Philip Gibbs at the Somme

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

As well as being almost unimaginable human tragedy – the 19,000 British deaths on the first day make it one of the darkest days in our history – it is also a low-point in the history of British journalism, with newspapers reporting it as a good day.

The Daily Mail’s Beach Thomas later admitted to being “deeply ashamed” of how he had covered it. Philip Gibbs of the Daily News wrote: “We may say it is, on balance, a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.”

To mark the centenary of the tragedy, I thought it would be worth setting out Gibbs’s recollections of the day, which he recorded in his autobiography in 1946:

“In front of us was not a line but a fortress position, 20 miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by masses of machine gun posts and thousands of guns in a wide arc… We spoke to each other in whispers, if we spoke. Then suddenly our guns opened out in a barrage of fire of colossal intensity. Never before, and I think never since, even in the Second World War, had so many guns been massed behind any battle front. It was a rolling thunder of shellfire, and the earth vomited flame, and the sky was alight with bursting shells…

“I went into Fricourt soon after it had been taken and saw the dead lying there. Many Germans had been bayoneted in the first rush but even as they lay dead they had their hands slightly raised… I saw the fury of battle, and the sweep of German gunfire, and the ground vomiting up great columns of black earth and smoke…

“On the left up by Gommecourt… our men had got nowhere on the first day. They had been mown down like grass by German machine-gunners who, after our first barrage had lifted, rushed out to meet our men in the open. Many of our best battalions were almost annihilated, and our causalities were terrible. But I remember that our young wounded officers could still find words of admiration for their enemy.

“‘The German machine-gunners were great,’ said one of them. ‘Came slap out in the open to meet us.’

“…A German doctor taken prisoner near La Boiselle stayed behind to look after our wounded in a dugout instead of going down to safety. I met him coming back across the battlefield next morning. One of our men was carrying his bag and I had a talk with him. He was a tall, heavy man with a black beard, and he spoke good English.

“‘This war!’ he said. ‘We go on killing each other to no purpose. It is a war against religion and against civilisation and I see no end of it.’

“…Beyond all doubt the first phase of the battles of the Somme taught many lessons, at fearful human cost, to the generals and staffs, who lacked experience and always underestimated the enemy’s strength, and the formidable power of his defence. In my book Realities of War I wrote harsh and critical things about staff officers and their generals. I am not going to withdraw them now; but time effaces much, including bitterness, and I find myself more tolerant, perhaps because I have forgotten or blurred the sharp edge of tragic things.”


My top five books of 2014

At the end of the year, I thought it would be worth looking back at my reading over the last 12 months and thinking about my five favourite books I read during the year. So here they are (though none were actually published during the year!)

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic by Alfred Lansing

As someone unfamiliar with Ernest Shackleton’s voyage of 1914, I found this to be a gripping account of a truly extraordinary achievement. I was left with huge admiration of what they achieved and, as the title suggests, the huge amount they were able to endure without giving up. Really inspirational.

The Pageant Of The Years by Philip Gibbs

Philip Gibbs’s autobiography is now out of print, but deserves to be remembered as a journalistic classic. Not only does it give a glimpse of the Fleet Street of the first half of the 20th Century, but it does so through the lens of a reporter who covered both world wars, interviewed Himmler and was close to Ramsay McDonald. And a host of other things besides.

Double Down by by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Anyone who has read Race of Lifetime, Heilemann and Halperin’s account of the 2008 US election, will know what to expect of their book about Obama’s victory over Romney.

It has weaknesses, particularly the self-conscious writing style and overuse of metaphors. But it is also flows along at a good pace and uses off-the-record interviews to build up a remarkably detailed insight into what was really going on behind the scenes. The result is an account of the election that you can almost smell.

I read it immediately after reading The Gamble, which looks at the election through data and whose overall thesis was that most of the events of the campaign didn’t make much difference to the overall result. While The Gamble was a bit dull, it was interesting to get read two books side-by-side that had a very different perspective on the same election.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This biography of Lincoln was elevated to the position of must-read leadership book after President Obama reportedly used it to inform the formation of his own Cabinet. But it was only once I had started reading it that I realised how little I knew about perhaps the most legendary of all American presidents.

It was my favourite book I read in 2014: a fascinating story, well told. But it’s also much, much more than this. It really gets under the skin of Lincoln to give a sense of why he was such an extraordinary man and what real leadership looked like in an extremely difficult situation.

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

To be honest, I found this book a bit hard-going at times and I felt like it could have done with a bit of editing. But it had to make the list for the sheer breadth of the subject matter, from military to politics to business, and sense of being guided through it by someone who is as wise as he is knowledgeable.

I certainly learned a lot with it and its overall thesis is a sensible one: that the master strategist is mostly a myth and that the overriding lesson from the history of strategy is that people consistently overestimate their ability to shape events.