Through German Eyes

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

| Print

I am sorry to say that I was a little disappointed by Christopher Duffy’s Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 , which I bought some months back on the strength of an over-enthusiastic review in the British Spectator. Through German Eyes promised new insights into our understanding of this terrible prolonged battle based on German sources, as interpreted by Duffy, a prolific British military historian. Those sources mostly turn out to be German redactions of interviews with British POWs.

July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle, was the single most ghastly and horrific military catastrophe in the history of the British Empire, and that day probably the most searing collective memory of the peoples that composed that empire.

The battle stretched on for many months afterward, and in the end, it cannot quite be judged a defeat. As Duffy points out, the Germans actually suffered more casualties in the Somme campaign than the British, and very nearly as many as the Anglo-French allies combined. The Somme battle disrupted German military plans, and in particular weakened the German ability to respond to the Russian Brusilov offensive in the east. Still … it is hard to think of it as anything other than a horrifying bloodletting for no very great result. And if (as Duffy argues) the British Army emerged from the Somme a much more deadly and effective instrument than it was before, you have to think: That was a hell of price to pay for tuition.

Duffy’s account of the prolonged battle is a familiar one, tinged with the slightly more approving verdict on British strategy and tactics that has recently come into fashion. (See Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory for the definitive statement of this point of view.) Still, I did learn at least 3 new things from Through German Eyes, in ascending order of non-triviality:

1) Crown Prince Rupprecht, the heir to the throne of Bavaria who commanded the army group facing the British at the Somme, was the senior direct lineal heir of James Stuart, the Old Pretender of 1715. Had there been any Jacobites left in Britain in 1916, they would have had to regard this south German prince as their rightful king. (An opponent of the Nazis, Rupprecht was forced into exile, and his family sent to concentration camps, from which they were liberated by the US Army. He lived till 1955.)

2 ) British POWs startled the Germans with their talkativeness. Interestingly enough, the most highly trained captives, the pilots, were the worst blabbers, in part because of the very effective interrogation technique the Germans developed for them. They would bring downed pilots before an interrogating officer, ask questions, take notes. The pilot would give name, rank, and serial number. The interrogator would click his heels, very correct, and accept the pilot’s non-answers. The interrogation seemingly over, a message would arrive that the pilot was invited to dinner at a nearby German aerodrome. The pilot would be fed, poured a drink, invited to tell his adventures. Then the German pilots would ask the Brit whether he’d like to sit in the cockpit of one of their planes? Of course he would. “Hey,” he’d say, “look at this throttle. Ours can’t do that ….” And out it would all come.

3) On the other hand, these interrogation successes did the Germans little good. The intelligence the Germans most wanted was information on the political stability of the United Kingdom. One of the assumptions (Duffy claims) that persuaded the Germans to risk the entry of Britain into the war was their firm conviction that British fears of insurrection in India and Ireland would detain most of Britain’s manpower potential inside the Empire. That assumption was rapidly discredited. Indeed, both India and Ireland proved major net contributors of manpower – Ireland on a very large scale. (More Irishmen died fighting for Britain in World War I than died fighting against her in all of Ireland’s bids for independence combined. Armistice Day remained a major holiday in the Irish Free State deep into the 1930s – and Armistice Day celebrations a favorite target for IRA terrorist attack.)

Yet the Germans could never quite let go of this pet idea of theirs. And so they prodded and probed POWs for information that would confirm their wishful hopes that domestic political and economic difficulties must force Britain out of the war. It’s a warning to us all that in war intelligence is never quite the same thing as knowledge ….

Latest Book Reviews

No Comments so far ↓

Like gas stations in rural Texas after 10 pm, comments are closed.