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The French Army on the Somme, 1916

The French Army on the Somme, 1916

Ian Sumner
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This excellent book by Ian Sumner is a very valuable corrective to the idea that the 1916 Battle of the Somme was all about the British. Featuring a good introductory section, it uses its many well-chosen large black and white photographs with informative captions to paint a quite different and larger perspective.

The book is divided up into five chapters and spans 144 pages in total. The first substantive chapter, of 36 pages, deals with the French Army on the Somme in 1914-15 and the handover of the northern part of the sector to the British in the latter part of the year. It starts with a concise, two-page introduction and then goes into a series of well-chosen clear black and white photographs showing various aspects of French Army life on the Somme front, with detailed, informative captions, some including quotations from French servicemen of the period.

Chapter 2 The Plans - opens with text giving Foch's tactical doctrine for the Somme and then about 30 pages showing the military build-up with a particular focus on the artillery preparation. It is refreshing to see recognition of the Somme as an all-arms effort, with artillery and the French airforce both being featured.

Chapter 3 - the offensive begins - spans 33 pages. It has a good short introductory section setting out the progress of the battle in the French sector in the first two months (July and August), a period which saw the French consolidating their first day gains north and south of the river. The narrative drive almost inevitably dissipates once one gets to the photographs but reference back to the useful map helps to situate the numerous photographs in their proper place in the narrative.

Chapter 4 - regaining momentum - describes and illustrates the renewed Franco-British offensive in September in about 25 pages whilst chapter 5 - the end of the offensive - does the same for the diminishing returns of the October offensives and brings both the narrative of the offensive and the book itself to a close. It includes some interesting reflections on the success of the Somme as a battle to relieve pressure on Verdun and in its own right, and takes a look ahead to the Nivelle mutinies of the following year.

There is no index which is a minor hindrance, and it would be even better if a map had been included showing all the places identified in the photographs (the one map, a period one from 1916, is very good but a number of the places covered in the first chapter seem to be off the map to the south.) However, these are minor points which detract little if at all from the overall value of the book.

Obviously, the main selling point for this work is the fine collection of photographs, many of which will be unfamiliar to a British audience (and indeed have not been published before). However, it is much more than a compilation of photographs, with the text and captions adding real value. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to get the full picture of this iconic battle, or for anyone interested in learning more about the French Army in the First World War.

Four and a half stars.

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