Review: The Somme (Barton & Banning)


The Somme.*

Most of the books I review on this blog I have read twice. I’m working my way through my third trip into this one, and it’s slow going.

Its approach is not out of the ordinary: quotations and commentary interspersed with photographs and maps; however, its composition on the page vastly complicates the job of reading it.

The book is printed in landscape format, the better to accommodate the multi-fold panoramic photos, the perusal of which entail lengthy departures from reading the text. Moreover, the text is distributed across three columns that are distractingly broken up by numerous small illustrations, many of which are period monochrome photos that are too dark to provide helpful detail in contact-sheet size; but many of these are popular or iconic images, so researchers likely will have access to much larger copies in other books.

The other interrupting illustrations are excerpts from period campaign maps, and in the main are too small to be enlightening. Large sections of the maps are also provided, but while they have the advantage of color-coding, which is lacking in the line-drawn reproductions found in most books, the original maps still suffer from the same confusing clutter that curse most such diagrams. The accompanying panoramic photo spreads may have been meant to help ameliorate this difficulty, but a reader looking at a photo still lacks the three-dimensional immediacy that would have made the maps meaningful to soldiers at the front. In other words, “You had to be there.”

Diagrams of trench construction features provide helpful insight into the complexity of static warfare. Many period panoramas are accompanied by color photography of the modern landscape, which alleviate some of the monochrome monotony of a work of this magnitude. Quotations from battle participants are typeset in italics, which simplifies their identification, but can become difficult to read in long passages.

The sections and chapters in the table of contents are creatively entitled in theatrical terms as acts and scenes. The appendices include a timeline and a hierarchy chart to explain army structure; further reading is suggested; sources and pictures are credited in separate sections. The index, spread over five pages of five columns each, does its job. The book’s format and weight make almost imperative the use of a table or large lap desk for comfortable reading.

This book is clearly meant for the serious researcher. It may make a good gift for an armchair general who has the leisure to delve deeply, but not for anyone who wants only a quick battlefield stroll.

* The cover of my copy bears the subtitle, The Unseen Panoramas, and neither that nor the pictured subtitle appears on the title page.


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