Review of two Somme titles

A review of two books on the 1916 Battle of the Somme by the prolific military author Andrew Rawson.

The Somme campaign
by Andrew Rawson
Published by Pen & Sword Military, 2014
ISBN 978 1 78303 051 4
Hardback 293 pages plus reading list and index. Illustrated
Cover price £25.00

Of the hundreds of titles that have been published about the Somme since it came to an end in the muddy wastelands of the Transloy ridge and Ancre heights in late 1916, relatively few have provided a continuous narrative of the whole battle. There is a little-covered space between high-level summary of the campaign and the detail of the doings of a particular unit or individual – and Rawson’s “The Somme campaign” fits right into this space. It provides us with a well written narrative of the progress of the battle, from the opening artillery bombardment in late June up to the end of fighting in November. Drawing heavily upon secondary sources, notably the British Official History, it deals with the military campaign and leaves out the politics behind the battle. The fighting is described at a divisional / brigade / battalion level and does not (with a few exceptions) mention individuals. We learn of the reasons why the various elements of the battle proceeded as they did, from high command decisions to the terrain and the weather, for example. As such, it is a useful summary of the battle; almost a “ready reckoner” that would quickly guide an interested reader to a particular date, place and unit, and from which that reader could go on to more detailed reading from other sources. Each phase of the battle is also described with some good, clear maps: these are taken from the official and other histories and are overlaid with symbols to indicate the relevant front lines and formations.

“The Somme campaign” does have its limitations, in that it only presents the British part of the battle. Virtually every British and Commonwealth infantry unit that participated gets a mention somewhere, whereas the Germans and French are more or less absent except en masse. As the author explains in his introduction, it is a difficult task to “pitch” such a book at an appropriate level of detail and a truly comprehensive work would be quite a tome. It would, of course, also require a great deal more work in drawing the French and German side of things into the picture.

As such, “The Somme campaign” is a good read and a useful work of reference, if only to point the way to more detailed studies and primary sources of information.

Ancestor’s footsteps: the Somme 1916
by Andrew Rawson
Published by Pen & Sword Military, 2016
ISBN 978 1 47386 420 7
Paperback 220 pages plus index. Illustrated
Cover price £12.99

This more recently published work is not dissimilar to “The Somme campaign” in that it sets out to describe the whole battle, but this time with a view to helping someone find where their ancestor soldier fought. The narrative is cut down somewhat and the maps this time include more detail on where particular divisions and brigades were positioned. The description of each part of the fighting also includes details of the units that made up each brigade and division. And, like “The Somme campaign”, it is a good read and a useful quick reference source. It also provides details on the key sites of interest for battlefield tourists in each of the battle areas described.

For anyone really wishing to pinpoint their ancestor, it only takes you so far. If you know that a grandfather was in a battalion that belonged to a particular brigade and division, and you are sure he was with that unit on particular dates, then you will be able to find their location in broad terms. For example, if he was in the 15th (Scottish) Division you can find that the division was south west of Martinpuich in the period 18-31 August 1916 – and see it on a map. In that sense “”Ancestor’s footsteps” begins to home-in on his location, but to get any further you will need to refer to regimental histories or, for full detail, the war diary of his unit. Nonetheless an interesting concept and, for the price, good value.