Having had a summer break from the blog, I thought I might begin 2017 with a catch up of the books on the review shelf regarding the battle of the Somme, a popular topic mid year 2016.
Each book (below) variously describes the battle and the poor decision-making that resulted in the loss of so many men.
There are good maps of the area and the progress of the battle in each book, but especially in the Hugh Sebag-Montefiore book.
In the end, though, I think any reader will be left with a keen sense of the absolute futility of war: young men, in the prime of their lives, dying for nothing; villages reduced to rubble and a landscape denuded.
First Day of The Somme
The complete account of Britain’s worst ever military disaster
By Andrew Macdonald
Published by Harper Collins
RRP $34.99 in paperback
This is a well researched book from New Zealand author and military historian, Andrew Macdonald, who limits himself to just one day, 1st July 1916. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme and at the conclusion of that day 19,240 British soldiers lay dead with a further 35,493 wounded and 2,737 recorded as missing. This still remains as the British Army’s greatest one-day loss.
Besides examining the battle geographically, sector by sector, Macdonald also explores the day’s proceedings from the German perspective. His objective was to write a detailed and balanced Anglo-German history of that fateful day and I believe he has achieved his aim with this book.
For seven days prior to the troop offensive, the British gunners belted out one shell after another with the aim of neutralising the enemy’s artillery and defences and kill or subdue the German garrison. Somewhere between 2 and 2 ½ million shells were hurled at the German lines. Unfortunately for the British, while the German artillery strength was severely dented, the bombardment in reality caused more damage to the surrounding towns and villages.
When the bombardment ceased and the British infantry emerged from their trenches, the German machine guns cut a swathe through the British lines.
By Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
Published by New South Publishing
RRP $32.99 in paperback
This book was first published in 2005. At the time it was well received. To mark the 100th anniversary of the event, authors Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have provided a new introduction in which they restate some of the major points made in the book and investigate some of the work published in the intervening ten years. They highlight the poor decisionmaking of the War Committee of the British Cabinet without drawing firm conclusions as to the reason – lack of military knowledge? lack of concentration? inability to assess the situation properly? unwillingness to back away from a decision, once made? Who knows but it cost many lives.
The introduction is helpful too, in pointing to books published since the first edition that rely on German primary sources, opened up since the authors published the first edition of this book.
Into the Breach
By Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
Published by Viking/Penguin
RRP $35.00 in paperback
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore takes an interesting approach to develop a fresh perspective on the Somme battle. I’d urge readers to read his acknowledgements, at the back of the book, before tackling the book, as this will provide a framework to understand his approach.
There is a tragic family element to his interest too. His great grandfather Cecil Sebag-Montefiore who served in the Royal Engineers on the Western Front was severely wounded while in France, leaving him in unbearable misery when he returned to civilian life. He eventually shot himself, an act that ‘rippled through the generations’ of the Sebag-Montefiore family.
To read a comprehensive review of this book from The Guardian, click on this link.