Jack Sheldon’s “The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916”

Posted in Europe | 16-Aug-05 | Author: Dieter Farwick

Book Review

With the approach of the 90th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest Western Front encounter of the First World War, a most unusual contribution to the historiography of that titanic clash of arms has appeared. Relying completely on German sources, mostly eyewitness accounts by participants, Jack Sheldon, a former British Army officer, has written the first full account in English of this battle and the build up to it from the perspective of the Imperial German Army.

On the strategic defensive and grossly outnumbered, deadlocked at Verdun, pressed by the Russian Brusilov offensive and campaigns in Italy and in Romania, on the face of it the German army had no chance of preventing a major Allied breakthrough on the Somme; but it did so, its morale intact, despite a bloody, five month attritional struggle which cost the two sides what to us in these casualty-sensitive days seems an almost unimaginable one and a quarter million dead, wounded and missing.

This book explains how it was done and in so doing uncovers a number of universal truths, which resonate down to the present day. Despite all the technology involved, this battle was, above all, an extraordinary test of human qualities. Time and again all would appear lost, only for small groups or individuals to rise to the occasion, refuse to accept defeat and to fight on desperately and so contribute to the overall delay, which eventually lasted through until winter arrived and the mud neutralised the huge Allied superiority in materiel and manpower.

In these days of asymmetric warfare and extraordinary leaps in the quality and scope of technology, we are apt to forget that it is men who ultimately decide the outcome of battles, campaigns and wars. As this must-have book shows, the German army of the First World War possessed in full measure a range of motivational qualities that have become largely forgotten, ignored or discarded in the western world of the 21st Century: endurance, belief in a cause, patriotism, small group loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice – and religion. Religion was a fundamental source of strength to the men of this God-fearing army. This is a deeply unfashionable concept today, where those similarly motivated are frequently dismissed as fanatics, but it is one we all do well to ponder as we seek to understand and explain much of the violence which scars the contemporary scene.

Jack Sheldon: ‘The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916’ Pen & Sword, Barnsley2005, ISBN 1-84415-269-3

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