Review – ‘Attack on the Somme’ – Meleah Hampton (Helion, 2016)

SommeAttack

In a year which saw many pointless rehashes of the Somme campaign on its hundredth anniversary, Meleah Hampton’s book on 1 ANZAC Corps on the Pozieres Ridge was one of exceptional worth.

It charts the Australian effort between Pozieres Village and Mouquet Farm, a six-week struggle between the end of July 1916 and the start of September, securing a mile and a half of advance at the cost of terrible casualties.

It is not a corps history, rather an in depth operational study, the sort of military history that is regrettably too thin on the ground. It also reflects what John Terraine called ‘The True Texture of the Somme’, the 138 days which fell outside the big thrusts of 1 July, 14 July and 15 September.

Whilst never being a book about ‘butchers and bunglers’, what Hampton recounts is, at one level, shocking. The whole mini-campaign had no operational purpose whatsoever. Progressed in parallel to the enemy’s front, it could never have contributed to the fall of the Thiepval ‘fortress’, nor could it have even been been classed as an exercise in attrition – friend suffering greater attrition than foe. Nor was the much celebrated Mouquet Farm ever an objective, in fact, it was avoided. It was a frightful exercise in doing something for the sake of doing something. The responsibility for this lies mainly with Hubert Gough commanding Reserve Army, and William Birdwood as ANZAC Corps commander. In contrast with later stages of the war, corps level seems to abrogated much responsibility in the planning process, leaving much to a very unevenly skilled group of divisional commanders. Their disparate methods of attack lie in an era pre-dating SS135 ‘Training of Divisions for Offensive Action’ and SS143 ‘Training of Platoons for Offensive Actions’. Most importantly, Hampton reflects the failure to integrate artillery and infantry. Artillery barrages were so planned to offer virtually no protection to the foot soldier. Attacks were over such short distances that the Australians were often withdrawing from their front line to avoid inaccurate shelling and then assaulting to re-take the very trenches they had just left.

If the book highlights the failure of operational planning of 1916, then rather than wallow in celebrating the incompetence of senior BEF officers, it serves as counterpoint to British offensive operations at the start of the Hundred Days, 24 months later. If as Hampton observes, 1st ANZAC Corps demonstrated absolutely no learning on the Pozieres Ridge during operations, it is a reflection that military learning is only accrued and assimilated over much longer periods of time.

Whilst the book is engagingly written, and its concluding chapter is good, the number of textual errors suggest it could have done with a closer check, and the repetitiveness of the conclusions at the end of each chapter (sometimes the same thing being restated only several paragraphs apart) suggest a firmer hand in copy-editing would have been desirable.

This does not, however, detract from a book that is well worth digesting, and yet another in Helion’s excellent stable.

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