What I Just Read – The Somme

The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War is a historical account of one of the major battlegrounds of WWI, as written by Martin Gilbert.

I was extremely interested in learning about the Somme in depth, but in the end this book was a slog.  Not unlike the battle itself, appropriately.  I really don’t know how to appropriately tact down why I found it so difficult to get through.  It certainly isn’t because Gilbert is a bad author, he’s one of the most well respected historians around.   It would have helped, certainly if he had interspersed his maps throughout the book rather than lumped them all in at the end.  For most of the book I was presented with names of towns and areas that I could not place into any sort of coherent geographical space, and paging between an appendix and the actual text completely ruins any pace.  But really, that is a more old fashioned style of historical writing, and it is what it is.

The main issue is that the text can’t do more than recount what happened, and the Somme was an awful, miserable trudging battle of repetition and death and constant drudgery.  The book is an account of an incredible waste of life and futile efforts for small patches of muddy French ground.  I think perhaps Gilbert could have done more to detail the conditions of the men in the trench, but he does an admirable job of telling the story of the battle with a dispassionate eye and respect for the dead.  Personally, I do wish that he had dwelled more on the lives and decisions of the German troops, but it’s primarily Britain’s fight, and it needed to focus on the British.  Every man that is mentioned gets a small note on any poetry he wrote and where he was buried, and its clear that Gilbert took enormous care to honor the men that fought the battle.

The battle was brutal, and between the endless repetition of artillery and men going “over the top” to be shot to pieces by machine guns it’s tough to get through.  Perhaps I was frustrated that Gilbert did not put more of a judgmental tone with the leadership of the war, and Haig in particular, for the dispassionate way that he tossed young men into this meat grinder for such minor gains, but that would be bad history.  I don’t know that I can recommend this book to any casual reader, but it is an excellent account of a sad time in human history.


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