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Deseves to be a Somme classic
on 14 September 2007
It was, I suppose, inevitable that the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Somme offensive of 1916 would encourage a considerable volume of new and reprinted work about the campaign. My guess is that, as usual, much of it will equally inevitably focus on the horror of the first day of the infantry attack, 1 July. The latter phases of drudgery, tedium and constant danger in the muddy wilderness of Lesboeufs or Le Transloy will barely receive a mention, yet it is the mud and grinding to and fro of attack and counter attack in these months that defines the Somme much more than the bloody mess of 1 July in the sunshine. Here is a book that puts the totality of the Somme into a more realistic context, despite it being only a snapshot of a typical twelve day stint for a weary infantry battalion, and it is therefore welcome.
It is not only the subject matter that appeals to me: the narrative is honest, gripping, emotional. Sidney Rogerson was a subaltern with the 2nd Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, a regular army unit that still possessed a few old soldiers - with their use of Hindi and Indian Army vernacular - despite having seen much action and loss by late 1916. We may be thankful for his clear memory, ability to recall and record, and his humanity. He takes us through the move from rest camp into a wasteland front where there is no discernable front line and to get there meant passing through a deep shell-swept zone with no landmarks; the tense days of front line duty and patrol without anything really unusual happening except the inexplicable disappearance of a brother officer; the agony of footslogging for miles to a flooded tented camp; the resentment at having to provide working parties within hours of coming out ; and eventually out to rest once more. There are no heroes here, no VCs; no "lions led by donkeys"; no glittering brass hats: the tale of ordinariness in these squalid, bitter conditions tells it own story of heroism. "Twelve days on the Somme" is deservedly a classic memoir, originally published in 1933.
The Greenhill version of the book includes a thorough introduction by author and historian, Malcolm Brown. This is itself a most interesting essay and a worthwhile scene-setter for Rogerson's powerful work.