From one of our most distinguished historians, an authoritative and vivid account of the devastating World War I battle that claimed more than 300,000 lives
At 7:30 am on July 1, 1916, the first Allied soldiers climbed out of their trenches along the Somme River in France and charged out into no-man's-land toward the barbed wire and machine guns at the German front lines.
By the end of this first day of the Allied attack, the British army alone would lose 20,000 men; in the coming months, the fifteen-mile-long territory along the river would erupt into the epicenter of the Great War. The Somme would mark a turning point in both the war and military history, as soldiers saw the first appearance of tanks on the battlefield, the emergence of the air war as a devastating and decisive factor in battle, and more than one million casualties (among them a young Adolf Hitler, who took a fragment in the leg). In just 138 days, 310,000 men died.
In this vivid, deeply researched account of one history's most destructive battles, historian Martin Gilbert tracks the Battle of the Somme through the experiences of footsoldiers (known to the British as the PBI, for Poor Bloody Infantry), generals, and everyone in between. Interwoven with photographs, journal entries, original maps, and documents from every stage and level of planning, The Somme is the most authoritative and affecting account of this bloody turning point in the Great War.
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.