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Somme (1983)

by Lyn Macdonald

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383451,670 (4.03)3
2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme 'There was hardly a household in the land', writes Lyn Macdonald, 'there was no trade, occupation, profession or community, which was not represented in the thousands of innocent enthusiasts who made up the ranks of Kitchener's Army before the Battle of the Somme...' The year 1916 was one of the great turning-points in British history- as the youthful hopes of a generation were crushed in a desperate struggle to survive, and traditional attitudes to authority were destroyed for ever. On paper, few battles have ever been so meticulously planned. Yet while there were good political reasons to launch a joint offensive with a French Army demoralized by huge casualties at Verdun, the raw troops on the ground knew nothing of that. A hundred and fifty thousand were killed in the punishing shellfire, the endless ordeal of attack and counter-attack; twice that number were left maimed or wounded. Here, almost for the first time, Lyn Macdonald lets the men who were there give their own testimony. Their stories are vivid, harrowing, sometimes terrifying - yet shot through with humour, immense courage and an astonishing spirit of resilience. 'What the reader will longest remember are the words - heartbroken, blunt, angry - of the men who lived through the bloodbath...a worthy addition to the literature of the Great War...'Daily Mail Over the past twenty years Lyn Macdonald has established a popular reputation as an author and historian of the First World War. Her books are based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors, told in their own words, and cast a unique light on the First World War. Most are published by Penguin. %%%'There was hardly a household in the land', writes Lyn Macdonald, 'there was no trade, occupation, profession or community, which was not represented in the thousands of innocent enthusiasts who made up the ranks of Kitchener's Army before the Battle of the Somme...' The year 1916 was one of the great turning-points in British history- as the youthful hopes of a generation were crushed in a desperate struggle to survive, and traditional attitudes to authority were destroyed for ever. On paper, few battles have ever been so meticulously planned. Yet while there were good political reasons to launch a joint offensive with a French Army demoralized by huge casualties at Verdun, the raw troops on the ground knew nothing of that. A hundred and fifty thousand were killed in the punishing shellfire, the endless ordeal of attack and counter-attack; twice that number were left maimed or wounded. Here, almost for the first time, Lyn Macdonald lets the men who were there give their own testimony. Their stories are vivid, harrowing, sometimes terrifying - yet shot through with humour, immense courage and an astonishing spirit of resilience. 'What the reader will longest remember are the words - heartbroken, blunt, angry - of the men who lived through the bloodbath...a worthy addition to the literature of the Great War...'Daily Mail Over the past twenty years Lyn Macdonald has established a popular reputation as an author and historian of the First World War. Her books are based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors, told in their own words, and cast a unique light on the First World War. Most are published by Penguin.… (more)
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Few battles are as seared into the British historical consciousness as the battle of the Somme, the months-long offensive against the German trenches during the First World War. There the newly-trained divisions of "Kitchener's Army" suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, all for advances that were often measured in yards. It was a baptism of blood, one that often depopulated villages back home of an entire generation of young men and left an indelible impression on the minds of its survivors.

Lyn Macdonald's book is a chronicle of the battle from the viewpoint of the British soldier. She begins by describing how so many of the soldiers came to be on the Somme battlefield, through their recruitment into the ranks in the weeks and months that followed the outbreak of the war. Many of them joined in groups, retaining a collective identity from their civilian life even after they put on the uniform. From there she details the meticulous preparations for the offensive, the training and planning that went into preparing these soldiers for a battle that its planners believed would break through the German lines and pave the way for victory.

The confident expectations were little match for the horrors of trench warfare, however. Instead of a dramatic breakthrough the British "Tommys" faced unrelenting slaughter, struggling to even make modest gains on the battlefield. In the weeks that followed the initial assault, the British high command threw division after division into the battle, hoping to achieve progress. Throughout each of these efforts, Macdonald captures the experience of combat - the dusty marches, the gory advances, and the reaction of the survivors to their experience. Such struggles continue, over and over, until the offensive petered out in mid-November, with Kitchener's Army all but spent as a fighting force.

Throughout the book Macdonald writes of the battle in gripping prose, supplemented throughout by a generous use of quotes from interviews with veterans who survived the battle. Together it combines to recount the experience in a manner that grabs the reader's attention, focusing it on the experience of the ordinary soldier and never letting go. Oftentimes the engagements can blur together; while this can make it difficult to distinguish one battle form another, it conveys something of the grinding nature of warfare on the Western Front. The broader strategy is also subordinated, something that further reflects the perspective of the average Tommy, who was unable to look past the enemy trenches. A more glaring absence, however, is the German side. While largely excluding the views and experiences of German soldiers helps to define them as the nameless, faceless "Jerries" that many British soldiers viewed them to be, it deprives readers of a valuable perspective of the battle, with the ability to establish just how unique the British experience was.

These criticisms should not deter anyone seeking to understand the battle of the Somme. Macdonald's book is an engaging account of this seminal battle, one that sustains its reader throughout the months of struggle and slaughter chronicled within its pages. It is unlikely to be bettered for the drama of its narrative, or for its ability to relate the battle as how the thousands of Tommys fought it - a valuable perspective that gives identity to the soldiers who are often reduced to mere numbers in all too many accounts. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
Lyn Macdonald is a former BBC radio producer who left her job to devote herself to World War I studies. Somme is one of a number of books she has written that makes extensive use of veteran recollections to give a detailed, brutal account of the fighting from July to November 1916.
As she notes in the introduction, an appropriate sub-title to the book could be “Whatever happened to Kitchener’s Army? The Somme happened to it.” The Army formed in the wake of the great volunteer wave after the beginning of the war in 1914, would be shattered against the German trench lines in places like Flers, Pozieres, and Thiepval.
This book is not a straight military history of the battle, for that a reader should look to Malcolm Brown’s or Robin Prior books on the battle. Macdonald “does not set out to draw political conclusions and, although it is the story of the battle, it is more concerned with the experience of war than with the war itself.”
The book begins with the gathering of the men of Kitchener’s Army in the Somme Valley as the campaign begins. On July 1, the men went over the top to attack the Germans, strongly fortified and hardly damaged by the bombardment that preceded the assault. The disaster of that day was remembered by the survivors sixty years later. Captain Arthur Agius remembered, “The whole of the valley was being swept with machine-gun fire and hammered with shells. We got the men organised as best we could –those of us who were left. So many gone, and we’d never even got past our own front-line trench!” Private Tom Easton recalled the list of men and officers who were killed while he “couldn’t do nothing but pray for mother to protect us.”
As the fighting continued, the British forces pushed forward yard by yard, trading thousands of casualties for little in the way of real estate. An attack by the 7th Dragoon Guards cavalry on entrenched Germans later that month was, as one soldier described it, “an absolute rout. A magnificent sight. Tragic.”
By November the rain began to fall, turning the battlefield to a muddy wreck. Bodies from the July 1 fighting still lay unburied in some places. George Butler could still remember some of the sights from his time in the line. “Every time you put a foot forward you sank, and you were sinking into a mass of dead as well as mud, because there weren’t enough people to collect the bodies in.” By the time the fighting had ended, over 650,000 Allied soldiers, and close to 500,000 German s were killed, wounded or captured.
Macdonald has created a work that will take you into the trenches alongside the Tommies as they fight along the Somme. The reminiscences are tragic, at times funny, and full of detail that the men still recall decades after the fighting.
There are excellent maps included with the book, which can help with place names and the constant movement around the field. The narrative can jump from time period to time period, so if you are not familiar with the battle I would suggest reading a more military history work beforehand.
In the end, this is a great collection of recollections of the fighting (all of which are now available in the Imperial War Museum in London). A great source for material for historians, Macdonald is a superb writer and the book would be great for anyone who had an interest in the First World War. ( )
  jmarchetti | Jul 27, 2018 |
Author Lyn Macdonald takes the typical approach of interviewing survivors; however, by the time she wrote the book (1983) survivors were getting pretty thin on the ground and she had to take whatever she could get. Thus, although she does print accounts of going over the top and charging the German lines, she also has accounts from many in the rear areas and support troops – artillery men, truck drivers, stevedores unloading supplies at the ports, signalers, and so on. This, in my opinion, is what makes the book. Anybody with the slightest interest in the military knows that in order for an army to have teeth, it has to have a tail – but we don’t hear from the tail very often in wartime accounts.


Thus we have a sergeant who lied and said he spoke Chinese so he would be assigned to a Chinese labor battalion (I had a vague idea there was such a thing, but never any details before; the lack of language proved not to be an obstacle as the actual deployment was all handled by English-speaking triad members). A truck driver (OK, a lorry driver) took supplies to the front every night; he speaks with some distaste about having to drive over bodies – some of whom were probably not dead yet. He had to sleep with his cargo; not too bad when it was hay for horse fodder, but uncomfortable when it was artillery shells or sides of frozen beef. The artillery men were far enough back that they got fed decently, but were not out of danger as German counterbattery fire sought them out. There was also the problem of remaining sane and preserving your hearing while your battery of 18-pounders fired a round every few seconds for a week. I bet that interview was conducted with a lot of handwritten notes passed back and forth.


The details of the battle are almost handled in the abstract. The men Macdonald interviews never saw more than a tiny fraction of the battle – and that usually from behind a trench parapet or trying to dig a shell hole deeper. Thus, though Macdonald provides enough maps to get a general idea of what was going on, it’s best to have an understanding of the course of the Somme from elsewhere.


I also gained a little sympathy – not much, but a little – for Sir Douglas Haig. The initial conventional wisdom was Haig was a great war hero, which quickly morphed into Haig being a heartless butcher who lived in luxury in the rear while sending a whole generation to die in futile frontal assaults. Macdonald, however, points out that Haig had no real idea what was going on – and that wouldn’t have changed much if he were up in the front lines. Communication with the front was immensely difficult, especially to those of us used to seeing war on the 6 o’clock news. Telephone and telegraph cables went to the jumping-off trenches, but these were frequently cut by shelling and once troops went over the top communication options were limited. You could string cable along with the advancing infantry – an option that usually ended suddenly for the cable stringers. Troops had signal flags – requiring the signaler to stand in the open with his back to the enemy to get a message back to the trenches. Carrier pigeons were tried (leading German observers to express amazement at the sight of the British carrying “picnic baskets” – which were actually baskets of pigeons). Once again, running across No Man’s Land under machine gun fire while carrying a basket of pigeons must have been an interesting task. There were complicated shutter devices, sort of like Venetian blinds, which could be set up and worked from cover; the “blinds” had different colors and could be used to flash coded messages back. That was the theory, at least; a signaler Macdonald interviewed wrote they trained extensively with the device but not one ever reached a position where there was a useful message to send. An interesting device I had never heard of was the “power buzzer”, which could be used to send audible messages in Morse. Supposedly, at least. And a radio small enough to be set up in the front line trenches was deployed during the battle (it was not small enough, however, to actually accompany assaulting troops). Various ground panels were developed to send information to air observers – again, assuming the observers could actually see something in a battlefield enveloped by smoke and dust from shell fire, and since existing radios were too large to fit in an aircraft the observer had to return to base or scribble a message and drop it where somebody could pick it up. And, finally, you could use runners – again, a relatively short life span occupation. All the signaling methods had that same problem – the signaler had to reach a position where he was in contact with somebody who had a message to send, and then send the message to somebody back in the jump-off line that could do something appropriate with it.


This all lead to the epitome of command and control problems. A front line officer – a battalion commander, say - would send his boys over the top. Then he would try to figure out what was going on. He could look over the trench parapet through binoculars – a task inviting a sniper bullet through the forehead – and maybe see vague khaki shapes moving through the smoke. A runner might show up, or walking wounded returning from the attack, or he might manage to hear a power buzzer sending a message over the noise. Then he could make whatever sense he could out of the situation – since the runners or wounded or buzzers certainly didn’t have much of an idea of what was going on anywhere but in their tiny bit of the battlefield - and telephone or telegraph that back to Regiment, where somebody else would relay it to Division, where somebody else would relay it Corps, from whence it would eventually get back to Douglas Haig. Nobody likes to give bad news to the General, so the message would get filtered a little each time. Thus something that started out as “It’s a bloody f***ing slaughterhouse out there” would make it back to Haig as “Although there is heavy resistance our troops are advancing splendidly”. Haig kept getting optimistic messages about objectives being gained and resistance overcome, only to find out some time later that the objectives had not, in fact, been gained and resistance had not, in fact, been overcome. The only conclusion he could possibly draw – since no British officer would ever lie in a report, after all – was the objectives had been gained – but then lost; and the resistance had been overcome – but then resumed. This explains – doesn’t justify, but explains – many of Haig’s diary entries about poor troop performance; he actually believed the troops had reached their assigned targets, and then unaccountably retreated under German shellfire and counterattacks – instead of what actually happened: they were smashed into muddy, bloody, pulp long before they could even see their supposed goals. It makes Haig less of an evil SOB, and more of a stupid SOB.


The saddest and creepiest part of the rear area stories come from soldiers home on leave. One goes to a pal’s cottage to bear his parents the story of their son’s death at the Somme. While haltingly doing so, there’s a knock on the door – it’s a War Department messenger announcing the death of a second son. Another has to tell his friend’s girl that his fiancé “was buried where he fell” – not exactly a lie, since the man was the recipient of a direct hit by a large caliber German shell, but he didn’t exactly fall as a result. At least not all at once.


One consistent theme I find in old soldiers stories is that they always find a way to introduce humor into the horror. In this case Macdonald describes a regiment marching to the front. They are all singing, with the Colonel at the head of column, with a voice as good as the rest of them. The particular tune is an inspiring marching hymn:


Do your balls hang low?

Can you swing them to and fro?



And continuing for a few dozen more verses describing increasingly complicated topology the affected organs could assume if they were appropriately suspended. The Colonel is in fine form finishing up the final lines


Can you throw them o’er your shoulder

Like a bloody f***ing soldier?

Do your balls… hang… low?



When he becomes aware of several things – everybody behind him in the column has stopped singing, a general officer on horseback has caught up to the column and is riding beside him, and that the officer is Douglas Haig. After a pregnant silence, Haig comments that the Colonel has an excellent singing voice, but should choose different subject matter, and rides on. The column marches on, embarrassed and morose, when a solo voice starts up from the middle:


After the ball is over…


You had to be there, I suppose. Definitely gets at least four stars for the subject matter. The maps are mostly excellent, which is a little odd since the actual conduct of the battle doesn’t figure very much in the stories Macdonald has to tell. Lots of references, mostly to regimental histories; Macdonald really does her research.


The last surviving WWI veteran, Florence Green of England, died in February of this year. She was 110 years old, and had been a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force, serving as an officers’ mess steward. Veterans Day, November 11, was originally Armistice Day – celebrating the end of hostilities at the literal 11th hour. This is the first Armistice Day when there are longer any World War One veterans alive. May they all hear the trumpets blow
Reveille
one more time.
( )
  setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
I love all her books. The Somme was so awful, though, it's hard to read, and I haven't finished. ( )
  picardyrose | Feb 16, 2007 |
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This book is dedicated to a single soldier of Kitchener's Army. His name is Legion.
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If this book had a sub-title it might appropriately be Whatever happened to Kitchener's Army? The Somme happened to it.
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2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme 'There was hardly a household in the land', writes Lyn Macdonald, 'there was no trade, occupation, profession or community, which was not represented in the thousands of innocent enthusiasts who made up the ranks of Kitchener's Army before the Battle of the Somme...' The year 1916 was one of the great turning-points in British history- as the youthful hopes of a generation were crushed in a desperate struggle to survive, and traditional attitudes to authority were destroyed for ever. On paper, few battles have ever been so meticulously planned. Yet while there were good political reasons to launch a joint offensive with a French Army demoralized by huge casualties at Verdun, the raw troops on the ground knew nothing of that. A hundred and fifty thousand were killed in the punishing shellfire, the endless ordeal of attack and counter-attack; twice that number were left maimed or wounded. Here, almost for the first time, Lyn Macdonald lets the men who were there give their own testimony. Their stories are vivid, harrowing, sometimes terrifying - yet shot through with humour, immense courage and an astonishing spirit of resilience. 'What the reader will longest remember are the words - heartbroken, blunt, angry - of the men who lived through the bloodbath...a worthy addition to the literature of the Great War...'Daily Mail Over the past twenty years Lyn Macdonald has established a popular reputation as an author and historian of the First World War. Her books are based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors, told in their own words, and cast a unique light on the First World War. Most are published by Penguin. %%%'There was hardly a household in the land', writes Lyn Macdonald, 'there was no trade, occupation, profession or community, which was not represented in the thousands of innocent enthusiasts who made up the ranks of Kitchener's Army before the Battle of the Somme...' The year 1916 was one of the great turning-points in British history- as the youthful hopes of a generation were crushed in a desperate struggle to survive, and traditional attitudes to authority were destroyed for ever. On paper, few battles have ever been so meticulously planned. Yet while there were good political reasons to launch a joint offensive with a French Army demoralized by huge casualties at Verdun, the raw troops on the ground knew nothing of that. A hundred and fifty thousand were killed in the punishing shellfire, the endless ordeal of attack and counter-attack; twice that number were left maimed or wounded. Here, almost for the first time, Lyn Macdonald lets the men who were there give their own testimony. Their stories are vivid, harrowing, sometimes terrifying - yet shot through with humour, immense courage and an astonishing spirit of resilience. 'What the reader will longest remember are the words - heartbroken, blunt, angry - of the men who lived through the bloodbath...a worthy addition to the literature of the Great War...'Daily Mail Over the past twenty years Lyn Macdonald has established a popular reputation as an author and historian of the First World War. Her books are based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors, told in their own words, and cast a unique light on the First World War. Most are published by Penguin.

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