BOOK REVIEW – The Somme Campaign by Andrew Rawson


This review originally appeared on the Army Rumour Site (www.arrse.co.uk) and is reproduced with their kind permission.

The average reader of this blog is probably familiar with the First World War and may well ask whether the centenary of its start is cause enough for another book on the Somme Campaign of 1916.  The author, who has written many military books, asks the same question in the introduction and answers it.  This book is a comprehensive, chronological record of how and where the British Army fought during the 142 days.   It was worth writing, and is certainly well worth reading.

The book eschews commentary, discussion of the intriguing relationships between the commanders and the German view and experience.  Instead it produces a dry, unequivocal record of who did what, why and when.  The author has also avoided the common trap of wallowing in the (appalling) casualty rolls.  The result is a crisp, authoritative and clear text.

The triumph of the book is its focus on the military, tactical problem of how one assaults a well prepared position with little opportunity to turn a flank.  This is what the British Armies had to do, often from an inferior or inconvenient starting point.  The clarity of the record illustrates how tactics were developed in the light of experience and the constraints that commanders faced.  It also shows how events and weather can ruin the best laid plans and illustrates that developing tactics and techniques in the face of the enemy spills a lot of blood.  The problems of commanding large numbers of men in poor visibility without radio are illustrated repeatedly. The chilling words “and they were never seen again” haunt the pages.

The book has plenty of maps, usually one per corps per action, with brigade locations identified and the test going down to battalion and company level.  The maps put the concentrations of manpower into stark relief – a sector that a company might cover today often having an entire division.

Although dry, the book is not impersonal; the author also describes the circumstances in which every VC was won.  The effect is that the reader both understands the technical military problems and the human cost of solving them.

My one complaint is about the maps, which are based on the mapping in use at the time. They are not always easily legible, the contours are not clear and, frustratingly, many of the trenches referred to in the text are not identified on the maps. This detracts from the pleasure of reading.

The author saves his commentary to the end and it is one of the most balanced, sensible and moving summaries of the Campaign that I have read.  It should become a standard text on the GCSE syllabus where it would do much to correct the modern understanding of this epic campaign.

Mr Rawson to be admired for producing such a powerful, well researched and readable book.  But for the irritating maps I would have given it 5/5.  Its a very strong 4/5 though.

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