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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