Review of “Dauntless courage on the Somme”

Dauntless courage on the Somme: officers of the 19th Division who fell at La Boisselle 1-10 July 1916
by Nick Thornicroft
published by Helion & Company, 2016
ISBN 978 1 910777 82 4
Hardback, 224 pages including bibliography and index. Illustrated.
Cover price: not stated but evidently £19.99

If the Great War had not come to La Boisselle it would almost certainly have remained as the quiet, rural village it was in 1914. Surrounded by wide open fields and looking down from its spur of high ground towards the nearby town of Albert, the only intrusive noise would come from the old Roman road which goes from Albert to Bapaume and which passes along the northern edge of the village. As it is, La Boisselle is now one of the main spots on the battlefield tourist trail: the bus-loads going to “La Grande Mine”, the vast “Lochnagar” crater that resulted from mine explosion on 1 July 1916. The crater itself is changing, compared to what it was even twenty years ago let alone a hundred. Wooden walkways surround the crater; there are many memorials; and poppies, always poppies. The visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer scale and depth of the crater. No doubt many are given a good explanation of how it came to be there (although I have to say that some of the tour guide’s explanations I have heard from a distance fall rather short). Some of the tourists may have noticed a rough, higgledy-piggledy area just before they reach the mine: they may or many not learn that this is the “Glory Hole”. But what is that? They may spot the memorial to the 34th Division, which made the initial assault on La Boisselle at such devastating human cost on 1 July, peeping above the fields within the village. The cross memorial to the 19th (Western) Division, situated as it is immediately in front of the village church, will go un-noticed by many. Nick Thornicroft’s “Dauntless courage on the Somme” may not change that, but it provides us with an excellent narrative as to why it is there and why the 19th (Western) Division deserves its share of remembrance.

The heart of the book covers the assault and eventual capture of La Boisselle by the the 19th (Western) Division over the first ten days of the Somme offensive. It was indeed a hard, bitter experience and there is no shortage of courage, endurance and leadership in wresting a most difficult, stubbornly defended area from German units that knew it well. About half of the book studies the fighting in detail, hinging it around biographies of the regimental officers who were present. They are typical of the make up of the officer complement of many a “Kitchener battalion”: students, clerks, athletes, vicar’s sons and business men – with barely any military experience before the war.

Before we read of the attack, the first part of the book takes us through the history of La Boisselle since the fighting reached it in 1914: of French and German armies settling into trench wafare, but things in this area being somewhat livelier than many on the Somme; of the beginning of underground mine warfare which reached such a level of activity that the “Glory Hole” became riddled with tunnels and mines; of the British extending into the Somme area; and of the build-up to the Somme, the mines at the Schwaben Hohe (Lochnagar) and Blindarm (Y Sap), and the opening of the offensive.

“Dauntless courage on the Somme” is certainly worth reading. Well researched, well written and well illustrated.

Nick Thornicroft’s previous work includes books on the men of Gloucestershire and Bristol who fought on the Somme, and those of Cornwall who died there.