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The Somme The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs

Richard van ~Emden
During the Great War (WWI) the allies of France, Russia, Britain and Italy agreed at a meeting in 1915 to maintain a series of offensives against the enemy and it was agreed that Britain and France would commit to an offensive along the Somme. The French army was to provide the main force with support on the northern flank by the British army but the Germans attacked at Verdun in early 1916 and some of the French forces were diverted from the Somme offensive, which meant the British took on more of the effort on the Somme. This is not to say that the French did not take part in the Somme offensive because they pushed the Germans back some distance on the first day of the offensive.

The battle commenced on July 1st 1916 and continued until the middle of November 1916 and saw the introduction of the first tank. However, the battle has always been infamous for the terrible casualties suffered by the British. On the first day alone, there were some 58000 casualties, 19000 of them dead. This was mainly at the expense of the so-called Kitchener’s new army (the Pals Battalions) which had now effectively replaced the original Expeditionary Force.

There have been many books written about the battle but this one provides a very slightly different slant on things. Richard van Emden, who has been involved in considerable research and programmes concerning the Great War, has written a most unusual history of the battle. His research has involved gaining permission to reproduce parts of memoirs, excerpts from books, archives and results of interviews. Cameras were not allowed during that war and any photographs taken were illegal (as was the possession of a camera), but a considerable number of men did take photographs. These, together with the accounts acquired, have been woven into an historical account of the battle from individual sources. The result is a somewhat unusual narrative which, at first, seemed rather strange but soon formed into interesting reading.

From the Introduction, providing a condensed version of what happened, Richard explains why and how he produced this book though, unfortunately for me, he does not really indicate the format and it was found to be somewhat confusing at first. The diaries/memoirs, together with photographs here and there, describe the initial almost gentlemanly way things were progressing in the initial chapters relating how some settled in, through but that soon gives way to acceptance and acclimatisation to the reality of trench life, the effects of the weather, and the attacks and counter attacks.

Although the period covered is only a few months, the content of the chapters tend to make it seem like a lifetime, leading only to the pushes later in the year and the offensives to take prime objectives such as Thiepval Ridge and the Ancre Heights, finally pushing the Germans back. But by this time, winter was beginning to settle in and the final chapter provides a description of just how cold things were becoming.

Although there are several books about the Great War appearing at present, this one is particularly interesting, describing that rather prolonged battle from the point of view of those who were there, involved in the various offensives. Not strange and maybe not surprising but throughout there are glimpses of the black humour of the soldier with a glimpse here and there of morbidity on the part of some. It is well worth reading for those who wish to get more of a personal feel for that period of the Great War.
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