Tuesday 24 May 2016

The First Day of The Somme - Gommecourt to Maricourt - 1 July 1916

The First Day of the Somme, by seasoned authors and Western Front travellers Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland, is not due for release until the 30th June but I know, having seen a proof copy, that it is going to be an indispensible companion to anyone with an interest in walking the Somme battlefields. As unwieldy as my proof copy is, I shall certainly make sure it is tucked into my rucksack when I head over for France myself in time for the 100th anniversary commemorations.

Eleven routes are covered in the book, the longest being the Gommecourt to Serre spine route at 5.3 miles, and the shortest being the Fricourt to Mametz route at just 1.5 miles. The determined traveller, blessed with good weather and sturdy walking boots could probably cover two or more of these walks in a single day, albeit these are not routes to be taken lightly, rather pilgrimages studded with cemeteries, private memorials, grassed-over craters and fading trench lines. On these walks, nearly 60,000 men spilled blood on the opening day of the battle itself, and tens of thousands would die before the campaign ground to a bloody and muddy halt in November 1916.

Each route begins with a general description and context and there are simple maps with key points indicated which the text then refers to.  For instance, the first route in the book, Gommecourt North, has nine points of interest indicated and so I can see that figure 1 refers to a plaque to the 1/5th North Staffordshire Regiment on the wall of the Mairie, figure 3 offers a view to le Bois Batard and figure 4 indicates the ground over which the 1/5th and 1/7th Sherwood Foresters of 139 Brigade advanced. The narrative never bores and is interspersed with accounts written or narrated by men who were there. Additional text and photographs pick out memorials, cemeteries, portraits of participants and the landscape itself. Emboldened text draws the reader's eye quickly to named individuals and places.

This is a GOOD book, and quite possibly a GREAT book. I suspect that it will be more useful on a Kindle than in book format, but nevertheless I'm going to grasp the bull by the horns and take my A4 proof copy secured in a plastic ring binder and pore over the pages as I tramp across the fields of northern France. Thankfully the book also notes places to rest and refresh and so that's covered too.

I can't comment on the book's look and feel but I suspect that, typical of Pen & Sword titles, this volume will be published to the usual high standard.

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Using local newspapers

As the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Battle of the Somme draws closer, and as more and more military records appear online, a reminder not to overlook the steadily growing British Newspaper Archive.

Since it was launched, over 16m pages from 696 publications have been digitised and published online.You can take out a subscription with the BNA or access the same material through Findmypast. I use the resource a lot and have always thought what a bargain it is to be included in the Findmypast subscription. Although the majority of the published pages date to the nineenth century, there is a growing collection of pages from the twentieth century, including many regional papers published during the First World War. It is these papers which can help to add so much more detail about a soldier, particularly if he was an officer and was killed in action.

For the purpose of this post,let's just take a look at a single page of The Liverpool Daily Post for the 21st July 1916.  Here, the newspaper has pulled names of officers from the official Times casualty lists and published details of Other Ranks from Liverpool and the surrounding areas.  There is good coverage of officer fatalities, which, in this particular issue, included a photograph of Captain Horace John Simkin and the following biography:

Captain Simkin was killed in action whilst serving with C Company, 13th King's (Liverpool Regiment) and is buried in Dive Copse British Cemetery at Sailly-le-Sec. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry notes that he had been mentioned in dispatches.

So ignore newspapers at your peril. Many include photographs of other ranks who were killed or died of wounds - The Manchester Evening News is a good example here - and don't give up just because the search term you have keyed in does not yield results. OCR is still - despite what others might say - an imperfect science and it does not always pick up the text accurately. If you know an ancestor became a casualty on a particular date, try and find the newspaper that would have covered the area where he was living and then start browsing the pages online. Having spent a fortnight at the British Newspaper Library in Colindale many years ago, trawling through back issues of various Sussex newspapers, I can assure you that the online searching is a good deal easier - and doesn't leave newsprint on your fingers.

I also offer a comprehensive, fast and cost-effective military history research service. Follow the link for more information. 

Sunday 1 May 2016

The Old Contemptible

Does anybody have copies of this publication that they would be willing to sell? A complete set sought but will also consider loose copies. Drop me a line via the RESEARCH tab please.

I also offer a comprehensive, fast and cost-effective military history research service. Follow the link for more information.