When I first visited the Somme – it must be thirty years ago or more – I went alone, accompanied by that excellent battlefield guide book “Before endeavours fade” by Rose Coombs. The book is still in print today, and other than for a sprinkling of new memorials, a few museums and the visitor centres at Thiepval and Peronne the Somme battlefield is virtually unchanged since my trip. Since then, there have been very good guides produced by Major & Mrs Holt and Martin Middlebrook. There is virtually no inch of the front line of 1 July 1916 that is not already covered in depth by the “Battleground Europe” series of guides and Paul Reed’s “Walking the Somme”. Yet here in this centenary year are two new guides, each focused on the British front line of the first day of battle. By coincidence, I personally know all four of the authors. Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland are stalwarts of the Pen & Sword stable, and their book is one of a series of “Battle Lines” battlefield guides that they are producing; Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed have previously self-produced a number of well researched and beautifully manufactured histories.
The two books are very similar in scope, providing the reader with a selection of tours over the old front line from Maricourt to Gommecourt, via Montauban, Mametz, Fricourt, La Boisselle, Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel and Serre. The Cooksey/Murland work breaks it into eleven routes, while Hamilton-Reed is set out in ten. But the Somme is hardly new ground: what do these books bring to the party?
A visitor’s guide: the first day of the Somme: Gommecourt to Maricourt
by Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland
Published by Pen & Sword Military, 2016
ISBN 978 1 47383 803 1
Paperback 224 pages plus appendices and index. Illustrated
Cover price £14.99
The format of this book will be familiar to readers of the “Battleground Europe” series and to the previous guides produced by the authors. Each tour describes a short tour of perhaps two to five miles (with advice regarding its applicability to those on foot, on bike or in a car), mainly taking in the cemeteries and memorials en route but also stopping for views of important vistas. The history of the first day of the Somme is woven into short biographies of notables who were present, alongside descriptions and history of the cemeteries that are visited. The tours are illustrated with good, clear sketch maps, black and white present-day photographs and some portrait images of the men who feature in the text.
“A visitor’s guide” is well written and concise. Each stage of a tour is relatively quickly described: a battlefield visitor could easily follow the route and history by reading it while on the ground.
Where are the boys? The first day of the Battle of the Somme
by Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed
published by Dene House Publishing, 2016
ISBN 978 0 956182 043
Paperback 293 pages plus appendices and index
Cover price not stated but website shows £21 including UK postage and packing
Although it covers literally the same ground and events as “A visitor’s guide” and at its core is a broadly similar set of battlefield tour routes, “Where are the boys” differs in its approach. The production standard is high, with many colour present-day photographs being included and the quality of materials and binding being very good. It is more of a book to read than one simply to accompany a battlefield tourist, with more extensive history and biographies, for example. It also includes extracts from unit war diaries and casualty statistics for units. The sketch maps for the routes are very good, and enhanced by (for example, the woods) being coloured.
Excellent value for money and a good read.
The book is available from www.meetatdawnunarmed.co.uk