UNDERSTANDING THE SOMME 1916
An Illuminating Battlefield Guide
by Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys
The aim of this book is: ‘to provide the reader with a real understanding of the 1916 Battle of the Somme’.
Like the battle, it is partially successful but overall it fails to achieve its main objective, although this sombre verdict in no way diminishes from its value as a guidebook with numerous colour photographs and key features annotated. The text acts as a guide from south to north along the battlefield interspersed with extracts from contemporary accounts. As one would expect from two Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons, there are informed descriptions of the treatment of the wounded and interesting conclusions on the failure of artillery, German losses and their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys have taken on an immensely complex and controversial subject. Much of their research has been on cycling expeditions to the Western Front, with Heys also playing the bagpipes. Their selected bibliography and the front cover of the book assert their strong interest in the Scottish Highland Divisions. On a point of detail, the omission of 11th Suffolks (Cambridge Battalion) from the index caused me some concern. My father was a platoon commander with the battalion and the only officer to emerge unhurt on 1st July. However, I found them eventually in Chapter 5.
Readers of The Guards Magazine will find only a brief description in Chapter 10 of the Guards Division’s capture of lines which up to then had been considered impregnable. The final assault on Lesboeufs was one of the most successful operations of the battle. In the attacks on 15th and 25th September, battalions suffered between forty and fifty percent casualties and a higher proportion of officers. The only Foot Guards regiment mentioned is the Grenadier Guards in the context of the location of the grave of Raymond Asquith. He was shot through the chest leading the first half of his company on 15th September. He lit a cigarette so that his men would not be disheartened by seeing he was badly hurt; he died on a stretcher. His Company Commander, Capt A K Mackenzie, was hit at the same time as he led No 4 Company to the attack. Although
mortally wounded, he got up again and struggled on, still waving his men forward. Once more he fell and this time was unable to rise, but even then he managed to raise himself on one knee and cheer the company on.
In 1927, Churchill wrote of the cost of 432,000 British casualties: ‘Unconquerable except by death, which they had conquered, they have set up a monument of native virtue which will command the wonder, the reverence and the gratitude of our island people as long as we endure as a nation among men’. Understanding this sacrifice at an emotional level would require much more than the few contemporary excerpts and poems that the authors have managed to include in their clear and informative guide and will probably only ever have been really understood by those that were there.
- Philip Wright
Understanding The Somme 1916 by Thomas Scotland and Steven Heys is published by Helion & Company www.helion.co.uk