Wednesday, September 17, 2014

UP THE LINE: Experiencing the Somme with Martin Middlebrook

The name Martin Middlebrook is well known to anyone who has made an attempt to seriously study the Battle of the Somme. His 1971 book First Day on the Somme is still in print and acknowledged to be a well-written and dramatic portrayal of what was, and is, the worst single day in the history of the British Army. His book about the Somme was his first publication, and he went on to write a number of other military history works, including accounts of the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 as well as several books about various aspects of the operations of Bomber Command in the Second World War.
While he no longer seeks to publish books, Mr. Middlebrook continues to remain active in the writing and historical communities. His most recent activities include a cross-Canada tour to deliver a public lecture entitled "Up The Line and Back Again." He has been giving public presentations for many years, including a public lecture on the Battle of the Somme going back at least as far as May 17, 2007. I attended his Somme lecture a number of years ago at Calgary's Military Museums.
The intent of this essay is to provide some impressions of the UP THE LINE presentation, with some ancillary discussion of Middlebrook's Somme materials.
The Presentation - Part I (Regimental Mobilization and War Service)
I attended the September 16, 2014 session of UP THE LINE at Calgary's Military Museums. The event was well-attended, though a number of empty chairs suggested it had not been as well advertised as other stops on his cross-country tour. There were no other speakers other than some very brief and appropriate introductory remarks by the evening's host, Major Peter Boyle, CD, ADC, the Regimental Curator of The Calgary Highlanders.
The talk was divided into two parts. Mr. Middlebrook seemed apologetic about discussing the first part at all, fearing it too dry for a general interest audience. The material was a description of the British regimental system, mobilization outline, and general course of manpower management for a typical infantry regiment in the First World War. As someone who has struggled to understand the subtle differences between the Territorial Army and the Reserve, I personally found this segment very interesting, and think I may finally understand why some units received designations such as "1st/4th" and "2nd/4th" etc. Middlebrook took the sensible approach of using a single actual regiment as an example, and chose The Lincolnshire Regiment. Not only does he hail from Lincolnshire himself, but his father and uncles served in the Lincolnshires, two of them being killed in the Great War. Middlebrook also shared something of his own military experience, having grown up in the period of National Service, but some stories deserve to be experienced first-hand and so I therefore won't elaborate here.
The first part of the lecture presented a number of facts and figures and logically traced the lineage and war service of the various battalions until the final casualty figures of the war service battalions were presented. This is a very plain accounting of the contents of the first part. Middlebrook breathed a great deal of life into the subject by relating it to his family and personal experiences. It was a charming presentation and Middlebrook is a well-practiced public speaker. While perhaps not polished, he does come across as genuine and spoke without needing to refer to notes.
Part 2 - Casualty Clearing System in Major Battles
The second part of the lecture was more disorganized. I don't think it hampered the presentation, and in fact, the jumping from subject to subject allowed Middlebrook to keep the momentum of the evening going. The major topic was the casualty treatment system of the First World War. This was a major theme of Middlebrook's first book, and the Somme battle - in particular the first two weeks - were used as the primary example for purposes of the talk. A comparison of Middlebrook’s discussion to what is found in, for example, Keegan’s Face of Battle shows that Middlebrook’s research appears to be beyond reproach. Again, the material was at risk for being painfully dry, but this is where he wisely deviated from a straight recitation of British Army casualty clearance doctrine and shared some personal vignettes, and also embarked on some major digressions which became a third major theme of the evening.
British Cemeteries
Folded into the discussion of casualty clearance was a brief history of the Imperial War Graves Commission (later Commonwealth War Graves Commission). This was not a straight history, which could be found online in any event, but a brief overview and then some interesting discussion of select sites. The focus of the talk was on how individual cemeteries came into being. Middlebrook made the statement with words to the effect that “each cemetery starts with a single grave” and he illustrated how various cemeteries came into being and why some burial sites with unique layouts were patterned in different ways. Again, he included some personal touches, including a photo of his late wife who passed away in May, dutifully pointing out a grave marker in one of the many cemeteries she helped photograph for him. Another set of photos, of Railway Dugouts Cemetery, includes a grouping of seven men of the 1st/4th Battalion Lincolnshires, including two sergeants, laid to rest in a row. This set of graves had special meaning for Middlebrook as his uncle had been a sergeant in the 1st/4th Lincolns. Sergeant Andrew Crick, Regimental Number 812, is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
Lancashire Dump Cemetery was revealed to be a favourite of Middlebrook’s, though again, one should hear the story of why first-hand. As a hint, Middlebrook made reference to Rose Coombs, author of Before Endeavours Fade. Some other notable cemeteries discussed include Brandhoek New Military Cemetery where Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and Bar, MC is buried, and special protection is provided to the grass over his grave since so many visitors come to photograph the unique headstone with its double Victoria Cross insignia.
Overall Impressions
In all, the evening was a pleasant experience and Middlebrook is an experienced public speaker. While perhaps lacking some of the polish one might get from a different type of speaker, Middlebrook speaks with conviction, charm and the occasional flash of humour – and most importantly, sincerity. There is no questioning his passion for the subject and his desire to share his decades of accumulated knowledge with others. When one of the younger members of the audience, sitting in the front row, dared to yawn expressively there was a refreshing exchange of spontaneous sincerity from Mr. Middlebrook that left the rest of the audience both amused and a little more alert in their chairs.
Middlebrook’s Historical Approach
The exchange with the yawner shouldn’t be taken out of context. Middlebrook presented himself as a humble, though genuinely learned, man and in fact expressed concern several times for the welfare of the audience. He began by pointing out he would feel no offence if anyone had real world issues and had to leave during the presentation, or if in fact simply saw no value in the talk and left. “Don’t be embarrassed,” was his council. He apologized more than once for the first part of the talk, insisting the hosts had been keen on having the entire presentation. The apology sums up Middlebrook quite well, as did one other comment he made during the presentation.
He was forthcoming in the thought that military historians have come to a consensus that First Day on the Somme made just two major contributions to military history. While his research did introduce a number of first-hand accounts of Somme participants into the public record, Middlebrook noted that he feels these “were not major contributions” to military history. What he feels military historians have recognized him for are bringing two facts to public attention:
  1. The fact that General Rawlinson, a senior British Commander on 1 July 1916, had altered war diaries before publishing his memoirs in the 1920s, and
  2. Research done on the casualty evacuation system in place on 1 July 1916, particularly the lack of ambulance trains. Middlebrook apparently tracked down correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig, the latter of which refused to approve the number of trains requested, leading to a breakdown of the evacuation chain on 1 July 1916 with disastrous consequences.
I had an interesting exchange with Middlebrook at the early session on the First Day on the Somme which may speak further to his approach. During the question and answer period, I responded to what I felt was Middlebrook’s criticism of many decisions made leading up to the events of 1 July 1916 by pointing out that the British troops of "Kitchener's Army" were largely civilians drafted into "Pals Battalions" - I asked him therefore what choice the British Army had but to make tactics simple for them. Middlebrook’s response was to ask in return: “You’re a military man, aren’t you?” The question, even the description alone as it rolled off his tongue, seemed to state clearly his perspective.
Newer Approaches to the Somme
William Philpott published a history of the Battle of the Somme (in other words, not just the first day, but the entire battle which is recognized by historians as running from 1 July 1916 into November of the same year) entitled Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme which by the title alone suggests yet another shift of interpretations of the battle. The final chapter makes it clear this is exactly what Philpott is doing, and he mentions Middlebrook by name. Beginning on page 592, Philpott traces the evolution of the battle's history, analyzes how it has entered the public consciousness, and how pop culture has shaped – or even distorted – public perception of the battle, and later the entire First World War and Britain’s role in it. Middlebrook is not mentioned until page 613, and despite the honest work Middlebrook has done in capturing first-hand accounts of the battle, he is described as part of a “post facto generalisation of the nature of (the) war.” Philpott describes a process in which First World War veterans were in fact “sucked in” to a process in which historians re-examined the war, and utilized the fading memories of veterans, inter-twining them with “harsh post-war realities” that eventually “convinced the combatants of the overarching futility and tragedy of their youthful fight.” Philpott argues that this was a sense of futility and tragedy that the combatants did not feel at the time of the war – insisting that “the troops on the Western Front were not the victims that twentieth-century history has made them…” 
Another examination of the Somme that is even broader is Somme 1914-18: Lessons in War by Martin Marix Evans, which explores fighting in the sector throughout the entire war. Like Philpott, Evans devotes space in his conclusion to the evolution of public understanding of First World War history. While he is not as ready to dismiss historians, like Middlebrook, as being complicit in a rewriting of history, he does warn that "(t)he facile triviality of Oh What a Lovely War! is as useless and patronising as gung-ho nationalism" and urges those studying the war not to forget that "(i)t is possible to think in terms of the war in Europe...or on the Somme, or on 1 July 1916, the first day of the great Somme battle, to the exclusion of all else, but it is vital to be aware of doing so. To some extent each time and theatre influences the other." The Western Front, he notes, was part of a much larger world war.
With the popularity of so-called "social media" it's tempting to ponder the fate of lecture series such as this. Having enjoyed public speaking engagements by Tim Cook (author of Shock Troops, The Madman and the Butcher and other Canadian Great War histories) and now Middlebrook, in addition to several good historians while an undergrad at University (I'd like to think I appreciated the experience then as much as I should have - the good ones still stand out in memory), it is easy to both recommend the experience to others, and believe they will always be part of the historical landscape.
For anyone who did attend and is struggling to remember what Mr. Middlebrook was asking people to "google" at the end of the lecture, his website is at this address and tells the story of his visit to Kelowna and the tribute to British soldiers of the 12th Division.
Martin Middlebrook presents an interesting picture of contrasts. On the one hand by his own admission not claiming to be a serious military historian, yet clearly having a grasp of many intricate technical details borne of long years of study. His book First Day on the Somme deserves to be read for its masterful portraits of men in war, but also needs to be tempered with the deeper background accounts offered up by authors like Evans or Philpott who can skillfully supply the greater - one dares say colder - context that Middlebrook, probably unapologetically, does not provide.