Tuesday, August 29, 2006

# Posted 10:12 AM by Patrick Porter  

COMMEMORATING THE SOMME: On Saturday I poked about Britain's National Army Museum in London.

It has some great stuff, including an exhibition to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Good points: lots of fine detail, balanced by a good overview for those who are new to its history, good models and diagrams, and immersive sound effects of soldiers singing, shells exploding etc.

Bad points: very anglo-centric presentation of the battle. We hear mostly about British strategies, casualties and subjective impressions. Not a huge surprise, and British historians are only really beginning to integrate the German experience of the battle into the historiography, so its not a terrible flaw.

The battle is periodised to begin on 1st July, when the infantry attacked, rather than the week before, when the Germans were on the receiving end of a long preliminary artillery bombardment. Though thats a pretty snarky, picky academic point to complain about.

One more bad point: an unbalanced presentation of the debate around the battle. The flyer for the exhibition advertises it as a place to make up your own mind about whether the Somme was worthwhile or futile.

(This is shorthand for the debate about whether it was an unmitigated catastrophe or a costly bloodletting which still inflicted damage on the German defenders, had valuable strategic effects and was part of the 'learning curve' of the BEF. This is an argument that has been going on intensively for many decades at least, especially after the publication of John Terrain's revisionist work on Douglas Haig).

However, the exhibition itself is overwhelmingly tilted towards the catastrophist view, and only briefly mentions the other side. I reckon that the punters would actually be interested to read more about these kinds of arguments - the fact we still argue about it shows that history isn't just dead.

Oh, and another good point: great little bookshop there, and some cool exhibits on 18th century things amongst much else.

A good afternoon for any fellow nerds on this side of the pond.
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The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is the best. The front door says George III, because the building is that old and was formerly the Bedlam insane asylum. If you cross the street to a spot just to the left of where the large naval guns are pointing, you come upon a little brick house with a plaque on it which says it was once was the London home of Capt. Bly.
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