Sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the battle of the Somme took place on 1st July 1916, and that was it. But of course, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a battle in the traditional sense of a great clashing of armies lasting at most several days, but a five month long struggle that finally petered out in the November of the coldest winter for forty years with the capture of Beaumont Hamel, one of the objectives of the first day.
It’s a battle that has drifted inexorably out of living memory, with none of its survivors still living, but we are lucky to have numerous first hand accounts, written, audio and filmed, from contemporaneous diaries to accounts published/filmed in the last few years. Attitudes towards it as an event have varied over the years, Dan Todman has an interesting article on the BBC History site here.
When it comes to choosing a book to start off with we are spoilt for choice; do we choose Martin Middlebrook’s 1971 classic The First Day onthe Somme, or the indefatigueable Lyn MacDonald’s Somme? Or do we go for something more recent, that doesn’t focus quite so much on day one, almost forgetting the following five months? If we choose to do the latter, then Peter Hart’s 2005 book The Somme, with its meticulous analysis is well worth a look. Starting with the political background to the battle – why it took place where and when it did in the form it did, to how events transpired over the ensuing months. For the reader not familiar with the landscape there are excellent maps and a strong emphasis on first hand accounts. It’s a massive book – the new paperback edition is 626 pages, so it’s not a quick read, but Hart’s text is nevertheless very readable.
A much more informed review than I am capable of is available from The Long Long Trail, here.