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History and Analysis

Martin Middlebrook: The First Day on the Somme (Amazon)

A supremely impressive and seminal work, this book deals specifically with the 1st of July 1916, and does so in a comprehensive, thorough and thoughtful way. The book was first published in 1971, and has gone through several editions since. As with Lyn MacDonald's books, the approach is to utilise the words of veterans of the battle, and there are some truly heart-rending descriptions of the battle and how it was fought.

Middlebrook concentrates on the fortunes of ten soldiers, and follows the plans and preparations for the battle, including the massive barrage prior to the offensive. It then proceeds to cover in detail how the day unfolded - success in some areas, but dismal failure in others, and often failure accompanied by devastating losses.

There are comprehensive appendices detailing the Orders of Battle, casualties and Victoria Cross winners, as well as a brief section on the modern battlefields.

I cannot recommend this highly enough, and you may also be interested to read about Martin Middlebrook's own account of the writing and publishing of his work at Tom Morgan's Hellfire Corner site.

Lyn MacDonald: Somme (Amazon)


Lyn MacDonald is the author of several books which deal with different battles or times during the Great War. This, her third, deals with the whole of the Battle of the Somme, from the preparations before July the 1st, right through to when the operations officially ceased in late November.

As with her other titles, the approach is to intertwine narrative with the recollections of veterans (the book was first published in 1983), in a way which is of great interest to those who, like myself, are particularly interested in the human stories behind the battles. A great deal of research went into this work, and MacDonald acknowledges the debt to the veterans who she interviewed in the process of preparing the book.

This was one of the first books I read on the First World War, and, as with Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme, was instrumental in really kindling my interest in the War.

Richard Holmes: Tommy - The British Soldier on the Western Front (Amazon)

I am firmly of the opinion that describing this book as a tour-de-force is entirely warranted. Tommy sets out, and succeeds brilliantly, to describe in detail the experiences, motivations, beliefs and feelings of the British soldier on the Western Front.

Above all, it is extremely well written; despite the fact it runs to over 600 pages this is no dry reference book; it is easy to read and hard to put down. The narrative flows, backed up by a comprehensive set of footnotes as well as a list of sources, many unpublished and hence unavailable to many who cannot readily access Kew of the Imperial War Museum.

The text contains large numbers of quotes from those who fought, and these are thoughtfully selected and carefully used. Life both in, and out of the trenches is thoroughly covered, including living conditions, weaponry (which includes the artillery men usually behind the front lines), the religious beliefs and morals of the men of 1914-1918 and their relaxations in their leisure time.

It is impossible in a short review to convey the detail of this book; but as a modern analysis of what life was really like on the Western Front, I would say it cannot be beaten.

Max Arthur: The Faces of World War I (Amazon)

Max Arthur has followed up his Forgotten Voices of the Great War with this, a hardback volume mainly composed of photographs. The intention was clearly to focus on the human aspect of the war and the pictures have been carefully chosen to reflect this. The book is divided into five main sections, one for each year of the War, with smaller sections covering the pre- and post-war periods.

The Pre-War section contrasts the social chasm that existed between the rich and the poor, with the very first pages showing a richly dressed family arriving at Lord Cicket Ground opposite a photograph of an East End family living in poverty. The War Years sections contain not only pictures of the troops in the line, but also many showing them at rest, at play and dealing with everyday life during the Great War. Some photos may be familiar, but there are so many, including some never published before, that this book is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in the human aspect of the war. The photos are complemented by many quotes from soldiers who fought in the War, and it is a book one can pick up and delve into at any time. Turning the pages there are many moving, some funny and inevitably some tragic images. One of the most terrible is not ironically an image of the dead, but the face of a shell-shocked soldier with staring eyes and a terrified expression. At the other end of the spectrum, a photograph from Christmas 1917 shows a group of grinning Tommies with a pantomime horse 'eating' from a tin hat.

Whilst there are a number of photographs showing the grim realities of death, this is not the main theme. In the Introduction, Max Arthur writes that he wanted to "capure the spirit of the soldier on both sides, but not only his spirit, also his humour, his ability to endure, his sense of defiance and his courage to withstand the often appalling conditions". In my view, this book succeeds very well in what it sets out to do.

Cathryn Corns & John Hughes-Wilson: Blindfold and Alone (Amazon)

This book deals with the emotive and difficult subject of those British soldiers who were executed during the First World War.

This is a topic which arouses strong feelings in many, even 90 years after the events, with calls for a blanket pardon of all those who were executed, and in some cases claims that such executions reflected in some way a class distinction in how men and officers were treated.

Corns and Hughes-Wilson take a dispassionate look at the actual facts in many of the cases.The records of courts-martial where the death penalty was confirmed and carried out still exist in most cases - although the records where the sentence of death was given by the court but not confirmed or carried out do not. The latter represents nearly 90% of the total, and their lack does not enable an effective comparison to be made to analyse why sentences were or were not confirmed. The authors review the surviving papers in many of the confirmed cases, looking at courts-martials for cowardice, desertion, striking a senior office and murder amongst others.

Given that in some cases these only consist of a few pages. it is difficult to see that after 90 years any "new" conclusions can be drawn - and in most cases the picture presented would suggest that based on the facts presented and the military law of the time, the courts-martials had little option but to award the death penalty. There are a small number of cases which give cause for concern, where a man appears to have been obviously "shell-shocked", and in some cases where after previous good service a man performed badly after being transferred to a new unit where he did not have his known friends and conpanions around him. The book also explains how courts Martials were conducted, and how the process eveloved throughout the course of the War.

However, in many cases, particularly those of deserters and murderers, it is hard to see how, for example, a man discovered living with a Frenchwoman, dressed in civilian clothes after months away from his regiment (and in some cases on his second or third desertion having previously been given "milder" sentences) had any intention but to avoid service. Given that many of the 89% of death penalties that were not confirmed were denied on medical grounds, this thorough analysis left me in little doubt that in most cases the courts-martial felt they were right, and from the mores and laws of the time, they probably were.

There are a number of books available which put the case for blanket pardons - Blindfold and Alone is well thought out, dispassionate but thorough, and concludes that it is difficult to justify blanket pardons, and even more difficult to conduct case by case reviews given the paucity of documentation and the lack of new evidence. Most people have strong feelings one way or another on this subject, and this book is well worth a read as it is a comprehensive analysis of the evidence itself.

Gordon Corrigan: Mud, Blood and Poppycock (Amazon)

A publication (in 2003) by an author who was a regular officer in the Army, the book sets out to disprove the " lions led by donkeys" view of the First World War. In many accounts of the War, particularly those which are most widely read (i.e. Graves and Sassoon), there are disparaging comments on the role of the Staff and the Generals, and this view came to be more widely held by the general public.

Corrigan states that, having been on both the operational and the staff side, he felt as a regimental officer that the Staff often had no grasp of reality, whilst as a Staff officer that the battalions did not appreciate the big picture - and admits he was usually wrong in both cases.

Mud Blood and Poppycock deals with the reasons for the War itself, as well as the background as to why the Battle of the Somme and other well-known battles such as Third Ypres were fought. This gives an understanding of why some battles with no apparent strategic purpose were fought. The book also deals with the weapons and artillery used, and their development during the War. The section on early grenades, including the lemon grenade which had a friction fuse that was often very difficult to pull, and the pitcher grenade which fragmented for 200 yards thus endangering the thrower, is fascinating.

The issue of communications during battles, and the struggle to keep up with a rapidly changing situation relying often on runners (due to the breaking of telephone wires) is also covered.

The book certainly throws into question many of the aspects of public perception, perhaps the only criticism being that it goes almost too far the other way.

Nigel Steel & Peter Hart: Passchendaele -The Sacrificial Ground (Amazon)

Published by Cassell Military Paperbacks, this thoughtful work covers the Third Battle of Ypres, known often by the name of one of the final stages, Passchendaele.

The book covers the events leading up to it and the preparations made, and then the Battle of Messines, which was a small-scale operation with limited but realistic aims. This attack, starting on the 7th of June 1917 under General Plumer, was a great success. However, the subsequent operations to break out of the Ypres salient ran into trouble. Sometimes the objectives were just too ambitious, plus as time went on the pauses between offensives was insufficient to allow the artillery to effectively support the infantry attacks. In addition of course the weather was very poor, and the attacks bogged down and floundered in mud.

The authors have drawn heavily on documents and sound archives at the Imperial War Museum, and do a splendid job in using these to bring out the horror of serving in the Salient during those ill-fated attacks. There are graphic descriptions of the difficulties, from the enemy but also from the conditions and the awful toll this took.

A very good book on Third Ypres, perhaps the only criticism would be that the nature of the narrative sometimes makes it a little hard to follow the chronological events; but an excellent record of the soldiers experience of the battle.

Niall Ferguson: The Pity of War (Amazon)

There are an awful lot of books covering the First World War. They have to be pretty good to stand out from the crowd, and this relatively recent book (published in 1998) manages to provide enough information in a very readable format to make it, in my opinion, a big success. Ferguson looks beyond the political reasons for War, and examines the economic issues and the attitude towards Germany, even before the War.

There are also fascinating studies on " Why men fought" and an analysis of why, at certain times, there were so few prisoners taken.

The same author also wrote a book on the British Empire (also made into a television series), and I found both this and The Pity of War compelling reading. Ferguson is that rare academic who can present a narrative account of a complex subject in a readable and highly enjoyable way.

Malcolm Brown: The Imperial War Museum Book of the Western Front (Amazon)

One of several books published by Pan in association with the Imperial War Museum. Brown is the author of several of these, and this book concentrates on the British experiences on the Western Front.

Malcolm Brown draws very heavily on the wealth of archival material held at the Imperial War Museum for this book, which like several others reviewed here quotes from the letters, diaries and papers of those who fought in the war. As such, like Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald's works there is a human touch to the book - as it quotes not only the mean and officers who took to war and fighting, but also those who were, like many of us would have been, just plain scared.

The book is split into three main parts, covering the early war of movement, including the retreat from Mons; the deadlock of trench warfare (this section also deals with the Somme and Third Ypres amongst other battles, plus the Kaiser's offensive in the Spring of 1918). The third sections covers the last 100 days of the War, the great advance forward and the reaction to the Armistice. Interestingly, the British guns at least blazed away in the last few minutes before falling silent at 11 a.m.

There are several chapters within the book dealing with specific incidents; small in the scale of the War, but again allowing one to see the human story behind the history. For example, a senior officer sent home for apparent failure; shell-shock; executions and also sex (or for many soldiers the lack of it).

As you would expect, the rich source of the Imperial War Museum sources gives this book a solid foundation, but choosing what to include and how to put it all together is where the author makes a difference - and this book is a good read to get a feel for life on the Western Front during the Great War.

Andrew Robertshaw & David Kenyon: Digging the Trenches - The Archaeology of the Western Front (Amazon)

Recently published (October 2008) by Pen & Sword, this is a welcome addition to the relatively small number of books dealing with the Geat War from an archaeological perspective. Andrew Robertshaw has appeared on a number of television documentaries dealing with both Great War and other archaeological digs, including featuring in the Two Men in a Trench series on BBC2. David Kenyon has also made a number of TV appearnces, and the group No Mans Land, which was involved in the dig near the Ulster Tower at Thiepval Wood is the vehicle via which most of the authors excavations on the Western Front have been undertaken.

The book deals with a number of common misconceptions about the way the war was fought; one being that the trenchlines were largely static for several years. In fact, they evaolved constantly during the war, chanigin over time.Indeed, the often-changing nature of the trenches gives particular problems when trying to interpret the context of finds in trenches.

The book is divided into sections, covering the establishment of the trenches and life within them, both the daily 'routine' and also offensives and of course the subject of death and how bodies were dealt with. The approach taken is to utilise information from the arcaeological digs interwoven with the knowlege from documentary sources into a facsinating acount of life for the soldier on the Western Front. As noted elsewhere on this website, the personal items are what really turns the history of the war into the reality of an individual, (such as the .

Ralph Hudson: The Bradford Pals (Amazon)

First published in 1977, and then as a second edition by Bradford Libraries in 1993, this is now in a third edition which has been updated to include information on the courts martial of two soldiers of the 2nd Bradford Pals who were subsequently executed for desertion.

The book is a detailed description of the experiences of the two Bradford Pals battalions (officially the 16th & 18th Prince of Wales Own West Yorkshire Regiment). It covers their formation, in September 1914, through until the time when the battalions were disbanded in February 1918. The battalions were in action most famously at Serre on the 1st of July 1916, but also described in considerable detail is their involvement in action at Neuve Chapelle, Oppy Wood and others. The text is supported by numerous photographs, plus excellent maps of the fronts they fought on.

The author had a close involvement with many of the men who fought through the Bradford Pals Old Comrades association, and this book, whilst obviously of particular interest to those with some association with Bradford, is nonetheless a very interesting read for anyone with an interest in the Great War.

Steve Hurst: The Public Schools Battalion in the Great War (Amazon)

This book, subtitled 'Goodbye Piccadilly', is one of the 'Pals' series of books on battalions published by Pen and Sword. Although a recent publication (2007), it is a work that has had a long gestation, and during this time the author talked in detail and corresponded with various members of the battalion who actually served during the Great War. The book is filled with quotes from these interviews and letters, which occurred in some cases decades ago, and they give the book an immediacy and life beyond the historical facts that makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The Public Schools Battalion was formed by Major Mackay in September 1914, and in recruiting advertised that it would be 'comprised solely of Public School men who will serve together'. It was affiliated with the Middlesex Regiment, and became the 16th Battalion of the Middlesex. As a result in its early days it operated almost as an officer selection unit, with men being put forward from the ranks for commissions, then often posted to other units. However, the requirement to have attended a public school was relaxed after a few months, and the battalion became more like other battalions, although it retained its title throughout.

Steve Hurst's interest in the battalion was stimulated 30 years ago when he visited the area around Beaumont Hamel where they fought on the 1st of July 1916. Because of this, there is a strong focus in the book on that particular day, although it covers the entire history of the battalion until it was disbanded in February 1918. The Public Schools Battalion moved to France in November 1915, and served initially near Festubert and Cuinchy. In April 1916 they moved to the Somme, and into trenches near Beaumont Hamel where they were to fight on July the 1st. On the first day of the Somme they were in the second wave of attackers, but opposite the Hawthorn Redoubt (where the mine was blown ten minutes before the infantry assault), there was little success, and as the PSB attacked at 7.55 a.m. they were subject to intense machine gun fire. By mid-morning, only two officers of those who attacked were not casualties, and 500 other ranks were also casualties - killed, wounded or missing.

As well as the main text, there are a number of Appendices. An interesting one deals with the statements made by Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That alleging that the PSB was the battalion which let down the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers at High Wood on the 18th of July 1916. In fact, the PSB were not even in the area at that time, although the statements remain in Grave's autobiography. Another Appendix in Steve Hurst's book underlines the cost of July the 1st 1916 for this battalion: the graves or place of commemoration of those from the Public Schools Battalion who died on or just after that day are listed. Whilst 50 or so are buried in 'front-line' cemeteries near Beaumont-Hamel, there are also those buried near the CCs and Field Ambulance points behind the lines - wounded on the day but who died of their wounds later. However by far the greatest number are commemorated only on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing - those men who either were blown to pieces at the time, or who died in No Mans Land and whose bodies may there for months afterwards. Perhaps they were further damaged and destroyed as the fighting raged on, or perhaps once recovered their bodies could not be identified. Whatever the reason, these men to this day have no known grave.

In summary, this is a book I would strongly recommend. It is eminently readable, and the personal reminiscences of those who were there add a great deal to its appeal. My main interest and fascination with the Great War is to do with the experiences of those who fought, and this book gives a great insight into that. Steve Hurst wanted to tell the story of the men who were there; he has done it very well.

Ian Passingham: Pillars of Fire (Amazon)

Pillars of Fire is one of the few books devoted to an analysis of the Messines offensive undertaken by General Herbert Plumer's Second Army in the Ypres Salient in June 1917. The title is taken from a description of the scenes following the detonation of nineteen large mines at the start of the attack on the German lines on the Wytschaete/Messines ridge.

The use of mines was just one of the features of this meticulously planned and executed offensive, and the story behind the mines is described in great detail. Ian Passingham served as a soldier himself (in recent years), and hence has an appreciation of the care taken by Plumer and his Chief of Staff, "Tim" Hartington, in ensuring relatively low casualties in the offensive. Having said that, Passingham does not try to disguise the fact that some mistakes were made; ironically the very success of the early stages meant that more men than envisaged crowded into a hold position waiting for the next phase of the battle. There were also a number of friendly fire incidents due to lack of co-ordination of some of the artillery control aspects.

However, these should not take away from the achievement represented by Messines, and I would thoroughly recommend this book, which also deals with the build-up to the battle, and also the main Third Ypres battle that followed it. There is more information on the area covered in the book and the battle on the Messines page.

MArtin Middlebrook: The Kaiser's Battle (Amazon)

Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme is the author's best known work on the First World War. The Kaiser's Battle, published seven years later in 1978 again deals with just one day, this time the 21st of March 1918, when the Germans lauched their great offensive aimed to break the stalemate of trench warfare and win the war before the Americans arrived in great numbers.

The approach to the book is very similar to that taken for The First Day on the Somme; the scene is set taking into account the events leading up to the offensive including the reasons why the Germans had to take the offensive, why they chose the place that they did to undertake it, and the position and state of the British defences on the lines where the attack would take place.

However, the most fascinating aspect, again as with The First Day on the Somme, is the recollections of many veterans from both sides which Middlebrook collected to give the ordinary soldier's views of what happened on the day of the battle itself. Like many people, my main interest in the Great War is not so much the tactical details of the battles but the experiences of those who fought, and this is where Middlebrook's approach is invaluable.

There is also however useful and well-thought out analysis; for example General Hubert Gough, commanding the Fifth Army, ordered a strategic withdrawal, certainly with Haig's understanding that this might be done. Gough's Fifth Army was stretched far thinner than the Third Army (the other on which the German offensive fell), and it is not surprising that in certain areas it struggled to hold the line. Reasons for the shortage of manpower were largely political, and yet Gough ended up as the scapegoat for the German successes that day (and they were major successes, with the advancing Germans taking nearly 100 square miles of ground in that one day - in contrast the 1916 Allied Somme offensive took a similar area in the 140 days of the whole Battle!) and it took many years for this injustice to be officially recognised.

The Kaiser's Battle is a first-class book, thoroughly researched with invaluable first-hand accounts from veterans, and extremely readable in style. It has recently been reprinted by Pen & Sword books, and is very highly reccomended indeed.

John Ellis

Eye-Deep in Hell

The title of this book is taken from an Ezra Pound poem, and it sets out to portray the reality of life in the trenches of the Western Front. It succeeds in that aim extremely well, and has therefore sometimes been called the Great War re-enactor's bible.

The book does not attempt to analyse the causes of the war, or the strategy or tactics of how it was fought. Instead it concentrates on what the troops experience in the front line trenches was actually like. There is in-depth explanation of how trenches were constructed, plus the daily round of a unit in the line, the equipment that the soldiers had to carry (the French had the greatest pack weight, an incredible 85 lbs), and the danger that men had to withstand.

As well as the enemy, there were more prosaic issues to contend with, but just as demoralising: mud, rats, lice, flies, privation and lack of privacy. Even the important but not often mentioned subject of latrines is covered here. Life had to go on in these conditions, and Eye-Deep in Hell gives an excellent account of how it did.

The dangers from the various weapons of the war are also covered, along with the soldiers attitude to the home-front, to the enemy and to authority (mutiny and desertion for example). Overall, a great deal of fascinating information on what it was really like in the trenches on the Western Front.

Editors: Gary Sheffield & John Bourne
Haig - War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (Amazon)

Most people with even a vague interest in the First World War, and many without, will have a strong view on Haig. Often that view is that he was a butcher, a bungler, the donkey leading the lions.

A lot has been written about Haig, and the more I read about him and the War, the more convinced I become that he actually did a fairly good job in very difficult circumstances; it is certainly hard to see who could have done better.

This new book gives a better chance than has previously been possible to judge Haig by what he himself wrote in his diary at the time. Much has been made of the fact that after the War Haig 'amended' his diaries, with some assuming this meant a wholesale rewriting to put himself in a better light. However, this was not the case, and in this volume the editors clearly mark any passages which differ in the later typescript version from the original manuscript version. They also make the point that these amendments are not generally of great substance, usually clarifying points rather than altering the sense.

This is a substantial book with the diaries and letters comprising some 450 pages. Even so, it contains less than a third of the total content of the diaries. But the editors have selected entries to try and cover the whole war and the important events, and include many footnotes relating to other entries that have not been included. The book therefore gives a good opportunity to judge the man - from words written in the main at the time of the event, without the foreknowledge or hindsight available to us. What came across to me, more than anything, was a man of iron will, determined to do his best, and make the Army do their best, to win the war. Unfaltering in this aim, despite many tribulations, perhaps this book will do a little to recover Haig's reputation.

A highly intelligent man, Haig saw early that the War would be a long one, and also foresaw before others in 1918 once the Allies took the offensive that the war might end more quickly. He was also clearly an optimist - often expecting more from battles than perhaps they could ever offer - but would a pessimist have had the strength of character to carry on at times?

As well as the diaries and letters themselves, the editors have also included a useful introduction to the man and the diaries, biographical sketches of some of the main characters, comprehensive footnotes and an excellent index. The diaries themselves cover Haig's rise from Corps Commander to Commander-in-Chief, through the retreat from Mons, the initial battles of 1915, the attrition of the Somme and Passchendaele and on to the darkest days of March 1918 when the Germans made their last desperate attack and pushed the BEF back on their heels.

After this, the tide turned, and the tone changes as the British Armies advanced and German opposition finally melted away. As well as the entries on days of great military significance, it is also fascinating to read Haig's views on his subordinates, his French and American allies and the politicians he had to deal with. The deteriorating relationship with Lloyd George can be clearly followed, and after the war had ended, Haig was much more vitriolic in recording his disgust at being offered a subordinate position (in the fifth carriage) in a Victory parade and what he perceieved as the snub of a Viscountcy.

Haig has often been portrayed as an unfeeling and uncaring General. However, there are a number of entries relating to his efforts to ensure that those disabled in the War should have a decent pension - and it is noteworthy that only after this had been acheived did he accept a peerage.

Essential reading if you have any interest in Haig the man rather than the myth.

Terry Norman: The Hell They Called High Wood (Amazon)

High Wood was one of the place-names that facsinated me when I first became interested in the Great War. It was mentioned by Robert Graves in his memoirs, and by Martin Middlebrook in his account of the first day of the Somme battles. It was many years after than before I finally visited High Wood, and it still is a special place for me every time I visit the Somme.

This book was originally published as a hard back in 1984, and although Terry Norman sadly died several years ago, it has been reissued recently by Pen & Sword in a softback edition.As far as I can tell the book has not been revised in any way in this new edition, and it remains a thorough and in-depth analysis of the fighting for High Wood in 1916.

High Wood was fought over for several weeks during the Battle of the Somme, and Terry Norman's account follows the preparations for the 1st of July 1916, the initial attack on High Wood on the 14th of July, and the subsequent attacks through to the succesful capture of the wood on the 15th of September. It includes details from some of those who fought there as well as drawing on other published sources. I relied on this book heavily when I wrote the page on this website that covers High Wood, and perhaps that says all that needs to be said about it. Very highly reccomended.