Battle of the Sommes Books

No battle in modern history can possibly come close to the futility and bloodiness of the Somme Offensive. Known more commonly as the Battle of the Somme, the intent of the offensive was to break the stalemate in the trenches of WWI. Initial losses were staggeringly high, but it was the futility of the new mechanised trench warfare that in the long term that led to millions of men being killed or wounded in the 5 months that it lasted. There is plenty of literature covering WWI in general, but here you will find five fantastic Battle of the Somme books that cover the conflict in superior detail from a variety of perspectives.

Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century 

Written by William Philpott, a historian specialising in French history of the 20th century, Bloody Victory is a remarkably bold and wonderfully detailed approach to tackling the military history of the Somme. So much of the literature surrounding the Somme is overwhelmingly Britain-centric in approach, so it comes as a refreshing change to read Philpott’s skilfully-written descriptions and narratives of the battle.

Due to his specialist knowledge in the area, Philpott attempts to shift the focus from the British to the French. He makes some convincing arguments, reminding us of the importance of the French forces in the opening throes of the Battle of the Somme, as well as displaying a breadth of knowledge about the subject in his covering of the German forces during the battle. Critics have written of Philpott’s work fondly, though rightfully point out that he definitely underplays the overwhelming challenges faced by the British forces in order to reinforce his French bias.

Somme

Lyn McDonald’s approach to the Somme has a heavy emphasis on personal accounts. Rather than present the events of Somme in chronological order, McDonald instead attempts to weave together a staggering quantity of accounts from many perspectives of the war. Expect to read interviews and diary entries from a variety of sources that range from NCOs to Officers, and from gunners to runners at the front.

The accounts contained within McDonald’s book vary, though the common theme is the crushing futility of fighting on the western front, with the despair at a country effectively losing an entire generation to what felt like a futile battle becoming more sobering as each account is read. Many of the accounts in the book are from people who have themselves been interviewed by McDonald, and it also contains some well-constructed maps. However, one must remember that McDonald’s work largely covers the UK and Commonwealth perspective.

The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 

Written in 1972, Middlebrook’s remarkably detailed account of the opening day of the Somme offensive has since been overshadowed by bodies of work that span the decades following its release. However, this shouldn’t marginalise Middlebrooks efforts in writing The First Day on the Somme, since it is still considered by many to be an essential work of oral history when it comes to the historiography of the Somme in general.

Middlebrook utilised the perspective of several soldiers in this book, each providing a unique perspective on the opening hours of the Somme offensive. This book doesn’t take an overarching, authoritative stance on the battle in a political sense, but is instead a collection of accounts told from people who fought in the battle, whom Middlebrook tracked down in order to interview and record the resulting accounts. If unfamiliar with the events of the Somme and also the lead-up to the battle, this book could prove confusing since it flits between different regiments and perspectives, but as an oral history of the Somme offensive’s first day, this is a vital work.

The Battle of the Somme: The First and Second Phase 

John Buchan’s accounting of the Somme is more useful to the average military-history enthusiast than many of the strictly oral histories available on the subject.  Having lived in the time surrounding WWI, he is more qualified than most to put forward his account of the Somme, but it also must be emphasised here that Buchan’s book is wonderfully detailed. Not only does it cover the history of the first and second offensives of the Somme, it also provides an account of the tactics utilised during the battles, allowing readers to visualise the impact of said tactics on the wider battle.

The thing that makes Buchan’s account of the Somme so readable is that it was written around one year after the battle. This makes it one of the few genuinely contemporary accounts of the Somme Offensive, and as a result, one of the most vital reads for amateur and professional historians alike.

Four Years on the Western Front

Aubrey Smith is the author of this book, which was originally credited to the anonymous pseudonym “A. Rifleman” when it was first published back in 1922. This is an incrediby important historical document, being a memoir written by Smith, who served in the London Rifle Bridge during the war. This is an account that provides a very personal insight into the First World War, and a unique insight as well, considering that he was present a number of the battles including the Somme, Ypres, and Arras.

A far cry from the modern-day presentations of major wars in human history – just check out www.historymaniac.co.uk for an idea of the kind of representations I’m talking about – Aubrey Smith’s memoirs instead tell us directly of the trials and tribulations of the battle of the Somme as well as the numerous other battles of World War I.