Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: "The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War" by Martin Gilbert

(This week wasn't supposed to be themed "booo wars with Germany booooo" but it shook out that way. This is the last one of the week, I promise.)

Let's start with a map (not a great map but a map that will provide some ballpark reference):

And a little stage setting. The battles at Somme took place between July 1st 1916 - November 19th 1916. It was trench warfare at it's most awful. Men dug into trenches full of mud, sickness, death and danger for months just in the hopes of gaining a little bit of hard-won ground.

On the first day of battle 19,240 British soldiers were killed (36,000 wounded). Just the first day.If you're reading from Wisconsin, that's the entire population of South Milwaukee.It's also slightly smaller than every undergraduate student at UW-Madison. The first day. By the time it was over "300,000 British, Commonwealth (Wesley's Note: Australian, Canadian, South African, New Zealanders) , French and German soldiers had been killed, and twice that number wounded". Well over 80,000 bodies were never identified. Almost all of these bodies are now in mass graves.

So, let that sink in for a moment and then we will continue.

The book does a great job about making all of these numbers be people and not just statistics. There are paragraphs devoted to groups (lots of people joined up with people in their labor union, at their schools, or teammates from sports teams), and then to individuals as well.

I feel like so many stories were like this: "Private X enlisted with all of his teammates from his football club in Leeds. He was killed in action by an enemy shell. His body was never recovered and his name is listed on Thiepval Memorial. He was 20 years old." Reading scenarios like this one after another was a lot to process.

There were stories about men who wrote beautiful poems sitting in the trenches and then were killed the next day. There was a Scotsman who bravely bagpipped songs of encouragement as he charged with his men towards the German trenches. When the battle was over he helped carried the wounded back. He realized he had forgotten his pipes in No-Man's Land and went to collect them, and was shot. Very few of these stories have happy endings. Though there were a few men who survived and became professors, politicians, and social thinkers.

There were a lot of literary connections at this place too:

The short story writer Saki (real name Hector Munro) was technically too old to fight (he was 43), but he lied about his age and enlisted. He was killed by a German sniper. He also has no known grave and is memorialized at the Thiepval Memorial.

JRR Tolkien was there. He was 24 years old, and a battalion signal officer. He said that "by the end of 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." Tolkien himself was never wounded, but was often sick. Towards the end of the war he had contacted "trench fever" and was moved to an officer's hospital.

Tolkien makes references to his war experience at least twice in his masterwork trilogy "The Lord of The Rings". Frodo's faithful companion Sam is "a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself". Also during the journey to Modor this humble group finds themselves in the Dead Marshes, where you can see faces of the dead through the water. Tolkien wrote that based on his experience with mud in France. The mud was so thick that bodies of dead soldiers could be sucked down deep and many were never recovered, or they were only found during large troop movements when the mud was stirred up the most.


Guys, I wish I could tell you that all of this horror and destruction and death made a huge difference. That suddenly after this battle there was an armistice and everything stopped, or something. But I can't. Stories and experiences like this happened all throughout this war.

It was a sad read. But interesting, because I know so little about WWI. I knew the Somme by it's fearsome reputation so I started here. Also a pleasant surprise the author (Martin Gilbert) wrote another one of my most pondered on books - "The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust". So many feels on that book I can't even....So I'm not going to rate this book. I feel like it's weird to rate something that was written to preserve the memory of thousands of people who died in battle. Though I will say I learned a ton and I'm glad I read it.

One slightly encouraging thing: there was a British soldier who stayed in the Somme area after the war. He tended one of the (many) cemeteries. During WWII he was a member of the French Resistance and helped 27 shot down Allied airmen escape to Spain. He hid them in the cemetery's workshed.

On a closing note, this is the memorial for the Welsh soldiers who died fighting in Mametz woods. I think it's the most badass war memorial I've ever seen. If I was even REMOTELY Welsh I would have this tattooed on me somewhere..

File:Welsh Dragon Memorial Mametz Wood.jpg
Angry Welsh dragon laughs at your flimsy barbed wire.Then he eats you.


  1. Definitely adding this to Goodreads!

    1. It's good! Sad and depressing but interesting and good!

  2. Added to my TBR list and passed on your review to friend who is interested in WWI.

  3. If you're ever in Kansas City, don't miss the National World War I museum -- I learned so much about a war that we don't seem to acknowledge much in our culture.

    1. I'm always curious as to why WWI gets so much less attention. I've never been to KC but if I do I will certainly go!


Thank you so much for your comment. I'd love to talk books with you!