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The British soldier at the Somme

Somme - Lyn Macdonald

Few battles are as seared into the British historical consciousness as the battle of the Somme, the months-long offensive against the German trenches during the First World War. There the newly-trained divisions of "Kitchener's Army" suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, all for advances that were often measured in yards. It was a baptism of blood, one that often depopulated villages back home of an entire generation of young men and left an indelible impression on the minds of its survivors.

Lyn Macdonald's book is a chronicle of the battle from the viewpoint of the British soldier. She begins by describing how so many of the soldiers came to be on the Somme battlefield, through their recruitment into the ranks in the weeks and months that followed the outbreak of the war. Many of them joined in groups, retaining a collective identity from their civilian life even after they put on the uniform. From there she details the meticulous preparations for the offensive, the training and planning that went into preparing these soldiers for a battle that its planners believed would break through the German lines and pave the way for victory.

The confident expectations were little match for the horrors of trench warfare, however. Instead of a dramatic breakthrough the British "Tommys" faced unrelenting slaughter, struggling to even make modest gains on the battlefield. In the weeks that followed the initial assault, the British high command threw division after division into the battle, hoping to achieve progress. Throughout each of these efforts, Macdonald captures the experience of combat - the dusty marches, the gory advances, and the reaction of the survivors to their experience. Such struggles continue, over and over, until the offensive petered out in mid-November, with Kitchener's Army all but spent as a fighting force.

Throughout the book Macdonald writes of the battle in gripping prose, supplemented throughout by a generous use of quotes from interviews with veterans who survived the battle. Together it combines to recount the experience in a manner that grabs the reader's attention, focusing it on the experience of the ordinary soldier and never letting go. Oftentimes the engagements can blur together; while this can make it difficult to distinguish one battle form another, it conveys something of the grinding nature of warfare on the Western Front. The broader strategy is also subordinated, something that further reflects the perspective of the average Tommy, who was unable to look past the enemy trenches. A more glaring absence, however, is the German side. While largely excluding the views and experiences of German soldiers helps to define them as the nameless, faceless "Jerries" that many British soldiers viewed them to be, it deprives readers of a valuable perspective of the battle, with the ability to establish just how unique the British experience was.

These criticisms should not deter anyone seeking to understand the battle of the Somme. Macdonald's book is an engaging account of this seminal battle, one that sustains its reader throughout the months of struggle and slaughter chronicled within its pages. It is unlikely to be bettered for the drama of its narrative, or for its ability to relate the battle as how the thousands of Tommys fought it - a valuable perspective that gives identity to the soldiers who are often reduced to mere numbers in all too many accounts.