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Fighting the Somme - Jack Sheldon

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Fighting the Somme: German Challenges, Dilemmas & Solutions. by Jack Sheldon.  Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2017. 225pp

 

    In his latest work on the German Army during the Great War Jack Sheldon provides a book of revelations on the Battle of the Somme.  Long have we been deluged with volumes detailing this gargantuan battle from the British perspective, largely through the lens of authors with no military background, and a general lack of understanding of the difficulties involved in fighting battles.  Some seem to think they ought to unfold exactly as planned. Thus much of the British historiography of the Somme is highly critical of the British high command, and gives a sense of German command superiority. In this ground breaking analytical narrative, Sheldon dispels the latter view.  No battle can be understood without both sides of the narrative being presented, and with Fighting the Somme Jack Sheldon has provided us with an excellent and long needed view of this iconic battle from the defender’s perspective.

 

    A former British infantry officer, fluent in the German, and a graduate of the German Command and Staff College with a sound grasp of the surviving German primary sources, Jack Sheldon has made a major contribution to our understanding of the German Army on the Western Front with his The German Army at … series of books on most of the major campaigns fought there. What makes his latest work especially useful and important is its focus on the German High Command’s conduct of the battle, and in doing so he reveals a less than satisfactory performance - of a command riven by tension, argument and a dysfunctional approach, and just how desperate they were throughout the Battle of Somme.

 

    With his German Army staff training, Sheldon is well qualified to tell this story, starting with the unique staff and command relationships of the German Army, and the difficulties and frustrations this sometimes caused amongst German commanders, and others who were not members of the vaunted Great General Staff. Importantly, a clear explanation of the German understanding of Schwerpunkt, together with examples at the strategic, operational and tactical levels, is provided.  This lays the foundation of the approach the Germans took to conducting the defence on the Somme in the summer and autumn of 1916. For the Germans on 1st July 1916 this was the Thiepval height and its accompanying Feste Schwaben.

 

    Together with his trademark extracts from German sources, Sheldon provides a masterly depiction of an army unprepared to meet an Allied offensive it knew full well was coming within the boundaries it was eventually launched, and how command failure at the highest level contributed to a lack of adequate resources to counter the Allied attack.  The remainder of the book addresses the principal actions conducted during the defence, a poorly conceived command structure that led to poor coordination and argument, only saved by the extraordinary efforts of a member of the Great General Staff rushed in as Chief of Staff of the German Second Army, together with the sacking of Falkenhayn and the appointment of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and, as Sheldon clearly demonstrates, the superhuman efforts of the regimental and company officers and NCO’s who fought under appalling conditions with few resources. 

 

    Throughout the book we read first hand the thoughts and views of German commanders and staff officers, of their analysis of the problems confronting them, and their solutions for achieving better results as the battle progressed.  Moreover, the harrowing experiences and extraordinary courage of the troops in the cauldron of battle which, together with Sheldon’s incisive observations and critique, portrays an army in crisis desperately pulling together a patchwork defence, suffering terrible losses under Allied shelling and through poorly organised and piecemeal counter attacks. It is the story of an army ‘strained almost to breaking point.’  Sheldon concludes with a sound analysis of the lessons drawn from the experience on the Somme, drawing on the frank reports of senior German officers and Sheldon’s own views as an experienced infantry officer, all of which add credibility to the final deductions.      

 

    This splendid book is well worth reading, and having at hand on one’s bookshelf, both for the layperson with a interest in the Great War, and professional soldiers alike. It provides a much needed corrective to the myopic view of German command superiority. In it we find that the Germans, as well as their opponents, were struggling with the enormous challenges on the battlefield presented by the first truly industrial war that produced weapons of enormous reach and destruction. Above all, professional soldiers have much to learn from it, especially in terms of professional standards at all levels, command relationships, battlefield leadership, decisive decision making, clear analysis of battle issues, and frank and open advice at all levels.

 

Highly recommended.

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ID: 2   Posted (edited)

Fighting the Somme: German Challenges, Dilemmas and Solutions

This latest book by Jack Sheldon is a slight sidestep away from the usual format of his brilliant series of books on the German Army 1914-18, which has done so much to enlighten the English speakers willing to learn what was going on the ‘other side of the wire’. He has helped dispel the simplistic idea that the results of battles were influenced only by the performance of ‘our’ generals and ‘our’ troops. The German Army had an equal and opposite effect on the battlefields of the Western Front – and for long periods it was far more concerned with the French Army than the BEF. Now his intention in Fighting the Somme is to move away from a narrow tactical focus towards looking at German command and control, while examining the place of the battle within the ongoing historic development of German tactical theory.

 

I found this book his most valuable yet, balancing and augmenting the rather more pro-Falkenhayn voice of Robert Foley expressed in his excellent German Strategy Path Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916. Sheldon first escorts us through the history of German tactical theory and the development of their system of powerful staff officers, guided by the teaching of Clausewitz. He emphasises the concept of a critical ‘centre of gravity’ for any force and at any level of command – the ‘Schwerpunkt’. He also examines the onus the Germans placed upon achieving battles of annihilation. However, Sheldon and Foley seem to differ on the impact of the Franco-Prussian War, with Foley highlighting the German concern for the future over the difficulty in ‘finishing off’ the conscript national army raised by the French after the ‘decisive’ defeat of Sedan. Subsequently, once diplomatic failure had led to the spectre of war on two fronts with France and Russia, we track the attempts at damage limitation by the military and the development of the Schlieffen plan.

 

Falkenhayn believed that attacking Russia in 1915 was futile, but he was then caught up with an increasing obsession with his doomed Verdun offensive - to him the real Schwerpunkt in 1916 was always at Verdun. This made him oblivious to the threat posed by the imminent Anglo-French offensive on the Somme – something Sheldon characterises as ‘sleepwalking to near disaster’. However, he also notes that the German Second Army high command had nevertheless clearly identified the crucial importance of the high ground between Serre and Ovillers – this was their Schwerpunkt - and had worked out the appropriate defensive tactics despite being left seriously short of men and artillery in the face of imminent onslaught.

 

Once the battle begins on the Somme the quality of German command and staff work is often apparent, as solutions are quickly thrown together under the most extreme pressure, best evinced by the recapture of the Schwaben Redoubt, briefly over-run by the 36th Division on 1 July. I found it interesting that Sheldon rightly criticised Haig’s decision to push forward in the south of the Somme battlefield, rather than following Joffre's suggestion of a further attempt on the Schwaben Redoubt and the Thiepval Spur. Since I wrote my own book on the Somme back in 2005, I have belatedly come to appreciate the greater tactical awareness of the French - simply put - the experienced Joffre recognised the German Schwerpunkt. Haig, inexperienced still at this level of command, did not and instead of ‘grasping the nettle’ was tempted to follow the chimera of success achieved in the southern sector, triggering a series of summer battles that led nowhere fast.

 

Sheldon also draws our attention to the great influence of staff officer Oberst Fritz von Lossberg - a genius of defensive warfare - operating as he did above and beyond conventional structures of command to coordinate and ‘grip’ the battle. Of the competing egos of the German army commanders, the confused command structure and rivalries between First and Second Armies, then perhaps the less said the better! We also see the effects of the replacement of Falkenhayn by the Hindenburg and Ludendorff command team.

 

Sheldon makes it clear that the relentless nature of the Allied attacks meant that the German reinforcement units arriving on the Somme were usually sucked piecemeal into battle, unable to achieve a sufficient concentration of force to wrest back the initiative - and thus doomed always to be reacting to the next British or French attack. Yet still they held – a fantastic feat Throughout it is noticeable that the German accounts have a far greater concentration on the French participation than we are used to from a British perspective. This was a joint Allied offensive.

 

The fighting strength of German divisions was ground down in the fighting. There were increasing fears that the quality of their troops was declining, they were no longer capable of mounting successful attacks against well-defended positions and that their morale was faltering. The combination of Verdun and the Somme was bleeding the German Army dry. A detailed post-battle analysis, saw the realisation that in the face of the sheer power of Allied artillery the front line was indefensible, more heavy artillery was needed and that they had to minimise infantry losses. Ultimately, the result would be a more flexible system of defence in depth in 1917.

 

As ever, Sheldon is a neutral voice, not allowing himself to become partisan in ‘supporting’ the Germans, or in the denigration of the British and French. His final judgement is that the Somme was a tactical victory for the Germans, but a strategic defeat – the beginning of the end.

Here one of our most influential historians is at the top of his game. Excellent.

Edited by PMHart

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Right, I've just ordered a copy on the basis of the glowing testimonials above. If it turns out to be rubbish we'll be having words.........:angry:

 

Pete.

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You won't need to have words, except of congratulation to Jack. The book is superbly researched and written.

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Thanks S, I was confident because I saw Jack talk about the subject at the conference 18 months ago and have been impressing* my friends by using the word 'schwerpunkt' as often as possible. I had hoped this would make me appear intelligent and interesting but I fear it does not. It's just showing off and it's not big and it's not clever.

 

Pete.

 

*if you use the word impressing in its loosest sense.Or even ironically.

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