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

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Twelve Days on the Somme: A Memoir of the Trenches, 1916

by Sidney Rogerson,  Introduction by Malcolm Brown
Greenhill Book, 2006
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Moving Up on the Somme

The title of this book is a succinct, apt review of its contents. The author, Sidney Rogerson, wrote this fine little memoir in 1933, and Greenhill Books has done World War I enthusiasts a great service by reprinting it. Rogerson was born in Dorset, England, in 1894. He was studying history at Cambridge when the war broke out, and he left college to be commissioned in the West Yorkshire Regiment, eventually seeing service in France.

The book includes a Foreword by Jeremy Rogerson, Sidney’s oldest child, an introduction by Malcolm Brown, and the original author’s introduction. Brown’s introduction is very helpful in putting the memoir in its original context. Brown notes that Rogerson intended for the memoir to serve as a counterpoint to the then-prevailing (and still quite prevalent) view of the war as a hopeless, senseless waste of life, overseen by incompetent generals. According to Rogerson:

The description in the following pages is entirely without propagandist urge or intention. It is a plain, unvarnished account of one short tour in the Somme trenches during the winter of 1916, written in the hope of recalling to the soldier the scenes with which he was familiar, and of presenting the younger generations with an accurate picture of life as we lived in those days. And life in the trenches was not all ghastliness. It was a compound of many things; fright and boredom, humour, comradeship, tragedy, weariness, courage, and despair [pp. xxx-xxxi].

As the title suggests, this is not an account of Rogerson’s entire World War I service; indeed, only three full days were spent in the front line. In the space of these days, Rogerson experiences the things he described in his introduction: happiness, boredom, terror, bitter cold, bone-wearing labor, and camaraderie. He begins with his battalion moving up to the front lines, a process fraught with danger, tediousness, and extreme discomfort. Once in the line, Rogerson, as company commander, had the additional duty of making sure everyone was settled and knew their orders. During the next few days, Rogerson describes the essence of life in the trenches: patrols, work in improving the trenches, rations, the hunt for souvenirs, a fruitless search for a missing officer, shell fire, a visit by the battalion and brigade commanders, misery, and death.

The author treats us to little snippets of the infantryman’s life on the Somme. His description of the demoralizing effect of German mortars is vivid, and his thoughts about being under so-called friendly fire is worth a long quotation:

It was only natural to curse the gunners, the rotten American ammunition, the worn guns, the inefficiency of the intelligence people who did not know where their own bloody infantry were, the staff, and everyone else whom we could think of for blotting out two good Yorkshire soldiers. But, living as we were in scoops and burrows which not only were not shown on any map, but which we ourselves were frantically anxious should be difficult to detect by direct observation, we were as much at the mercy of our own as of the enemy gunners. And when we had blown off our own indignation, we had to admit that the marvel was that such accidents did not happen more often [p. 86].

Captured  German Trench on the Somme

When his battalion was relieved, Rogerson was the last man to leave the front lines. While the men went one way, Rogerson chose another route, alone, to pass the word to battalion headquarters that the relief was complete. While moving in the dark, the inevitable happened, and Rogerson became lost in the featureless muddy landscape.

Throughout the war this was my worst nightmare—to be alone, and lost and in danger. Worse than all the anticipation of battle, all the fear of mine, raid, or capture, was this dread of being struck down somewhere where there was no one to find me, and where I should lie till I rotted back slowly into the mud. I had seen those to whom it had happened [p. 92].

We can sense Rogerson’s frustration when, after arriving safely in a rear-area “camp” after their relief, the battalion is tapped to send two working parties out to help construct a narrow gauge rail line toward the front. Thus men who just made the hazardous trip from the front to the rear area, still cold and muddy, were required to return to the dangerous area behind the lines in order to act as “navvies” for the Royal Engineers. This type of activity, common to all the armies, caused the infantrymen to be certain that the “staff” had no idea of what conditions were at the front.

The narrative ends as Rogerson and his battalion finally reach a proper rest area. As Rogerson writes, “the war years will stand out in the memories of vast numbers of those who fought as the happiest period of their lives. And the clue to this perhaps astonishing fact is that though the war may have let loose the worst it also brought out the finest qualities in men” [p. 60].

There are three pencil illustrations, two of which are humorously and nicely done by Rogerson, to enhance the text. Maps, usually so essential to military history books, are neither needed nor included. This book is a good, quick read and highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn about what it was like to be a company commander in a British infantry battalion, even if for just a few days near the end of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Great War.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. Sounds like a solid first-person account.
    Interesting to see in 1933, in that it's not as critical as others of the time.

  2. That one could actually be happy in the trenches is worth pondering on. A nice review--thank you, Pete.

  3. Excellent review. Cheers