Reading Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme, it is hard to believe that it was first published over 40 years ago. Although the idea of using veterans’ recollections is now commonplace (e.g. the ‘Forgotten Voices’ series), at the time it was seminal. In writing the book over a period of three years, Middlebrook gathered accounts of the battle from over 550 British and German servicemen. He placed appeals in national and local newspapers, and travelled the country interviewing veterans; all this by a ‘novice’ researcher whose day job was running a poultry farm. At the time the Somme was not widely visited; Middlebrook toured the battlefields and combined this knowledge with evidence from the recently de-classified PRO records.
After a brief introduction to some of the men whose stories are followed through the book (a sample of ten from across the regular, territorial, and new armies), Middlebrook sets the Somme offensive in context before describing the plans and preparations for the campaign. He looks at the command structure and life in the trenches, as well as the terrain of the area and notable German strongpoints.
The book then follows a chronological approach, following the ‘case studies’ and their experiences in the wider context of the day’s events, from Gommecourt in the north to Mametz and Montauban in the south. At times you have to remember that this is only about the first day, and that the battle continued for another four months; the book has a brief chapter on the remainder of the campaign but does not go into a great level of detail.
The appendices are particularly useful – the order of battle of British units and German divisions; senior officer casualties; VC winners; battalions with more than 500 casualties; and a ‘tour’ of the Somme battlefield. It has to be said that the maps are also superb and help place the events of the day and particularly the locations of the ten men who are followed.
Overall the book provides a balanced analysis of the day’s events. Taking the point of view of the soldier in the frontline, the book does not dwell too much on the strategic decisions and oversight of the battle. However, the issues it does raise about the actions (or inactions) of the Generals and commanding officers are ones that are still fiercely debated today.
The book is not without its critics; Corelli Barnett and John Terraine, both leading First World War historians, were reputedly not impressed with Middlebrook’s approach. However now that all of these veterans have gone, reading their words seems even more poignant. Many display a candour that was not commonplace at the time; countless veterans had not spoken about their wartime experiences, even to their closest loved ones. Whilst we will never truly understand what it was like to have fought on the Somme, reading their words is perhaps the closest we may get to understanding what these men experienced and endured. The First Day on the Somme is readable, informative, and has certainly stood the test of time.
A fascinating article by Martin Middlebrook about writing The First Day on the Somme can be found here.
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The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (Penguin History)