Somme: Into the Breach by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

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Somme: Into the Breach by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Ewbank
Reviewed by John Ewbank
Summary: A comprehensive and detailed account of the Battle of the Somme that draws extensively on first-hand sources.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 656 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670918386

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One-hundred years ago on the 1st of July 1916, the most notorious battle in the history of the British army began at 07:20 with the detonation of a huge mine under the Hawthorn Redoubt. The Battle of the Somme had begun, and by the end of the first day the British had suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of whom were killed. Published to mark the centenary of the battle, Somme: Into the Breach by historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore is a comprehensive account of the conflict told primarily by the soldiers who fought in it.

The author quotes extensively from the diaries and letters from soldiers at the front, and seems to have compiled first-hand accounts of almost every stage of the gruelling 4-month campaign. The soldiers give vivid recollections of going 'over the top' on that fateful first day, enduring artillery bombardments in shallow trenches, being wounded by bullets or flying shrapnel, and seeing friends and comrades perish. There are individual moments of astonishing heroism, coupled with the mental disintegration of men reaching the limit of endurance. Lieutenant Pat Auld of the 4th Australian Division, after seeing several soldiers buried alive by a shell, wrote Something seemed to snap in my brain and I felt my self-control going...I began to laugh, and the sound brought me face to face with madness.

By going into such detail, Sebag-Montefiore constructs a narrative contrary to the cliché of lions led by donkeys. In fact, the British regularly penetrated the German lines, and had advanced around 6 miles into German territory by the end of the battle. The offensive also had the important effect of diverting German resources from Verdun, and thus saving the French army from destruction. That said, Sir Douglas Haig and his generals were guilty of serious errors in the planning and execution of the battle, and seemed to care little for the safety of their troops.

My only reservation is that the book is so detailed, and includes so many harrowing first-hand descriptions, that it becomes a real endurance test. We're thrown into the trenches on Page 1, and only emerge, blinking and disorientated, after 500 pages of doomed attacks, ferocious artillery bombardments, hideous wounds, mangled corpses, and mud. After a while everything merges into one, and you cease to care which village is being attacked and which battalion is attacking it; you just want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Which is probably how the soldiers themselves would have felt.

For more on the Battle of the Somme we'd recommend 24 Hours at the Somme by Robert Kershaw or The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp.

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