Review: The Somme (Foley & McCartney)

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Book shown drawn out of brown slipcover.

The Somme: An Eyewitness History

Two innovative approaches make this book by far the most readable of the Great War histories that are based on participant testimony.

First, the chapters are organized topically instead of chronologically: the reader doesn’t have to struggle to keep a mental place on the timeline of the battle, or to keep connected the separated segments of each individual’s experiences while moving between many different first-person accounts. Second, the emphasis is given to the quotations rather than to summaries and interpretations by the historians, by reversing the usual format for font usage: the participants’ accounts are printed larger than are the editorial interpolations, making for a much smoother, easier reading experience.

Separate pages of glossy photos are scattered at restful intervals in the text. A single-page map at the beginning serves to orient the reader to the Western Front, while a separate larger map of the Somme battlefield resides in a plastic pocket inside the back cover. This second map suffers from “busy” syndrome, because it documents all the lines of advance for the whole campaign, and does so in solid, dashed, and dotted-dashed lines that are all in black, superimposed on the black line-drawn topographical features (German positions are shown in red).

The end matter includes definitions of military terms and acronyms; an appendix that explains Britich and German army composition; end notes; reading recommendations; a bibliography entitled “Acknowledgments;” and a reasonably thorough index. The sturdily bound hardcover book is housed in a heavy slipcase which fits so snugly that it can be difficult to return the book to its box.

This history is on the pricey side because of its elegant binding, but it earns its keep because of its accessible presentation of events. Highly recommended.

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