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The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front Hardcover – January 17, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Hart is the current master of an approach to military history developed by Martin Middlebrook and Lyn Macdonald. Direct quotations from participants establish the face of battle, then combined with a narrative/analytical backdrop contextualizing the personal experiences. As oral historian of Britain's Imperial War Museum, Hart has unrivaled access to relevant sources. This book, published in Britain in 2005, is a masterful synthesis of the human and the operational aspects of a campaign that increasingly defines the British experience in the Great War. Hart vividly presents the runup to the Big Push expected to end the war; the disaster of July 1, 1916, when the British army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties; and the numbing months of attrition as British troops bled against the German defenses. Hart describes the horror as reflecting not the stupidity of individual generals and politicians but the determination of nations to resolve their differences by a war fought to the finish. The British army learned how to fight battles like the Somme, built around fire power. But its learning curve was slippery with blood. Hart honors the men who paid the price. Photos, maps. (Jan. 7)
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“Peter Hart pays handsome tribute to the ordinary soldiers who gave their lives in battle. One could not wish for a more appropriate testimony to that generation. (The Literary Review)”
“Starred Review. This book, published in Britain in 2005, is a masterful synthesis of the human and the operational aspects of a campaign that increasingly defines the British experience in the Great War. (Publishers Weekly)”
“Peter Hart's The Somme is a memorial. The book brings to life the men who fought at the Somme in an accurate and precisely detailed history of one of the most gut-wrenchingly obscene desecrations of humanity our species ever perpetrated upon itself.... As director and oral historian of the British Imperial War Museum in London, Hart is uniquely positioned to do justice to the British participants in the battle. A talented historian, he succeeds in that most important element of history, storytelling. (Washington Post, Robert Bateman)”
“The most comprehensive and insightful account of the vast tragedy of the Somme that I have read. (The Spectator)”
“Hart brings the human experience of the combatants well to the fore. A monumental feat of research, his book is also a memorial of the most compelling kind to the hundreds of individuals whose recollections are presented so vividly here. (The Scotsman [Edinburgh])”
“Hart is an accomplished author and in The Somme he is on top form. His narrative descriptions of the brutal realities of battle are outstanding. (BBC History Magazine)” --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The author relies on quotes from personal diaries of common soldiers and officers. In fact in many chapter I would bet fully 70% of the written text is excerpts from letters. I think the book could have been shortened and just as impactful if the author would have cut back on the excerpted letters.
That said, the letters are very moving and paint a great picture of the brutality of life in the trenches and what it meant to "go over the top". Especially memorable for me was a chapter in the middle of the book in which a medical officer was extensively quoted on the conditions of his medical station and what it was like to try and save men there.
Good chapter on life in the trenches when there isn't any active combat - the lice, the mud, the water, the foul smells from decaying corpses and sewage, the rats gnawing on you as you sleep. Very gruesome and well depicted literature.
The Somme is the river in France which was the biggest battlefield of war on the Western Front in 1916. On July 1, 1916 (100 years ago General Douglas Haig commander of the British Army directed the assault of his troops against strong trench and fortress defenses held by the Imperial German Army of well trained experienced troops. The vast majority of the lads from England, Scotland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and India were untested and raw soldiers. The result was mass slaughter. The four months of the bloody mess ended up with nearly one million casualties with little accomplished.
The story of the Somme has been told many times but what makes this book of interest is the hundreds of eyewitness accounts recorded by members of the Allied and German forces. Through their suffering eyes we see an indelible picture of the utter terror of mechanized war. Many of the troop died due to disease and the terror of artillery shells,. Medical care was primitive. Tanks were ineffective. Over 20,000 Allied troops were killed and wounded on that horrible Sunday July 1, 1916. Hart has done his research gathering these accounts and the book contains good maps and a fine bibliography. History writing at its finest. A vivid example of man's inhumanity to man.
Before reading Hart's book on the history of The Somme my knowledge of the fighting that took place on the Western Front was at best as murky a quagmire as the front itself. Other theatres of fighting such as Verdun seemed more comprehensible because they were more focused and concentrated affairs. But the theatre of The Somme was so vast, so widespread, so complicated that I opened this book with trepidation.
My first observation was that a lot of the book comprised verbatim diary entries by those that were at the front. This made me wince because, in my opinion, too many history books follow that format and often to ill-effect. To use diary entries effectively requires strategy and skill.
Fortunately, Hart is a master. Not only are soldiers accounts arranged to have maximum effect, but Hart as the narrator is a masterful story-teller. Hart really brings these momentous events to life in a clear and coherent manner - no small achievement considering the task at hand.
Understanding the complexities of The Somme also calls for good, detailed maps, and Hart has them as well.
The combined effect is a history of a devastating conflict as complex as a spirdersweb, made easy to understand. For the first time I could genuinely get a feel for the scale of the fighting, the life in the trenches, the failures of strategy and planning. Also, for the first time I could get a sense of the massive scale of carnage, starting with that first dark day in July 1916, a day when 20000 British soldiers were cut down.
On a final note, for anyone who wants to read this book, I found it extremely useful to have GoogleEarth open as I read so that I could trace events on the battlefield. One sees how open and even the terrain is, can go down to road level and look around, visit the sites of mass cemetaries where the fighting was particularly fierce, or look over the rim of the crater left by one of the enormous detonated mines.
This is a great read. Five stars I say!
Most recent customer reviews
his writing is very visual.