The Complete War Diaries of the British Army’s Worst Day
Martin Mace & John Grehan
Pen & Sword, 2013
There is already an abundance of books covering different aspects of the fateful day of 1st July 1916, yet it is a subject that continues to attract authors and publishers. Whatever their focus, most books about the battle rely, at least in some part, on the battalion war diaries for that day. Whilst the somewhat provocative title of this particular book may have been designed to catch the eye and draw the reader in, this is unnecessary as the book stands on its own merits.
In trying to capture the actions of every unit involved in the battle, the very premise of the book poses a problem in itself – what defines ‘involvement’? In many cases this is self-evident from the part played and casualties incurred. In others it is not so clear cut – what of the battalions in reserve, for instance, whose diaries may still add valuable insight into the day’s events? The decision was taken to only include those battalions who went ‘over the top’, and whilst this prevents an already weighty tome from being even larger, it must be borne in mind that it does not present a full picture of the day, such as the not inconsiderable part played by the artillery and medical services.
This still leaves a list of 164 battalions, and anyone who has spent time at The National Archives trying to decipher the scrawl of a war diary will appreciate what a mammoth task it must have been to bring all these accounts together. The fate of many of the battalions involved will be familiar to those who already have some knowledge of the 1st July; the Newfoundlanders and the pals battalions no doubt among them. But many will not be aware of the part played by the lesser known battalions.
The book is set out by Corps working from the north to the south of the British line. Each Corps sector is introduced with a brief but useful overview of the objectives and progress of the Divisions involved. The diaries are then presented as they were written, abbreviations, appendices, and spelling and grammatical errors all faithfully reproduced. The index is comprehensive and particularly useful for its extensive referencing of battalions, places and trench names. Some photos are included but the book would not have suffered from their absence.
This is not a comprehensive interpretation of the battle nor does it aspire to be. It does not cover the context of the campaign, or the days before or after the 1st July. Yet with the Somme campaign likely to feature heavily during the centenary commemorations, this is a valuable resource for the historian of the Somme or for anyone who has an interest in the primary accounts of the battalions involved.
Buy this book from Amazon here:
Slaughter on the Somme