Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century (Hardcover)

The First Battle of the Twentieth Century

By William Philpott

Knopf, 9780307265852, 656pp.

Publication Date: October 5, 2010



For decades, the Battle of the Somme has exemplified the horrors and futility of trench warfare. Yet in Three Armies on the Somme, William Philpott makes a convincing argument that the battle ultimately gave the British and French forces on the Western Front the knowledge and experience to bring World War I to a victorious end.

It was the most brutal fight in a war that scarred generations. Infantrymen lined up opposite massed artillery and machine guns. Chlorine gas filled the air. The dead and dying littered the shattered earth of no man’s land. Survivors were rattled with shell-shock. We remember the shedding of so much young blood and condemn the generals who sent their men to their deaths. Ever since, the Somme has been seen as a waste: even as the war continued, respected leaders—Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George among them—judged the battle a pointless one.

While previous histories have documented the missteps of British command, no account has fully recognized the fact that allied generals were witnessing the spontaneous evolution of warfare even as they sent their troops “over the top.” With his keen insight and vast knowledge of military strategy, Philpott shows that twentieth-century war as we know it simply didn’t exist before the Battle of the Somme: new technologies like the armored tank made their battlefield debut, while developments in communications lagged behind commanders’ needs. Attrition emerged as the only means of defeating industrialized belligerents that were mobilizing all their resources for war. At the Somme, the allied armies acquired the necessary lessons of modern warfare, without which they could never have prevailed.

An exciting, indispensable work of military history that challenges our received ideas about the Battle of the Somme, and about the very nature of war.

About the Author

William Philpott lectures in military history in the Department of War Studies at King's College, London. He is a specialist in the operations on the Western Front and has published extensively on the subject. He lives in London.

Praise For Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century

“Philpott brushes aside traditional mythmaking by Winston Churchill and Basil Liddell Hart for a fresh appraisal of this four-year ‘massacre of the innocents’. . . A knowledgeable, all-encompassing dissection of this supreme example of ‘the consummate killing power of the machine age.’”
Kirkus Reviews 
“A meticulous work of revisionist military history dedicated to proving that if Stalingrad provided the tipping point of the Second World War then the Battle of the Somme served exactly the same purpose in the First. Philpott displays a great mastery of detail . . . . He can certainly claim to have made a solid contribution to what has been an extraordinarily long-running debate and for most fair-minded readers he will probably be thought to have proved his case. He argues convincingly that what the Somme did was to usher in the industrial warfare of attrition which the world has had to live with ever since.”
—Anthony Howard, The Times
“This is a thoughtful and important book by a first-rate historian, and deserves to become required reading for those who seek to advance their understanding of the Somme beyond the historiographical trench lines, still disputed, as noisily as pointlessly, by lions and donkeys. It has many virtues. First among them is the fact that it is a proper history of the battle, not simply an agonising account of its first day extended by a chapter or two to cover the remaining months’ fighting . . . . There is something about the Somme that is imprinted onto my heart, and I am grateful that this book has helped me put it into a context that goes beyond time, place, courage and suffering.”
—Richard Holmes, The Literary Review
“Philpott explains how successive generations have warped perception of the Somme with the repeated cry that the slaughter was not worth the candle . . . . Bloody Victory is a magnificent and powerful book, destined to become the standard work on the subject. Philpott is a confident guide to the battlefield and offers striking images of the fighting . . . . But the real strength of his book is in its determination to say the unsayable: that the Somme was indeed a victory and the sacrifice both necessary and unavoidable.”
—Christopher Silvester, Daily Express
“What does William Philpott bring to the party with his new history of the Battle of the Somme, probably the most contentious of all battles in The First World War? The answer is rather a lot. He possesses a keen mind to dissect the reasons for fighting, he has the capacity to marshal his evidence and, being a specialist in French military history, he is able to present the action within the strategy of 1916. It is all too often forgotten that the campaign in France and Flanders was a coalition war in which the British were junior partners in the fighting against the Axis powers, and that the French often suspected (rightly so) that we were guilty of not pulling our weight. In this excellent account, Philpott makes full use of his learning and his sources to describe this particular battle and its aftermath in a style which would be readily recognised by the participants if they were still in the land of the living.”
—Trevor Boyle, The Glasgow Herald