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

Friday, September 16, 2016

Interviewing Martin Middlebrook

Recent Photo of Martin Middlebrook Visiting the Somme & Sharing His Insights

Martin Middlebrook is the author of possibly the single most popular work on WWI, The First Day on the Somme.  I've lost touch with him over the years, but for a time he was a regular contributor to my publications.  I recently ran across a 2005 interview I did with Martin.  I think it still has some interesting comments from the distinguished author.

1. Greetings, Martin, tell us: There have been many books about the Battle of the Somme since your First Day… was published, yet yours is still a perennial favorite. Why do you suppose it made such a lasting impact?

MM: I suppose the short answer is that it was the first British book published as a result of asking the ordinary soldiers what happened to them in the First World War. Until then, most memoirs had been written by the officer class.

I consider myself remarkably fortunate that I decided to tackle the subject just after the official documents from the First World War were released to the Public Record Office under the 50-year rule, and that I sought out the men at a time in their lives — most in their seventies at that time -— when they were still mentally alert and when they were retired from work and had time to talk to me or answer my letters. Incidentally, many or most of the best personal quotes were from men I never met but who were willing to send written contributions after receiving a carefully prepared questionnaire. I wrote a long article on my writing of First Day for Tom Morgan's Hellfire Corner website. Perhaps you could provide a link to it. [Click Here.] 

2. What is your favorite spot on the Somme?

MM: This is a difficult choice; I have so many "favourites." But to choose one:

AVELUY WOOD (LANCASHIRE DUMP) CEMETERY has the most beautiful peaceful setting on the edge of a quiet road through the wood. I like the typical wartime name incorporated by the IWGC in the peacetime title.

The cemetery actually contains four different types of graves. The scattered graves in the deep left is the original cemetery started on 1 July 1916 when two men from the Ulster Division died, presumably at a Forward Dressing Station brought to this convenient sheltered place near the front for the opening of the offensive. The other graves here are what I call a "comrades plot." To the right are the trench, shoulder-to-shoulder burials of men killed in and near the wood in the 1918 fighting -— a true battlefield burial plot. Between those two groups and the gateway are two small post-war concentration plots made by the Army Graves Service and the IWGC in the typical manner in which remote cemeteries were joined to the nearest road by post-war concentration (at the same time relieving the IWGC of the need to find burial places for a few dozen of the huge number of their "surplus" graves at that time).

Aveluy Wood Cemetery, Somme Sector

Finally, against the rear wall, are the memorial stones to men whose graves are "Known to be..." or "Believed to be..." buried in the cemetery. All these different features are most useful when I use this cemetery to give my "development of the British cemeteries talk" to groups. An added attraction is that I cannot remember ever being interrupted by the arrival of other visitors.

Some of my other favourites are:

Ten Tree Alley Cemetery — takes real effort to reach this remote spot. Hawthorne Ridge Cemetery No. 2, in a quiet corner of the Newfoundland Park, which is being steadily spoiled by officialdom (though I do sympathize with the problems involved; I was so fortunate to do most of my visiting before the age of mass commercial touring). Gordon Dump Cemetery, for the quirky way the cemetery had to be turned back to front after the roadway meant to provide access was closed and spoiled the cemetery architect's earlier design. Better stop now, but there are many more. Oh, go on, one more. Take a good guidebook and go up to the Bois Francais for a variety of reasons. 

3. You do not seem as harsh in your criticism of Field Marshal Haig as many of your contemporaries. How do you think his leadership and command rates compared to his peers: Joffre, Foch, P├ętain, Hindenburg/Ludendorff, Pershing, Cadorna?

MM: You have the wrong chap here, Mike. I'm Martin Middlebrook, not John Terraine, Corelli Barnett, or John Keegan; they are not my contemporaries. Let me explain.

Histories on the First World War (or any other conflict) come in one of three categories — looking at war from the top downwards, from the bottom upwards, or a mixture of the two.

I am an unreformed "from the bottom upwards" man — interested in the experiences of the ordinary soldiers and in the detail of tactics and actual battlefield experience. I only include the minimum of generalship and tactics necessary to set the scene for my main story. John Terraine and Corelli Barnett (and possibly others) have criticized my First Day because they thought, because I write about disasters, that I am criticizing the generals. They were "from the top downwards" experts. I do not believe that they had bothered to read my books first. In fact, they would find it hard to find any direct criticism of Haig in any of my books. It just happens that choosing a day like July 1st, 1916, allows the best opportunity to write about the things in which I am interested — and, apparently, many other readers also.

I do have personal opinions about Haig, etc. but do not feel qualified to put them into print. 

4. Of all the veterans of the Great War you were able to meet personally, who was your favorite character?

MM: No problem with this question. Private Thomas Easton, 1st Tyneside Scottish, 34th Division.

Tom Easton was one of many men from the northeast of England who offered their help after my appeal appeared in a local newspaper. An employee of my poultry business who lived in that area interviewed him on my behalf. (The handful of interviews he did was the only time that an outsider did interviews; John Howlett, then my co-author designate, did some in Manchester as well. All interviews for all my other books were carried out by myself.)

Much later, after I had started the writing, I decided to highlight the experiences of a limited number of men, initially 14 in number, one for each of the attacking divisions on "the first day." I chose Tom Easton to represent the 34th Division, drove the 220 miles to his home, and conducted an in-depth interview.

Tom Easton Memorial
Lochnagar Crater, Somme Battlefield
I found that he was a retired coal miner, living, appropriately, at No. 1 Aged Miners' Cottages, in a mining village in Northumberland in the far northeast of England. He was a genial man who cooperated fully. Despite his seemingly humble origins and abode, I found that he was a natural leader among the working class that was his life. After the war he had become a trade union leader, and he was currently an alderman (the highest elected position in local government at that time) on Northumberland County Council (only one level lower down from Parliament) — as a member of the Labour Party, of course. In addition to his help with the book, he became a lifelong friend.

Later, as my writing progressed I decided that 14 principal characters were too many for the reader to follow and reduced the number to the ten you see in the book. Tom Easton disappeared from the list but not from the book. (The whole idea of that exercise was to induce the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with those selected men, then feel a sense of sadness when two of them — Billy MacFadzean and Dick King — were killed on the first day, and another — Henry Webber — soon afterwards; this was to provide a contrast to just presenting lots of statistics of men killed. It was an unusual device, a risky one perhaps, but it seemed to work; but I never used it again.) 

The book was written. I kept in touch with Tom. There were two sequels. About three years later, Michael Kernan, a journalist at the Washington Post, contacted me. He was taking a year's sabbatical and wanted to write a book about one man from the Somme; whom could I recommend? I met Michael in London, over a meal at a Chinese restaurant, and put him in touch with Tom Easton. So the Washington, DC, journalist made his way to No. 1 Aged Miners' Cottages for a series of meetings. Michael's book was published in 1978. He called it The Violet Dots after the cemetery symbols marked on the CWGC Michelin maps of the battlefield areas. The book was a little gem, probably very rare now. I wonder how many of your members possess a copy. (The publisher was George Braziller, New York; the ISBN is 0-8076-0887-4. Someone should republish it! Can anyone give my best wishes to Michael Kernan?)

The second contact was a more personal one. A few years later I took my wife and three young daughters for a holiday in Northumberland. Tom invited us to "drop in for a cup of tea" on the way. We found a table completely covered in sandwiches, homemade cakes, etc. — a fine example of northern English hospitality. My family loved it.

I never saw Tom again. Through my book, he became known to a wider circle of admirers; there were other visitors to his cottage. In later years he became more frail and died after a fall when he slipped on some dog muck on a pavement. A memorial to him stands on the edge of the Lochnagar Crater. 

5. Tell us about your interest in the WWII air war, which as a U.S. Air Force veteran, I share.

MM: OK. I lost an uncle in the First World War — Sgt Andrew Crick, 1/4th Lincolns, 46th (North Midland) Division, died of wounds October 1915 at Remi Farm, buried Lijssenthoek. When I was a boy (I was born 1932) our family had a close friend, Theodore Archard, a bachelor, a devout member of our local Catholic church. I was very fond of him; I called him Uncle Theo. He was an industrial chemist in the food industry, a reserved occupation when war came in 1939 — i.e. he need not serve in the forces. But he volunteered for RAF aircrew and became a Lancaster navigator in Bomber Command. He and all his crew were killed when shot down by a night fighter in a raid on Mailly-le-Camp, a Panzer training camp and depot in France, just before D-Day. I visited his grave — one of 21 in one long row, three crews — during my first trip to the battlefields in 1967.

I expected to return to full-time work in my poultry business after The First Day on the Somme was published in 1971. I had realised the dream of having my Somme book published, now back to normal life. Then I received a phone call from my agent: an American publisher — Norton — was going to publish the Somme book! I was astonished, had never thought of an overseas publication. I decided not to return to the chickens; I would raise my ambitions and try to write two more books, one about the air war, one about the sea, both from another war. You should detect some self-indulgence here. What I had done with the Somme and was about to do with the two new books was to cover both world wars and all three theatres of war, researching and interviewing to my heart's content, and actually getting paid for it! 

So, what was next? I have always seen RAF Bomber Command as the Second World War successors of Kitchener's Army — all volunteers, led by similar characters — Haig and Harris, committed to seemingly endless battles of attrition with frightful losses. I nearly decided on Theo Archard's Mailly-le-Camp raid, but it had only involved two of the six bomber groups. I found that Theo Archard had flown on the Nuremberg Raid a few weeks earlier when Bomber Command suffered its heaviest loss of the war —  95 heavies for little bombing success at Nuremberg. Theo's crew, a new one on ops at that time, had just made it home from that raid. 

So, The Nuremberg Raid it was. I followed the same formula as The First Day, though not with central characters, met some more interesting people but of another generation, including top German night-fighter pilots and their senior officers. Convoy, the North Atlantic naval book, followed. 

A German publisher took both of those books and the Americans also. To hell with poultry farming, I'll continue writing. The two main themes have been the Western Front and the bomber offensive. (My poultry business, left in the hands of managers, collapsed later, but it would have done eventually because of changes in the industry. I paid off all the debts. I was lucky that I had my books and the battlefield touring business to keep me going. My books may appear to have been successful, but their income would never have kept me; it was battlefield touring that paid the domestic bills until I reached the age of 65, when I received the modest Old Age State Pension and cashed in my investment policies.) 

There was one memorable interlude in the succession of RAF bomber books. For The Battle of Hamburg I made a small visit to the United States to interview 8th Air Force aircrew members who had taken part in the two small B-17 raids during the Hamburg offensive. It was my first visit to your country and I enjoyed every minute of it. I deliberately followed up later with The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, the preparation for which culminated in a six-week visit. I carried out 80 interviews in a air flight and car-hire trip from coast, to coast, to coast — from the Atlantic, to the Pacific, to the Gulf. It was great to meet great men such as Curtis LeMay and Ira Eaker, and so many B-17 and P-47 pilots and crewmen. I was shown great hospitality by their wives, who were so impressed that a man had come from England to interview their husbands. While interviewing Hub Zemke at his almond ranch in California, Hub's wife spent the evening shelling a bag of nuts for me to snack on during my journey next day. A B-17 gunners wife baked me a pecan pie after I had gone from their modest home to my nearby motel. The ex-gunner was waiting for me with the pie when I appeared next morning. Then there was my "10-cent visit to Minneapolis-St Paul." The 10 cents was for a phone call from the airport to my first contact; the eighth man delivered me back to the airport three days later. I had not spent a cent in the interval. 

My American Express card became red hot; the book was in debt for several years but eventually turned a profit. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission was published in New York, by Scribners. I am very proud of it but disappointed that it did not sell particularly well. Thomas Coffey had published a book on the two Schweinfurt raids and had done very well with it. I felt my book was at least as good, probably better on the German side, but the U.S. book-buying public obviously thought otherwise. But it was all a great experience. 

Thanks again, Martin, for your great contribution to the literature of both world wars.  I hope our paths cross again someday.


  1. Had pleasure of going on several battlefield tours with Martin including Ypres, Somme and Verdun. Although tours were on the frugal side, they were very informative and developed a comradery among the participants.

  2. Great interview. Very enjoyable and informative.