Tag Archives: somme

Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960’s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970’s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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The Somme by Gary Sheffield

It’s nice to actually read a book about the Somme that actually makes me feel like I have learnt something. Too many books on the battle indulge in what has become rather cliched poetry. Most of us are well aware that the first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day in the British Army’s history. Most of us are equally as aware that the Somme was ultimately futile.

What Sheffield does so well here is threefold. Firstly, he does not allow the narrative to become embroiled in cliche or hyperbole. The events of 1916 are examined and explained in a clinical, methodical manner. Secondly, he looks beyond the first day of the Battle. So many histories of the Somme look only at 1 July 1916. Yet the battle raged on for almost five months after that before the offensive ceased. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is eminently readable.

Each phase of the offensive is examined in a manner which makes it clear to the reader. 1 July obviously comes in for special attention, and Sheffield looks at the Divisions all along the front, from Gommecourt in the north to the anglo-french boundary in the south, and relates their objectives and their experiences. As the late great Richard Holmes so rightly stresses in his foreword, Martin Middlebrook gave so much to our understanding of the first say of the Somme, but perhaps out attention in the past has been too focussed on this one day, out of a much longer battle.

Sheffield does not allow himself to get too bogged down in considering whether the battle was a waste of lives or not. The general assumption amongst most people is that the Somme was a horrific waste of lives, a by-word for futility. Or was it? As Sheffield reminds us, the French Army had its back to the wall at Verdun, and the Somme was vital in diverting German resources from that battle. Politically, to do nothing was not an option. In addition, the British Army learnt an awful lot on the Somme, that it put into practice in 1917 and 1918. Could Haig, Rawlinson and Gough have done much different on the Somme. Like Sheffield, I suspect not. The strategic thinking and even most of the tactics were sound, but the Army had not developed its technology and expertise – particularly around communications – enough to really take the offensive to the Germans.

I cannot stress enough how much this book has helped – and will help me – in my research into Portsmouth men killed on the Somme. In particular, the 1st Hampshires on the 1st day near Beaumont Hamel, and then the 15th Hampshires (2nd Portsmouth) at Flers in September – incidentally, one of the most succesful days on the Somme.

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Christmas Message from James

After I’ve had a few days of down time over christmas – which for me constitutes divorcing myself from the laptop for a few days! – I have had a chance to sit back and reflect on what an amazing year it has been.

This time last year I had just started work on my first book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. The contract was inked in January, and after a mammoth effort the book was handed into the publishers in June. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about the writing process, the publishing industry and much more besides! In particular, in future I would give myself much more time, and in particular, I would try not to move house three days before the hand-in date!

After a bit of a rest – including a nice trip to the Dartmoor Folk Festival, and settling in to my new quarters in Chichester, I have started work on my project looking at Portsmouth’s fallen heroes from the Great War. Research is still ongoing, and I am still considering how best to present this research, but I do very much have my eyes on the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 in 2014, or the 100th anniversary of the Somme in 2016.

The most popular topics on my blog this year have been ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘, a BBC docu-drama in January, and the visit of the US Aircraft Carrier George H.W. Bush to the Solent in May. Anything to do with the Falklands seems to go down pretty well. Sadly I haven’t been able to post as much as I would like, due to work commitments, lack of internet at times of the year, etc, I am still pretty pleased with the hit rate I am getting. But I won’t pre-empt my review of the year, which rightly belongs on new years eve.

When I think back to the time that I started this blog, it’s almost like it was a different person who started it. I literally began blogging through boredom, and thought that if I was going to spend my mid-twenties singledom reading military books and visiting museums, I had might as well do something constructive with it. Now, over two years later, my first book is due out in a little more than a month, I’ve written text for display at the Spinnaker Tower, and certainly by no means least, I have moved in with my Girlfriend Sarah. I don’t mind admitting that when I started my blog in the summer of 2009 I was still recovering from a period of suffering from some pretty severe depression. Realising that what I have to say interests people has motivated me more than anyone could ever know, and its certainly helped me move on and up in life. I just want anyone reading this to know, that if you really want to achieve something, you can if you work hard enough. It doesn’t matter what illness you may suffer from, or what school you went to, or where you grew up. True, that might mean that you might have to work harder, but in the process you will have earnt it so much more.

I would like to thank you all for your support, participation and kindness throughout the past twelve months. You all really help make it happen. I am always very interested to hear comments, feedback, ideas or the like. We live in a very uncertain and very unpredictable world, and it has never been more important for us to champion the understanding of the past, and in particular study and understanding of military history.

From my Girlfriend Sarah and I, a very happy Christmas to you all.

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Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter

In the past year or so there has been a real increase in the number of military history books looking at the First World War. And refreshingly, many of them are focused on the experiences of the average guy caught up in conflict. Among them is Pen and Sword‘s series of books on the Pals Battalions.

In 1914 the British Army was relatively small – virtually an Imperial police force, and a continental role was never really envisioned until only a few years before the war began. As a result, the Army had to expand massively in order to field a sizeable expeditionary force in Flanders. The solution of the Secretart of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was to recruit masses of volunteers into a ‘New Army‘, or ‘Kitchener Battalions’. Many of these were centred on large urban areas, including Birmingham.

Birmingham eventually raised three Kitchener Battalions – the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Birnimgham’s local country Regiment. Of course, if we try to divorce units from their social history, and indeed their communities in general, they make much less sense in history. As raw recruits, the Battalions spent much time in England training before embarking for France. Like most of the Kitchener Battalions, the Birmingham Pals first action was on the Somme. The fate of the Pals Battalions on the Somme has really struck a chord in British military history, probably due to the grievous losses combined with the fact that it was the first time that Britain had truly fielded a citizen army.

But this isn’t just a narrative, ‘1914 to 1918 what happened’. Terry Carter grounds his work with a chapter on the social and economic context of Birmingham’s history, and the events of August 1914 which saw mass volunteering amid a wave of euphoria. It is impeccably well researched, and generously illustrated. It contains a roll of honour of all members of the three Battalions who fell, and a list of gallantry medals – a real bonus for anyone wishing to look up their ancestors. Overall it is very well handled, and at no point does the text stray into the oft-heard stereotypes about the Pals, and instead wisely focuses on sources and events.

I found this a very interesting read indeed. Not only will it interest Brummies, but also those of us from further afield who are interested in this kind of research, with the 100th anniversary looming in 2014. Terry Carter has definitely put down a marker here, and I hope I can do half as good a job when it comes to paying tribute to Portsmouth’s own pals.

Birmingham Pals is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Walking the Somme by Paul Reed

Regular readers will probably need no introduction to Paul Reed. A prolific military historian, he is also a battlefield guide and a regular expert on the TV screens when it comes to military history. One of those people who makes you wonder, how do they fit it all in?!

Hopefully one day I will get myself to the Somme, and when I do this book will be in my rucksack. But until then a read of this is not a bad substitute. I wonder how many people, like me, own plenty of battlefield guides but have never been anywhere near the places? I find that because they are written in a manner aiming to interpret the lie of the land, and bring the battle to life, battlefield guidebooks come across like that even if you’re reading them in the comfort of your own home. And surely that is the whole intention of writing history? It’s something that Paul Reed does very well here. My understanding of the Battle of the Somme has been vastly improved thanks to this book. In particular, I have a much stronger grasp on what happened to the Portsmouth Pals- the 14th and 15th Hampshires – at Flers and Guillemont respectively. And considering I’m quite new to studying the Great War, but looking to publish a book on it myself in the non too distant future, thats a very useful thing.

The battlefield of the Somme is ‘broken up’ into a series walks, logical in scope and and sensible in duration. The book is amply illustrated, with photographs, archive maps and sketch maps – which somehow are very evocative of the great war, a nice touch. I also like how it concentrates far more on the common soldier than it does on the Generals, which is not always the case with First World War books! Sensibly, Paul has concentrated on the battlefields themselves, without swamping the reader with ancilliary information. Most of us have the internet at hand nowadays, and tourist information for Albert should be at our fingertips with a quick google search. Hence theres no need to overload the book with hotels, trains and toilets, when there is far more interesting stuff to think about.

This book was actually first published almost twenty years ago. And I have to say, considering the changes in technology and the shifts in military history since then, it has ‘aged’ remarkably well. I guess its comparable to, say, writing a battlefield guide now, say, for an iphone app, who knows what innovations might take place between now and twenty years time? So to pass the test of time is no small achievement.

Walking the Somme is published by Pen and Sword

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