The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs

Published on
October 5, 2016
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
Richard Van Emden
Other Publication Information
Soft Cover, 6.8” x 9.1”, 366 pages
Provided by: Casemate Publishers - Website: Visit Site
Front cover

The Somme by Richard Van Emden was originally published in England by Pen and Sword as a hard cover book on May 24, 2016 and a soft cover on June 6, 2016. Casemate released this soft cover edition on August 19, 2016.

London resident Richard van Emden has written profusely on the subject on World War One. He worked as a journalist after graduating from Newcastle University in 1988. He books focus on World War I and include: Tickled to Death to Go, Prisoners of the Kaiser, The Trench, Sapper Martin, Last Man Standing, Britain’s Last Tommies, Famous, Veterans, Boy Soldiers of the Great War, The Soldier’s War, and Tommy’s Ark. He has interviewed over 270 veterans of the Great War and many of those interviews are used in this book. Richard Van Emden also is heavily involved in television programs about The Great War and includes Veterans, Roses of No Man’s Land, The Boy Soldiers of the Great War, and The Real War Horse.

The Somme battle started on July 1, 1916 and would burn for the next four and a half months to gain a total of five miles for the Allies. The first day of battle alone claimed 20,000 British soldiers with another 40,000 wounded. Richard van Emden includes photographs from the battle, many never published before. The military had banned the use of cameras on the Western Front aside from just two official photographers for the whole Western Front. That means that the pictures included in this book were taken with illegal cameras and as such are quite rare. The text is largely from the diaries and letters of the soldiers involved. Some of the soldier’s notes are short and sweet while others carry much more detail.

There is plenty of horror involved in some of these tales, but one story by Lieutenant Richard Hawkins of the 11th Royal Fusiliers made me smile. He was commanding D Company as his company began to move forward.

“At 6:30 our barrage opened with a blinding flash behind us. We were still bogged down with the German barrage when there was another flash and Collis-Sandes fell dead and I was hit in the shoulder. It was like being kicked by a mule. As the force spun me around, I lost my balance and fell right down the ravine, crashing into some barbed wire at the bottom. I lost consciousness for a while. I awoke as it was beginning to get light, to hear a Cockney voice say, ‘Cor blimey, ‘ere’s Lieutenant Hawkins, the poor so-and-so is dead’. ‘No, I’m not I replied, ‘but I shall be if you don’t get me out of this lot’.”

“I’d lost a lot of blood but they helped me to my feet and took me back a couple of hundred yards and there I met dear old Doctor Sale, from Australia. He stripped my tunic and put some dressings on before he called over three German prisoners; ‘Here, come and get hold of the end of this stretcher’. He needed a fourth man and, looking around, he saw a German officer. This man…explained in fairly good English that is was not the job of an officer to grab hold of a stretcher with three private soldiers. Dr Sale was a pretty busy man and he hadn’t time to argue, so he just repeated himself. The German said ‘Nein’. Dr Sale was a very good rugby three-quarter and he stuck his boot into the fellow’s behind and he took off.”

Doctor Sale proceeded to chase the German officer around the entire area, kicking him every chance he got until the German officer decided he had had enough and grabbed the stretcher with the three German privates.

The Chapters include:

  • Introduction
  • Live and Let Live [Page 25]
  • Bedding-In [Page 98]
  • Awed and Shocked [Page 137]
  • Batter and Hold [Page 165]
  • Toil and Strife [Page 239]
  • Nut Cracking [Page 268]
  • Mud and Guts [Page 292]
  • Fighting Cold [Page 324]
  • Acknowledgements
  • Sources and Permissions
  • Index

Richard Van Emden has delivered another excellent book on World War I that magically portrays this segment in time. The rare photographs are aligned with the timeline and add to the text greatly. My thanks to Casemate and IPMS/USA for the chance to review this excellent book.

Highly recommended!


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