The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ own Words and Photographs
By Richard Van Emden
Pen & Sword, 2016
It is probable that the Battle of the Somme has generated more written words than any other battle or aspect of the First World War, with the centenary period seeing the addition of many more titles. Whilst Richard Van Emden’s work does not provide us with new evidence about the tactics, the campaign, whether it could be classed as a victory, or whether the casualties were justified, he does do is bring us an insightful examination of the campaign from the men who were involved.
The ‘USP’ of the book is undoubtedly the photographs that are included. The majority have previously been unseen by the public, and in a war where cameras were technically forbidden by the British, uncovering new photos has been no small task. Whilst most books about the campaign resort to well-known photographs or stills from the ‘Battle of the Somme’ film to pad out the text, the pictures here are given centre stage.
To provide a narrative and compliment the photos, Van Emden has scoured the archives of personal accounts, letters, and memoirs to find recollections of the men who were there, tied as closely to the pictures as possible. The result makes for a potent combination, reading the thoughts and recollections of the men whilst looking at what is being described.
The photographs cover all aspects of the campaign, not just the fighting, and as such cover the period from early 1915 when the British took over the sector from the French. The book then covers the main chronology of the campaign, form the first day through to the end of the campaign and the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917.
Many of the names of the soldiers whose accounts are used will be familiar – Max Plowman, Sidney Rogerson, Frank Crozier, Graham Hutchinson – and German soldiers’ accounts are also utilised to provide a more balanced view. Van Emden’s commentary is fairly ‘light touch’; this is, after all, the campaign told by those who were there, and he limits his input to adding context and bridging the gaps between accounts. The approach works well and the huge amount of effort and skill that must have gone into compiling the accounts and photos into a seamless narrative should not be underestimated. The book has been produced to a high standard and the quality of the photographs is superb, making this a great addition to the heaving shelf of Somme titles.
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The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs