1916 - The battle of the Somme

For a fortnight now the British Army in France has been fighting harder and on a larger scale than it has ever had an opportunity of fighting before; and whilst the British public has learnt from experience in this war not to cherish extravagant hopes, it has not altogether escaped a certain disappointment that the visible results achieved so far have not been greater. This week Contalmaison has been added to the list of concrete British gains, but compared with the gains of the French on the south side of the Somme our total advance is not very impressive on the map. Some of the reasons for the disparity are well understood, but there is a prevalent tendency not to pay very much attention at this stage of the war to "explanations", good or bad. This tendency is by no means altogether unhealthy, and there is no need to complain of it. What is of much greater importance is that we should constantly remind ourselves that territorial gains, great or small, are no measure at all of success or failure in what the Allies are now attempting to do. In so far as we allow them to impress us they are not quite without importance, but that is practically all the importance they have. To bring as great a force as possible of the enemy into action, to hold him there, and to deplete his reserves is not merely the chief object of the Allied offensive in the West; it is at present its sole object. And whether it be achieved on this side of Contalmaison or the other matters not at all.

The military critics have, of course, been telling us this ever since trench warfare began, but the events of the past few weeks, during which we have seen the Central Empires pressed at many points and manifestly incapable of reinforcing them all effectively, have made it much easier to understand and to accept. But the doctrine is so contrary to our lay preconceptions and, as it were, to the evidence of our senses, that its acceptance still requires an effort. The following passage, written by Mr Belloc in the current issue of Land and Water, seems to us to express the strategic purpose of the Allies so admirably that we shall not apologise for reproducing it:

"Long before the Allies should have reached St Quentin (should their attack in this particular sector [Combles-Peronne] be carried so far), the enemy would obviously be compelled to abandon Roye, Noyon, and all the head of his great salient in France. Such a development, such a change upon the map, should the enemy be compelled to it, will provoke I know not what enthusiasm. That enthusiasm will be misplaced. If the enemy retired in time and in good order, without serious loss, he would be the stronger for his retirement [because he would have shortened his line]. The object of Europe in this movement is not thus to strengthen the enemy. The object which the forces of civilisation have in view, and which is at last coming clearly into sight, is, upon the contrary, to forbid the enemy any such orderly retirements; to pin him here first, then there, then in yet another unexpected place, each of which he must in turn attempt to reinforce, and each successive one of which will involve in its reinforcement an operation more delicate and more perilous than the last, until at last we shall compel him to one which will be disastrous."

Then the line will no longer hold. How many weeks or months the process so described will take is what none of us knows, though perhaps the Higher Command of the Allies might venture a guess.