Document Analysis

Exercise 1:

Letters and Journals of Viscount Esher

“Mr Balfour, on leaving G.H.Q. (General Headquarters), said to the officer who accompanied him that in view of the losses sustained since July 1st, if the Battle of the Somme ended on the present line and we failed to “break through”, it would be looked upon by the public as a defeat.

“This statement is so grave a misunderstanding of the circumstances under which the Somme battle was begun, and such a misconception on the part of one of the chiefs of the Cabinet of the results achieved, that it deserves immediate notice by the General Staff (administrative staff in charge of the armed forces). Mr. Balfour seems to have forgotten that the Battle of the Somme was commenced on July 1st with the immediate object of disengaging the French army at VerdunGeneral Joffre had stated that on or about June 28th the French army would be forced to retire, leaving Verdun in the hands of the enemy, and there were many men of influence in France who believed that the German Emperor’s boast was not far from fulfilment, and that peace between France and Germany might have to be signed at Verdun. In the discussions that preceded the opening of the battle the Commander-in-Chief (Haig) made clear that owing to the backward state of his reserves, both in material and in trained men, he would have preferred to delay taking the offensive until the middle of the month of August. In view, however, of the situation at Verdun, and of the frame of mind of the French, delay was out of the question, and the offensive began.

“(2) The Commander-in-Chief had clearly defined at the outset his main objective, and the methods by which he hoped to attain it, and he had estimated the losses he would probably incur. In discussion and in writing he had made clear that he intended to attack on a front extending from Gommecourt to Longueval, with a view to seizing the plateau as a base for future operations; that his advance would be slowly methodical and persistent, and that he expected to lose about 200,000 men per month.

“Beyond this point the Commander-in-Chief did not at the time care to anticipate events. The chances of war might bring about greater results, but if the objects above-mentioned could be obtained and the positions captured consolidated before operations were crippled by winter weather, his aim would have been achieved. It is by these anticipations that the Somme battle should be judged.”

Journals, Beauquesne, October 29th 1916. Reference: Esher Papers, ESHR 2/17. Reproduced with the permission of Lord Esher.


  1. According to Esher, what were Haig’s aims in the Battle of the Somme?
  2. What points does Esher claim that Balfour has overlooked?
  3. What points about Haig’s strategy does Esher overlook?
  4. What does this extract reveal about:
    (a) relations between politicians and soldiers by the autumn of 1916?
    (b) different attitudes towards casualties?
  5. How convincing do you find Esher’s defence of Haig’s strategy?

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