Why another book on the Somme? Canadians on the Somme 1916

A dialog with William Stewart, the author of the upcoming book The Canadians on the Somme, 1916: The Neglected Campaign

First, what is the book about?

It examines and analyses the 89-day Canadian experience in the 1916 Somme campaign at a tactical and operational level. Its focus is on how the Canadians fought the actions and why they battled in the manner they did.

Why yet another book on the Somme?

The scale of the Somme campaign reduces even the longest single volume accounts’ coverage of engagements to only the broadest details. Other than works on the first day of the Somme, division, or contingent histories, it is difficult to find detailed battle descriptions. Focusing on a single corps brings a perspective on aspects of the campaign that are washed out in the general narratives. This allows a finer grain examination of important topics, such as operations, tactics, and command and control down to the battalion level. What’s more, the period the Canadians served in also receives less coverage in the campaign accounts. It witnessed a set of significant changes in operations as both sides adjusted their tactics in response to the others approaches and increased resources. This generated a dynamic of change further affected by a dramatic deterioration in the weather. Increasingly, logistical issues caused by rain and the enormous number of shells shaped the engagements – all of which this book explores.

Is this of interest only for Canadians?

No, because it explores multiple topics mentioned above that are rarely covered in previous books on the Somme that transcend a narrow national focus. These issues should interest most First World War readers.

What are the main themes of the book?

There are six key themes that weave through the narrative.

1) The Somme represents the nadir of command influence in the First World War. It was almost impossible for commanders in the rear to control operations once commenced.

2) The complexity and limitations of the technology, tactics, logistics, and weapons all decisively affected the course of the campaign.

3) Artillery was the dominant force on the battlefield and played the paramount role in determining success or failure. While it could not guarantee victory, its failure made success most unlikely.

4) The staggering casualty rates units suffered in battle. Based on a detailed analysis of every Canadian battalion attack on the Somme, on average, one out of every two other ranks and three out of four battalion officers in an attack were casualties. Further, more than half of those who died are still missing or unidentified.

5) Owing to this loss rate and the inadequate quantity and quality of replacements, Canadian formations progressively became less combat effective and proficient as the campaign lasted.

6) What will appear again and again was the indomitable courage, tenacity, and fortitude of the Canadian soldier. Whatever shortcomings emerged from the campaign, they were not their fault.

What is the campaign’s importance?

Lasting almost three months and resulting in 24,029 casualties, the Somme was the second longest and costliest campaign of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The Somme led to sweeping changes to the way the Canadian Corps fought its next major battle at Vimy Ridge. It also contributed to the re-organisation of Canadian forces overseas, their training, and administration. The strains of the campaign, in addition, added to the complaints that helped trigger the overthrow of the much-maligned Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes. The triumphs of 1917 and 1918 were built on the foundation of the experiences on the Somme.

Why call it a neglected campaign?

 The Somme campaign is a topic of great interest in the Commonwealth countries outside Canada, with at least 40 books released in the last 10 years. This includes five campaign accounts focused on the Australian, one on the New Zealand, and one on the South African experience. In contrast, despite its importance, there are only three books – a VC winner’s biography, a guide book, and a teacher’s guide to the last day of the Somme – on the Canadian campaign, and none of these are in-depth. Conversely, there are five works on the Newfoundland Regiment, and Newfoundland was not part of Canada then. Histories of the Canadian Corps and accounts of the whole Somme campaign only briefly cover it. This book fills this gap.

What sources did you use for the book?

I based the book on the war diaries, maps, battle narratives, operational orders, training memoranda and other content produced during and shortly after the campaign in archives in Canada and Britain. Additionally, I integrated the latest scholarship from Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia on the campaign. Also, utilised were regimental histories, which can provide a telling insight into how the formation wanted their unit viewed. A critical resource was the battlefield itself, as I explored all the terrain on which the Canadians fought on the Somme. It is difficult to understand the problems in taking Regina Trench until seeing how a small fold in the terrain hides it from ground observation. Walking the battlefield vividly highlights the problems and reasons for decisions you cannot glean from a map or reading war diaries.

Finally, why did you decide to write about the Somme?

Unlike many Somme authors, I have no familial connection to it. My interest, instead, developed during research on my first book entitled The Embattled General on the controversial Canadian general Sir Richard Turner. The meagre amount of published material on the Canadian experience on the Somme despite its importance perplexed me. It was apparent that, while historians recognised how key it was in reshaping the Canadian Corps for Vimy Ridge, there was little outside the standard corps treatments on the campaign itself. I wanted to know more about it and thought it deserved more attention.

The Canadians on the Somme, 1916. The Neglected Campaign by William F. Stewart is available to pre-order from Helion & Company Ltd here.

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