Review: The Somme (Hart)

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The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front.

This book gets a lot of praise in the press for its comprehensive coverage, but I found that the text is too frequently broken up with lengthy block quotes, which makes for a choppy, disjointed reading experience, rather like that of The Beauty and the Sorrow. As if there wasn’t enough detail in the prior 500-plus pages, an appendix entitled “Life in the Trenches” devotes several more pages of block quotes to that topic.

Hart is also too soft on Haig, for my taste. Others might think I’m too hard on the man, but what did him in, for me, was knowing how Haig blackmailed Gough, to make himself look better at the very end of the long exercise in pointless butchery that he perpetrated during the Battle of the Somme.

It was mildly interesting to learn of the lengths to which the trench humor of the period would go: That others who commanded the British forces also failed in popularity among the troops is brought out in an excursion into coprolalic comic relief, when the author quotes a scatological poem about Major General Shute. (This reminded me of a similar critique of General Shinseki’s decision to democratize the use of the black beret across the entire US Army – another poetic gem which seems to have been lost from my files.)

The book is illustrated with maps throughout, but they tend to be busy with details that clutter rather than clarify. A brief section of photos (a few of which are iconic) is printed on the same paper as the text and occupies the middle of the volume. Appendices list the British and German units involved in the campaign. End notes collate the voluminous in-text citations. The index is adequate.

If this is the only book about the Somme that will grace one’s library shelf, it’ll do.

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