Starter’s reading list: the Somme 1916

The Somme in 1916 is possibly the most researched and written-about of all of the battles in which the British Army participated in the Great War. So where should someone new to this subject begin? This page presents my own view of a good reading list to get you going.

Lyn Macdonald: Somme

“Proper historians” tend to be a little dismissive of Lyn Macdonald’s works, but I cut my own historical teeth on her “They called it Passchendaele” and “Somme”, and I still occasionally dip into them even now, some 30+ years later. “Somme” was first published in 1983 and the author based it largely upon interviews with the many veterans who were still alive at that time. Her writing is lively and engaging; not always terribly objective and not always completely accurate in terms of the history, but a great read. I guarantee that if you have never read anything else about this battle, you will want to read more after absorbing this one.

Martin Middlebrook: the First Day on the Somme

This is another book that relied on interviews with veterans, and although it is now showing its age in the light of more recent research it still stands out as a fine piece of work. As the title suggests it concentrates on that terrible first day of the campaign. The book was published in 1971 and was the springboard that propelled the author into a lifelong career of military history.

(Llewelyn) Wyn Griffith: up to Mametz

A memoir this time, first published in 1931 and covering the author’s time as a junior officer with the 15th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers through its training, move overseas, early days in the trenches and then its terrible experience in the fight for Mametz Wood on the Somme. The 2010 version has a very valuable addition to the tale, for Jonathan Riley extended Griffith’s own telling of his story by drawing upon the original  author’s unpublished letters and diaries.

E. P. F. Lynch: Somme mud

A memoir by a New South Wales soldier of the Australian Imperial Force. It was only published in 2006 but was written in the 1920s-30s. An excellent, harrowing and descriptive account of the middle part of the battle.

Sidney Rogerson: Twelve days on the Somme, a memoir of the trenches, 1916

My personal favourite. An account of the later period of the Somme when it bogged down, literally, in a vast sea of mud and attritional fighting. Rogerson’s description of a single period holding the front line is masterly.

Giles E. M. Eyre: Somme Harvest: Memories of a P.B.I. in the Summer of 1916

Another first-hand account, originally published in 1938 in a period when “disenchantment” had set in and the world was clearly edging towards another war. Giles Eyre was an ordinary soldier with the 2nd King’s Rifle Corps and relates his life in the period May to July 1916. It is rightly considered to be a classic.

Terry Norman: The Hell They Called High Wood: The Somme 1916

A study of the central point of the battle, both geographically and in timing. The author covers the numerous British attacks in the wood, all of which were beaten off at tremendous cost in lives to both sides until the area was finally broken in the tank-assisted assault in September 1916. Sobering but absorbing reading and still as good an account of this period of attrition as can be found, even though it was first published back in 1984.

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

Everything on this page so far has had a completely British and Dominion focus, and it is all too easy to forget that a very large (and more effective) part of the battle was undertaken by the French Army. Philpott’s 2009 academic study puts the whole battle into proper perspective and I recommend it as the best single volume for doing so.

Jack Sheldon: The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916

And finally, a necessary, welcome and excellent corrective to all of the British studies of the battle that largely forget to mention that the Germans took part. Jack Sheldon analyses the German strategy, command and performance and brings proper balance to our understanding of the Somme.


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