘examples of endurance’, courageous, cheerful, knowledgeable and keen. The men have a right to expect this. Foolhardy courage is to be avoided, it will lose the Army the services of a useful officer. What is enjoined is to ‘be brave and courageous at all times when the necessity demands it’. On relationships with the men, a maxim of Lord Wolseley is particularly quoted: ‘Study to be familiar without being vulgar and habit, if not intuition, will soon enable you to be gracious and intimate with your men without any loss of dignity.’

Fuller’s case, resting as it does in this area on published sources, that other ranks remained ‘distant and unknowable’ to their officers, is absurdly far from the truth. Unpublished letters and diaries consistently endorse the judgement that officer/man relationships and the exercise of command within a regiment emerge from the gloom of the Somme as a shining, virtually unsullied, aspect of the battle. Such few exceptions as there were, mar to no discernible degree this general picture. The leadership of the officers, their care for their men, the loyalty of the men, the awareness among both of their interdependence however much there may have been a gulf in social background, here we have a quality which is wholly admirable, a mutual respect which war, on occasion, could transmute into love. As an emotion between men in such circumstances, the word ‘love’ is to be neither exaggerated nor minimised, neither trivialised nor misunderstood, as by Paul Fussell, who races to the winning post of sexual connotation in the pruriently entitled chapter, ‘Soldier Boys’, of his book The Great War and Modern Memory. The evidence is there to explain itself across an ocean of time separating us from men captured by a prolonged intensity of experience. While there would have been no readiness publicly to expatiate on such sensibility, inwardly many could have examined their feelings without the incubus of embarrassment but with a knowledge that outside the circle of those who had shared their experience, there could be little understanding. This is, in a sense, regrettable because their emotional response is not merely of sociological significance, it is of some importance in explaining the resilience of the hugely-expanded, predominantly amateur BEF, pitted against so formidable an adversary with its inbuilt level of professionalism to say no more about its advantage of standing in defence of a strategic initiative gained in the first weeks of the war.

Private Sam Woodhead wrote in July 1916 to the mother of his officer killed on the Somme. ‘I have been servant to him for a long time and have been in three fights and never a better lad or soldier ever stepped on a field and what I say every word is true. Any lad in the Battalion would follow him and he was respected by all.’

A stark recall of the evidence of an officer’s identification with his battalion remained ineffaceably in the memory of Stanley Henderson, a bugler in the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, standing beside his Colonel when the leading waves of the battalion were cut down – Colonel Ritson, shouting out in distress ‘My men, my men, my God, my men’, had to be forcibly restrained from clambering out after them. Far more prosaic but pointing in the same direction is a paragraph in Lieutenant R. B. Marshall’s October 1916 letter to his father: ‘I wonder whether it will be possible to send out some chocolate or cigarettes now and then for the men. Not more than 1,000 mixture of Woodbines etc. I will send a cheque now and then if you will tell me the price, 100 or 200 bars of chocolate occasionally would be very nice and warming.’

Care for the men is regularly interspersed with praise for the men in the letters of officers like D. G. Branson of the 4th Bn York and Lancasters. In letters during July he wrote: ‘Thanking goodness we are now out and able to rest for a bit. The men are in wonderfully good spirits and have been most excellent throughout about the most trying week one could imagine. We have not had a single case of straggling which I think few other regiments can boast… When you think that we went in full hope of really getting to work in the open and in the end merely had to sit in a trench and be shelled to blazes you can see that they had a lot to put up with.’ Another officer in a Yorkshire Regiment, E. Bowly, confessing that the ‘sights and smells make me feel awfully rotten’, observed that his men ‘are awfully good and don’t mind a bit’. It is patently obvious that his judgement here is subjective but at the same time he was both sufficiently interested in the response of his men and impressed by it to make this point of contrast to his own inner state of mind under the shelling to which they had been subjected.

No attempt is being made to show British morale as being superior to that of her ally or of her opponent – factors keeping the Germans tenaciously holding on to their positions have not been the focus of this book, though the recent verdict by the widely-respected William Philpott seems apposite here, that the battle had shown to British soldiers, to British people and to Britain’s allies that the German army could be beaten. ‘By instilling this belief in the Allied armies, and by gaining the initiative and advantage in the land war that up to that point had lain with Germany, the Somme was the decisive victory of the attritional war of which it was the centerpiece: a moral victory based on growing materiel predominance and improving tactical and operational ability.’

What is being claimed, is first, that in 1916–17 terms, a British victory was won on the Somme, not one to be greeted with bell-ringing and bunting, indeed one more appropriately honoured by the draperies of mourning, but a victory nevertheless. Second, that the resolve of the soldier of the British Expeditionary Force in France, had not been broken by the experience of the Somme. The significance of this in the context of the war overall should never be under-estimated. To do so, demeans the men in khaki who won the victory and, through the most challenging of circumstances, somehow retained the resilience to attempt what was required of them – no mean achievements. It is surely time for the 1916 Battle of the Somme to be reconsidered.

 

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