A century ago the first news stories relating to the Battle of the Somme began to appear in the British press. There was little awareness at this stage of the huge scale of losses on 1st July 1916, nor that the attack had been a failure except in some limited areas.
Illustrating the kicking of Billie Neville’s footballs on 1st July 1916.
But the press were already busy giving the story of the battle a positive spin. The Illustrated London News was a broadsheet size illustrated magazine with in-house artists who depicted the battle in contemporary drawings when at this stage largely no photographs were available.
Indian Cavalry at High Wood
These illustrations depict the bravery of the British soldier on the battlefield, and while they are propaganda they are well observed with details of uniforms and equipment all correct: in some respect that was a vital factor in them being believable.One hundred years later these images are part of the history themselves but they give a fascinating insight into how the Somme was depicted at the time.
Back in the 1980s I had the pleasure to interview several hundred veterans of the Great War. These recordings comes from interviews with E.G. Williams who served on the Somme with the Liverpool Pals, on the battlefield between Maricourt and Montauban on 1st July 1916. A century later we remember the generation that fought on the Somme through the words and memories of survivors like him.
The photo above shows Great War veterans Harry Fellows, Hugh Parry-Morris MM, Tom Price and behind them Bill Bashford, at Lochnagar Crater on 1st July 1985. The gentleman on the right was a French WW1 veteran.
As Somme100 approaches two new films have gone online as part of the commemorations. The first of these is The Somme – A Spoken Word Poem which is a specially commissioned piece by British spoken-word poet Molly Case. This really is an incredibly moving film and the poem is just wonderful, proving that poetry matters and modern interpretations of the war through poetry still more than valid. Congratulations to the Royal British Legion for this as part of their own Somme100 initiatives.
The second film is from the Imperial War Museum and looks at some facts and figures about the Battle of the Somme but presents these in a fresh way. I particularly liked the way they blended old film onto the landscape today.
The Battle of the Somme and visiting the Somme battlefields continues to fascinate us and for Somme100 Pen & Sword books have published a number of new battlefield guidebooks, or reprints of classic editions.
A Visitors Guide: The First Day of the Somme by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
(Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473827998, 233pp, illustrated, softback, £14.99)
Cooksey and Murland have produced a whole series of excellent battlefield guide books covering some lesser known locations but here they focus on the Blackest Day of the British Army – 1st July 1916, the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The book looks in detail at the whole battlefield from Gommecourt to Maricourt, and the authors provide battlefield trails that can be followed in a car, on foot or by bike. The directions and maps are good, the text very well researched and backed up with excellent modern photos and some useful contemporary ones. This is a really superb Somme guidebook which should be in the knapsack of everyone going to Somme100 and who wants to explore the 1st July battlefields in depth.
Major & Mrs Holt’s Somme 100th Anniversary Definitive Battlefield Guide by Toni & Valmai Holt
(Pen & Sword Books 2016, ISBN 9781473887534, 368pp, illustrated plus separate map, hardback, £25.00)
The Holts have been publishing battlefield guidebooks for decades and this Somme100 edition of their popular Somme guide comes in a limited edition hardback format. The guidebook has been greatly explained with new photos, and extra information and locations, and also some battlefield walks, which is a good addition. This is a really high quality book with excellent images, and nicely presented, and the supporting map makes it the complete package for the first time visitor to the Somme battlefields. It is good to see the Holts being recognised for their work and this new edition is a welcome guidebook for all those going to Picardy this year.
The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields by Martin and Mary Middlebrook
(Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473879072, 383pp, illustrated, softback, £14.99)
This classic Somme guidebook first came out in the 1990s. Martin Middlebrook was renowed for his book on the First Day of the Somme and he uses that knowledge, and knowledge of the ground here to produce a fantastically detailed book. This book has depth which many guidebooks do not, and the supporting text and maps are excellent. This edition includes a few updates but its only criticism is that some of the information is out of date now. But this is a guidebook worth owning.