Review: Somme (Gilbert)

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Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War.

The twelve dozen days that live in infamy are aptly introduced in this compact book. Diaries, letters, unit histories, and contemporary historical accounts, as well as later analytical histories, are among the sources that lend veracity and immediacy to Gilbert’s writing.

The author puts a human face on casualty figures, by including vignettes about specific soldiers who met their demise on the Somme, a great many of whom have no known resting place. He strives for even-handed treatment by including similar brief accounts of named German soldiers from particular units. Several soldiers whose fate was to be “shot at dawn” are also memorialized.

Haig does not cut a heroic figure, by any stretch of the imagination. His diary entries, with their liberal use of exclamation marks, reveal him to be both deluded and duplicitous. Especially annoying is his continual carping about what he perceived to be the inferior performance of the troops: mean-spirited remarks made from the safety of billets located 10 to 12 miles away from the front, about men who were laying down their lives at an average rate of about five men per minute in obedience to his fantasy of an infantry breakthrough meant to facilitate a triumphant charge by his beloved cavalry, who would then easily obtain for him his coveted “decisive” victory on the Western Front. Winston Churchill’s scathing observations about Haig’s character and competence were spot on.

Forty-nine photographs, a few of which are iconic scenes, are distributed in three sections. There are thirty-three legible and understandable maps, including several that show locations of memorials and cemeteries. An appendix lists the approximate (or perhaps theoretical) size of army formations, and the ranks of officers who led them. The book includes a comprehensive bibliography, and an index which is noted to have been compiled by the author.

A mass-market paperback that, despite its pocket-book size, packs a hard punch. Highly recommended.

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