Fighting the Somme

Fighting the Somme
Jack Sheldon
4.5 Mushroom Heads
'Fighting the Somme' is one of those books that makes one wonder why it hasn't been written before. The author, Jack Sheldon, examines the battle exclusively from the perspective of the German higher formation commanders and the result is a very lucid and forensic examination.

The British view of the First World War has only relatively recently shrugged off the tiresome 'Lions led by Donkeys' cliche and no doubt creatively challenged TV directors will continue to persevere with alternate focus shots of barbed wire and poppies overlaid with a portentous and entirely erroneous commentary spouting general tosh about lost generations, however, 'Fighting the Somme' plays an invaluable role in helping to slay the dragon of the incompetent British being handed their collective backsides by an all-conquering German General Staff. What emerges from Sheldon's book is that the German's were equally capable of command chaos and, interestingly, how close the Allies came to a breakthrough, particularly in the French sector, which tends to get the same treatment in British accounts of the battle as the Americans accord to the British in the Battle of the Bulge.

Sheldon is a former Regular Officer in the British Army and he's written extensively on the First World War. His style is clear and easy to follow and he makes authoritative use of source documents to support his work. The text features extensive extracts from the letters between the various commanders and, though this reviewer initially thought that this was overdone, on reflection it allows the protagonists to speak in their own words and provides a very effective way to appreciate how the various players rubbed each other up the wrong way and swung between patience and exasperation in their dealings.

The weakness of the book is inherent in the approach of viewing matter entirely from one side in that the reader probably requires at least a working knowledge of the Battle of the Somme to truly follow what's going on. Maps are provided but they tend to be in the style of dots and dashes in various combinations which are beloved of World War One histories but which aren't always the easiest to interpret at a glance. In terms of the battle as a whole, this is not the Somme equivalent of Alistair Horne's 'The Price of Glory' and the footsoldier is rarely seen but Sheldon sets out his terms of reference very clearly from the off, which is fair enough.

Anyone with an interest in World War One will like this book and, if the Somme is a particular area of interest, this is a must have for the library. Less expert readers would probably benefit from reading a more general account of the battle first. In sum, Sheldon, and in a very readable manner, has successfully tackled an important and somewhat neglected aspect of the Battle of the Somme. In doing so, he has brought the respective personalities of the German High Command to life and the book is an excellent reminder of the importance and impact of individual personalities and rivalries in the settlement of great affairs.

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