Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs
reviewed by Bryan Alexander

The Somme:
The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs
by Richard van Emden
Little, Brown and Company, 2015

This history of the Battle of the Somme (1916) is an unusual book, one I'd recommend to any reader interested in the First World War. One reason it's unusual is that The Somme is almost entirely primary sources. The text consists largely of letters, journal entries, and notes taken by British soldiers. (*) The author however adds some light framing and contextualizing details after a short introduction, along with invisible editorial work, picking and arranging the texts into chronological order.

The book also includes a great deal of photographs taken by those soldiers, usually in violation of regulations. We see exhausted soldiers, trenches, tools, dugouts, ruined landscapes, captured weapons, barrage balloons, the terrifying new tank, wounded men walking or being carried — it's a very rich visual record. I don't think I've seen any of these photos before.

On the Road to Montauban, the Afternoon of 1 July 1916:
These British Troops Would Be Among the Few to Achieve Their First-Day Objective

Taken together, van Emden gives us a fresh take on this enormously famous (and notorious) battle. We follow the action on the ground, largely bereft of grand strategy and lacking foreshadowing. Soldiers focus on their immediate environment, unsurprisingly, giving us a micro-level view of the large battle (really an offensive). This makes the fighting much more accessible, humanizing a topic that can turn quite technical or abstract. For example, the first 100 pages and two chapters occur before the attack, showing soldiers settling into new positions, new recruits (like the Pals Battalions) getting used to being in the line, and the offensive in preparation. The reader gets to settle in as well, learning the front.

Elsewhere we read letters written by one Raymond Asquith, a son of the then-current prime minister. We read about him from his fellow soldiers, then learn of his death. Later we see H.H. Asquith visit the front, yet we do not see his reaction to the loss of Raymond. Instead we must process his death ourselves, through his letters, and by means of fellow soldiers' reactions.

Van Emden's achievement broadens our understanding of attitudes. For instance, the men in question don't uniformly share the sense of waste and futility that we see in many British war poets, most postwar accounts, and mid-century histories. Yes, there are passages of dismay and horror:

I felt tired suddenly. The few yards home were miles. The world was full of stretchers and white faces, and fools who gibbered about the great advance (130).

From the open door of our goods van, we were able to realize more than ever before the magnitude and fury of the struggle of the previous autumn. In every direction, as far as the horizon, stretched a desert of brown shell-ploughed slopes and hollows, and scattered upon the face of this landscape, clumps of splintered poles, gaunt and blackened by fire, marked the sites of former woods and copses...I, too, had not realized until now the degree and extent of its awful ruin. Life - human, animal, and vegetable - had been engulfed; not a leaf, hardly a blade of grass, no sound of bird, greeted us; all was done and finished with. Here indeed was the end of the world… (339-40).

German Soldiers on Thiepval Ridge Examine an Unexploded British Shell

But the book contains many instances where soldiers write in excitement and pride, celebrating achievements and successes:

For a quarter of an hour our artillery rained shells on the corner of the wood that held the Germans, and on the enemy's supports. And our men jested among themselves. The tension was over: they were going to get their own back now: they had stormed a Boche stronghold before, and had come out "laughing": this might be a sterner job, but the Glasgows could do it if anyone could... (191).

One Coldstream Guards lieutenant describes with pride and excitement the sheer amount of material the British assemble to continue the attack, ending some sentences with excited exclamation points:

Beyond, aligned in ordered rows, battery by battery, stood a park of pigmy brethren. These were the 18-lb field-guns — of no great account, one might be tempted to think — but ask the army of von Arnhim! These were they whose flaming sleet thrashed down the massed counter-attacks of Germany; these were the barrage-makers!...Here lay a tangible proof of England's will, a token of what the folk at home had undertaken on our behalf (223).

There's a strong moral sense, an outrage at the enemy combined with patriotic (and sometimes imperial) pride:

I can't think why Germany wanted war, to destroy homes, and to break hearts, maybe! I do not feel really unhappy, but in me glows a pride — I can feel it as I look at my mud-besprinkled khaki, high boots, and spurs — to think that I have the honour to bear arms against such people as the Germans (313).

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Physically, The Somme is a very well produced book. Pages are high quality, glossy and heavy, nicely rendering photographs. Supporting material is weak, unfortunately, with only two pages of maps and a paltry index. Readers would have benefitted from a glossary of terms or marginal notes to explain technical and local terms (does "Coy" = "company"?). However, I recommend the book for those interested in WWI, in personal narratives, and in early photography.

(*) One exception to this British focus is a German soldier's diary in Chapter 6. One Lieutenant Kammich recorded his experiences under a tremendous British attack in the Thiepval pocket from later July into September. It makes for a nice change of perspective and pairs well with the chapter's British accounts (264, 266-277). On a personal note, combining texts from opposing sides was how I used to build my Literature of War class syllabus.

Bryan Alexander


  1. Excellent review, Bryan, thanks! The Somme is on my mind these days, especially this Friday on the centenary of this battle where "idealism perished."

  2. Thank you, Tom.
    I'm working up a blog post for another site this weekend.
    I wonder how the British are commemorating the centenary - not that they're not already busy with other things.

  3. Extremely informative review, Bryan. Now I have to get the book for sure! It's a pity a work covering so much would only have a couple of pages of maps, but as we've discussed, that sometimes seems par for the course. David Beer

  4. Thank you, David.
    Is there a best web site for Great War maps, or a best print resource?