THE first battle of the Somme resolves, ideologically speaking, into the expected national stereotypical conflict between, on the one hand, grim adherence to a theoretical concept, and, on the other, a pragmatic flexibility to deal with the actual situation.
The salutary upset is that, according to Richard Barton’s three-part revisionist account The Somme 1916: From both sides of the wire (BBC2, Mondays), the stereotypes played out contrary to expectations: the British were determined to carry on with their strategy in the face of mounting evidence of its failure, while the Germans were quicker to adopt new initiatives.
Barton has dug deep in mining what is apparently a little-worked seam by historians of the conflict, and one which many of the British High Command a century ago might well have considered jolly unsporting: he has studied the copious German records of the battle.
The Allies held an overwhelming superiority in numbers of troops and munitions, but threw them away in believing that unremitting artillery barrage must destroy the enemy and his wire, and that a steady walk across no man’s land was the proper way to advance. They failed to notice that the barrage itself had so churned up the land as to make it hardly passable, that much of the wire survived, and that the Hun would emerge from deep emplacements, set up machine-gun posts, and decimate the gallant but futile attack.
The British were foolhardy and careless: prisoners had top-secret papers on their person, and, within a few days, the German army knew all about the new British tanks. Barton dates the end of the first battle of the Somme later than the official history: to the day when the Allies found the German lines empty because they had fallen back to the Hindenberg Line, giving them a far more defensible strategic position. Barton’s overall assessment is that this colossal struggle should be classed as a German defensive victory — adding, if such a thing is possible, a further depth of tragedy to the waste of countless lives.
ITV classes Brief Encounters (Mondays) as a northern comedy-drama, although it is hardly replete with gags. A disparate group of wives join together to work as Anne Summers hostesses, the promise of barely imagined sexual thrills contrasting with the reality of their lives and the impossibility of enjoying basically satisfying relationships.
Last week, we saw Dawn’s wedding, and, as is common in TV nuptials, the sky was so thick with chickens coming home to roost as to bring forward by several hours lighting-up time throughout the county. Dark secrets, pregnancy, racism, adultery, unacknowledged bastards, crime, outing, fisticuffs — only necrophilia was missing. If you can cope with emotional indigestion, then it is essentially warmhearted, and splendidly acted.
In A Granny’s Guide to the Modern World (Channel 4, Wednesdays), Barry Humphries purports to confront elderly persons with the bewildering mores of the 21st century. It is thin stuff, but the highly proper Laura June (aged 82), taken aback by today’s omnipresent swearing, seemed to enjoy having two builders explain to her the correct way to use various four-letter words, and to trying out her new-found skills on bewildered strangers.