The Somme 1916 : The Strip of Murdered Nature 2 July - 18 November 1916

The Somme 1916 : The Strip of Murdered Nature 2 July - 18 November 1916

Ed Skelding (Foreword Tam Dalyell)
ARRSE Rating
3.5 Mushroom Heads
This book, by television producer Ed Skelding, is built around numerous photographs taken by him on filming trips to the Somme sector, and deals with the Battle of the Somme, 1916 from the second day (2 July 1916) until the end, in November. The first volume one deals with the first day exclusively and is probably where the prefatory material which feels absent here is to be found.

The book, which aspires to "tell the story of where and how the battle was fought", consists of Foreword, Introduction, a scene-setting chapter entitled 'Dark Woods of Picardy', twelve chapters on battles, conclusion and various end material.

Both Foreword and Introduction are readable enough but are probably the weakest parts of the book, betraying the need for a good editor as they contain just enough poor sentence construction, etc, to be slightly jarring. (It improves from thereon, although the odd slip also creeps into chapter 4.)

As noted above, the book suffers the limitation of being the second of two parts. It goes into the narrative of the succeeding battles with only a cursory mention of the first day of the Somme in the Introduction, and little or no strategic context. This is fine for a reader steeped in the lore of the Somme but for the more casual reader it is quite abrupt.

In terms of structure, the battle zone is divided up area by area, each having its own chapter. More detailed maps support each of the chapters. Although good efforts are made to explain where particular features lie in relation to others in the captions to the (often very good) original photographs, the maps would be improved if the respective front lines were consistently marked on all of them, together with particular trenches or other features which are named in the text.

These maps bear looking at and referring back and forth to as the narrative unfolds. For example, Waterlot Farm is shown on the map accompanying the second chapter but not mentioned in the text, whereas is is mentioned in the text of the Fourth chapter but has slid off the edge of the accompanying map! Similarly, chapter four mentions the feature known as "the Windmill" several times but it is indicated on the map for the chapter following.

The book's main selling-point is the good quality original photographs, some very atmospheric, of which it has a generous number. These are complemented by well-chosen period photographs, the majority (although not all) of which are captioned. The large landscape format of the book sets them off well.

Going through the book, chapters two and three deal with the actions preparatory to the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. Then chapter four focuses on the successful night action to take the German second line on the Ridge and chapter five (well illustrated with modern photographs showing with the wood from most of the way around its circumference) deals with High Wood. The DelvilIe Wood chapter (six) is particularly excellent, with its use of several items of period testimony.

Chapter seven is a little weak on its own terms, as, although entitled 'Longueval', it is principally the story of the end of Major Billy Congreve, VC - the story of the taking of Longueval being mainly told in the preceding chapter.

Conversely, there is good use of testimony in Chapter eight, on the Battle of Pozières Ridge, drawing on Australian sources, and an interesting passage on the last days of English composer Lieutenant George Kaye-Butterworth MC.

Chapters nine and ten, on the Battles of Guillemont and Flers-Courcelette respectively, are also good, and particularly rich in full-page illustrations.

Chapter eleven, on the Battle of Morval, was memorable but would have been improved with a map showing Thiepval, Mouquet Farm, and the Schwaben Redoubt, all of which are well covered in the text. Finally the book draws to a close, along with the battle itself, with chapters on the Battles of the Transloy Ridges and the Ancre covering, amongst other things, the Durham Territorials at the Butte de Warlencourt and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre.

I took a bit of time to warm-up to this book, possibly because I was not entirely sure what it was meant to be. It isn't a walking guide, nor yet a detailed history, and the After the Battle/Then & Now books perhaps did a more thorough job of explaining the topography. On the other hand, even though the historical information is light, the combination of narrative, contemporary accounts, maps and photographs and the clear progression of the story by chapters meant that by the end I had a better understanding of the progress and experience of the battle than before, and will see places such as Longueval, Guillemont and Ginchy with new eyes as a result. Whilst a little patchy, overall it provides a good introduction to the extended Somme campaign, accompanied by some excellent original photographs, and for that reason I am happy to recommend.

3.5 Stars


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