The Battle of the Somme, fought between July and November 1916 is the most famous battle of the first World war, it was a turning point for Britain in the conflict., and continues to inspire debate amongst historians. After two years of stalemate Allied military chiefs were growing impatient with the situation on the western front. Employing an army largely comprised of untested ‘pals’ battalions Britain (and its Dominions)would launch a massive attack in the area of the river Somme, In an attempt to break through German lines, relieving pressure on the French fighting at Verdun, and giving room for there large Calvary units to manoeuvre.
Months in the planning and involving many thousands of men the attack seemed foolproof. But it wasn’t, on the first day alone 60,000 British and commonwealth soldiers were killed or wounded, joined by thousands more in the moths that followed. The attack was finally called on in November, the German lines hadn’t been broken and the war dragged on for two more bloody years. Despite its failure it is still considered a pivotal event of the 20th century, an event that continues to fascinate and appal people the world over.
In this book ‘Somme the Heroism and Horror of war’ British historian Martin Gilbert gives a fascinating insight into the battle and the men who fought it. Drawing form both historical records and first hand accounts Gilbert covers both the front line action, and the drama taking place behind closed doors, as the allied generals decide how to fight the battle. Whilst he isn’t entirely successful at finding a balance between the two, it provides a well rounded overview of all areas of the battle and makes a very interesting read.
A short prelude explaining the context of the battle and causes of the war is included, easy to read it provides a valuable reference point and a strong introduction to Gilberts writing style and it does little to slow up the book. Although it arguably may not be necessary, as readers of this book are likely to have at least a basic knowledge of World War 1.
As the title ‘Heroism and Horror’ indicates this is largely a book about the men fighting in the trenches. Including dozens of accounts from across the (then) British Empire Gilbert lets the soldiers speak for themselves with little commentary or discussion of their accounts, largely it isn’t needed as many of the accounts are strong enough on their own. Though this seeming lack of detail may annoy some readers used to more in depth historical books.
The Somme was a battle fought by thousands of soldiers this book includes several of the most notable accounts including: Thomas Kettle a leading Irish nationalist was killed whilst serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the British Army. Lt Henry Webber was 68 years old when he volunteered for service, whilst a terribly wounded Newfoundlander survived five days alone in No mans land without food water or medical attention. It makes for fascinating but sobering reading, with a large majority of the accounts ending with the words ‘he was killed’ or ‘his name is engraved on the Thiepval memorial to the missing’, it is to Gilberts credit that he makes these stories come to life when these events are now faded from human memory.
Of particular interest was the inclusion of an account of JRR Tolkien’s (the author of The Lord Of The Rings) experiences in the battle and Winston Churchill’s (British Prime Minister for most of World War 2) views on the campaign, whilst neither offered anything new (their service records are already extremely well known) it made for very interesting reading and made the battle easier to connect with.
However strong these accounts may be it can’t disguise flaws with the book, having so many accounts made for confusing, and at times irritating reading, not only does it get wearying to read eight or nine accounts of the same battle, there are an awful lot of names to remember. Not all the accounts included are that memorable either, some are instantly forgettable and don’t really merit inclusion in the book, whilst others are rethreading events already described.
This is a book that needs to be read cover to cover to get the most out of it, so may be too time consuming for some readers. Often several pages go by with little advance in the story, this may annoy readers with shorter attention spans but I suspect is the point, as Gilbert is merely echoing the real timeline of the battle and the way the soldiers saw it.
The book includes both front line and behind the line accounts of the battle, they aren’t told in separate chapters and unfortunately the two don’t quite gel. It detracts from the flow of the book as you constantly have to remember names and figures, and it interrupts the narrative-one minute you are reading a gut wrenching account of someone’s death the next you are reading about a discussion at Westminster, its confusing and makes the book feel longer than it actually is, The stories of front line service are so strong it makes the other accounts feel a little tame in comparison, a tighter edit could have corrected many of these flaws and made it a easier read.
The battle of the Somme has been studied by tacticians for decades, for those looking for an insight into this area of the battle this probably isn’t the right book Excerpts From Douglas Haig’s own views on the battle are included though they add little to the book, and read like useless trivia. Gilbert does provide a series of annotated maps and gives some limited commentary on the how’s and why’s of the battle, but largely he shies away from the more ‘technical’ areas of the battle. There is enough to give the reader a basic understanding but Gilbert is more interested in the human story- the cost and effects of the battle on the soldiers who fought it. Readers looking for a insight into the tactics and politics of the battle are better looking elsewhere, there are many other books on the battle on the market which cover this area of the battle.
Gilbert largely relies on secondary and pre existing sources in this book, He gives very little commentary or opinion on the battle, as such makes the book feel a little flat, and frankly lazy. Whilst it isn’t necessarily needed it is a bit of a disappointment considering he’s a skilled historian, it wouldn’t have burdened the book with much added weight and would have helped to break up the book’s narrative.
It is clear that Gilbert is writing a British account of the battle, so there are only a few German accounts included, it’s a shame as the few that are included are very strong and help break up the book’s layout. Having more German accounts would have also given greater insight into the battle, and how the ‘enemy’ functioned.
The book is very predictable at times, there are significant flaws with the layout, and arguably it offers little we haven’t seen before, but this book largely merits its cost. A flawed but fascinating read packed full of interesting trivia and stories. It will be gripping reading for anyone with a interest in World War 1 or military history, though it may not satisfy those looking for an in depth look at the battle, or a truly memorable read.