Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' own words and photographs

The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' own Words and Photographs
Pen & Sword, £20

There are a number of reasons why this book should earn a place on military bookshelves. Although the Battle of the Somme took place nearly a century ago, and although it has been written about and debated ever since, in many respects this is a completely new take on that grim campaign. As Richard van Emden notes in his introduction, the scale of the tragedy on the first day alone - 60,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 dead - has been repeated so many times that it has almost lost its power to shock. Instead, what we have here in this new appraisal, is a slow building up towards that dreadful day and the months that followed. The story begins not with the whys and wherefores of the campaign – these can be found easily enough in other books – but soldiers arriving on the Somme in July 1915 and Second Lieutenant George Webb of the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment writing of “a delightful little village some way east of Amiens.”

Richard Van Emden is a skilful and passionate author who has written many volumes on the First World War. Here though, he never lets that passion interfere with the voices of the men. This is, after all, “the epic battle in the soldiers’ own words…” and it is the men who tell the story, with Richard Van Emden coordinating in the background rather than intruding.

Many of the voices will be familiar to those of us who have studied the campaign over decades, and have built up our own libraries, but there are plenty of private papers which are published here for the first time and which provide fresh perspectives on a well-worn subject. I met and interviewed Sapper Norman Skelton, one of two people to whom this book is dedicated, back in the mid-eighties, and it is good to see him recalled in this volume, even though he was too young to have taken part in the 1916 campaign himself.

But this book is also far more than simply recollections. Personal photographs, many of these published for the first time, proliferate on these pages and show the unvarnished truth of life in the front line. These are not the official photographs, re-published many times over the last 100 years, but the amateur snapshots taken on hand-held Kodaks which have never been seen before.

The Somme is compelling, the soldiers’ words and photographs haunting. Get yourself a copy.

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