The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War

Martin Gilbert, Author . Holt $27.50 (332p) ISBN 978-0-8050-8127-5

The four-month–long battle of the Somme epitomized the futile bloodletting on the western front, with 19,000 advancing British soldiers killed by the Germans on the very first day. From the impersonality of this mechanized slaughter, Gilbert, dean of First and Second World War historians, strives to recover the pathos of personal experience by spotlighting the exploits and travails of various small units and individual soldiers, mostly on the British side. He brings them to life through firsthand accounts, reminiscences by comrades, poignant letters home and snatches of soldiers' poetry, always ending his vignettes with a notice of where the soldiers discussed lie buried—or at least memorialized, since the bodies of 73,000 of the dead were never identified. (Many excellent, very detailed maps of both the battlefield and the resulting cemeteries are included.) Gilbert's approach tends to break up the narrative arc, but then the battle didn't have much of an arc anyway; there were attacks and counterattacks, bombardments and lulls, but the front lines scarcely moved before the fighting finally subsided in mutual exhaustion. His superbly written, absorbing recreations of innumerable small life-and-death struggles makes the book a fitting commemoration of the tragedy. Photos. (July 6)

Reviewed on: 05/22/2006
Release date: 06/01/2006
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