A new generation of historians is challenging the old perception of the First World War as pointless carnage.
As against the image conjured by war poets, radical historians, and much popular literature, the ‘revisionists’ argue that battles like the Somme represent ‘a necessary sacrifice’.
Canadian soldiers are briefed by an officer before going into action.
The revisionist argument
1. The ‘lions led by donkeys’ stereotypes of the British Army in the First World War is false. Most generals responded intelligently to the extreme challenges of trench-war stalemate and a long war of attrition.
2. The Battle of the Somme was both strategically essential and also an effective contribution to breaking the power of the German Imperial Army and paving the way to victory in 1918. The Somme relieved the pressure on the French at Verdun, ground down the German Army, and turned Britain’s New Army into a professional fighting force.
“Most generals responded intelligently to the extreme challenges of trench-war stalemate and a long war of attrition.”
3. If the Somme was essential to victory, victory in turn was necessary because Germany was an aggressive state that threatened world peace and the balance of power. It was German ambition that had caused the war, and a German-dominated Europe would have been the consequence of German victory.
4. Imperial Germany was not only the principal threat to world peace and the balance of power; she was also, especially in contrast to the British Empire, a particularly aggressive, militaristic, and ruthless imperial power. The First World War was, in part, a war for democracy, liberalism, and human rights.
A party of Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The anti-war argument
1. Haig and his colleagues were not especially incompetent, and the argument that they were is empirically false and theoretically sterile. But they were representatives of their class and profession, and this profoundly affected their conduct of the war, and indeed, the fact that they continued fighting it so willingly, for so long, and at such horrendous cost.
2. The Somme was so misconceived and mismanaged by the British high command that it must rank as one of the greatest strategic and tactical defeats in British military history. No breakthrough was achieved, and the attrition inflicted on the opposing armies was almost exactly the same, there being 615,000 Allied casualties against 650,000 German.
“The ordinary working people of Europe had no interest in killing one another; they were fighting a rich man’s war.”
3. The Somme was not a battle against German militarism fought in the interests of peace and democracy in Europe. It was a battle between rival empires over the division of the globe – an imperialist war between rival nation-capitalist blocs. The ordinary working people of Europe had no interest in killing one another; they were fighting a rich man’s war.
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