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  • Somme
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4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 3 February 2002
To add to the other reviews (and it *is* a triumph of research, and tells you pretty much all you need to know about the campaign), one thing puzzled me. The book doesn't seem to cover the first day of the battle, the day which most people think of when they think of the Somme. One moment, the troops are about to leap over the trenches - and then we're at the next chapter, and we've skipped several hours into the future.
I assume Ms MacDonald is trying to replicate the 'fog of war' that existed at the time - nobody in charge knew what had happened until several days later, and the people at home had to wait for months - but it's unsatisfying, somehow.
Still, it's a superb book, and you can't fault the sheer hard work MacDonald has put into it - not only did she interview many of the surviving British soldiers (this was back in 1983, so there were more of them), she actually visited the battlefield.
One other flaw, though, is that whilst she interviewed lots of British people, we don't learn much about the Germans. Given that they took just as many casualties in the battle as us, what must it have been like for them, sitting in their trenches, under a towering artillery bombardment, not knowing what was coming next? We don't find out, which is a shame.
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on 12 October 2004
The best account of the battle of the Somme I have ever read. Not your usual cold account of history it tells the story of the poor souls who were there. Taken from diaries, letters and interviews with the survivors. This is the first book I have read by Mcdonald and I will be reading them all. A must for students and enthusiasts of the first world war.
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on 5 August 2000
I have never read a book before like this where I couldn't put it down but at the same time there was something each time I read it that brought a lump to my throat. I have nothing substantial as proof but I am fairly sure that both my grand-father and his brother fought on the Somme with the East Lancs and KOSB and even from my school years this period in history has always fascinated me.
The first hand accounts of feelings, sights and sounds shot through with an amazing courage and humour defy belief at times; you cannot truly appreciate what drove these men on in the appalling conditions they were serving. The Somme destroyed once and for all the glory of the Great War and this book illustrates the fate of a lost generation in a way that will leave you thinking about what you've read for some time after you've finished reading it...
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VINE VOICEon 19 July 2002
I first came across this book in 1983, the year of its publication. It is a fine additon to the immense material on the Somme, but it could have been a little better. The first day on the Somme is barely mentioned. Maybe she thought that because Martin Middlebrook had covered the actions of the first day wonderfully well, she didnt think much more could be said. Told from the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier struggling to survive in terrible conditions, it does succeed in this respect. Moving in parts, it reveals how the ordinary soldier was pushed into battle almost beyond the very limit of endurance. Some good pictures which show the battlefield as it is today. Maps could have been better though. Still, a worthy contribution.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 July 2006
Few battles are as seared into the British historical consciousness as the battle of the Somme, the months-long offensive against the German trenches during the First World War. There the newly-trained divisions of 'Kitchener's Army' suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, all for advances that were often measured in yards. It was a baptism of blood, one that often depopulated villages back home of an entire generation of young men and left an indelible impression on the minds of its survivors.

Lyn Macdonald's book is a chronicle of the battle from the viewpoint of the British soldier. She begins by describing how so many of the soldiers came to be on the Somme battlefield, through their recruitment into the ranks in the weeks and months that followed the outbreak of the war. Many of them joined in groups, retaining a collective identity from their civilian life even after they put on the uniform. From there she details the meticulous preparations for the offensive, the training and planning that went into preparing these soldiers for a battle that its planners believed would break through the German lines and pave the way for victory.

The confident expectations were little match for the horrors of trench warfare, however. Instead of a dramatic breakthrough the British 'Tommys' faced unrelenting slaughter, struggling to even make modest gains on the battlefield. In the weeks that followed the initial assault, the British high command threw division after division into the battle, hoping to achieve progress. Throughout each of these efforts, Macdonald captures the experience of combat - the dusty marches, the gory advances, and the reaction of the survivors to their experience. Such struggles continue, over and over, until the offensive petered out in mid-November, with Kitchener's Army all but spent as a fighting force.

Throughout the book Macdonald writes of the battle in gripping prose, supplemented throughout by a generous use of quotes from interviews with veterans who survived the battle. Together it combines to recount the experience in a manner that grabs the reader's attention, focusing it on the experience of the ordinary soldier and never letting go. Oftentimes the engagements can blur together; while this can make it difficult to distinguish one battle form another, it conveys something of the grinding nature of warfare on the Western Front. The broader strategy is also subordinated, something that further reflects the perspective of the average Tommy, who was unable to look past the enemy trenches. A more glaring absence, however, is the German side. While largely excluding the views and experiences of German soldiers helps to define them as the nameless, faceless 'Jerries' that many British soldiers viewed them to be, it deprives readers of a valuable perspective of the battle, with the ability to establish just how unique the British experience was.

These criticisms should not deter readers seeking to understand the battle of the Somme. Macdonald's book is an engaging account of this seminal battle, one that engages its reader throughout the months of struggle and slaughter chronicled within its pages. It is unlikely to be bettered for the drama of its narrative, or for its ability to relate the battle as how the thousands of Tommys fought it - a valuable perspective that gives identity to the soldiers who are often reduced to mere numbers in all too many accounts.
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on 13 December 2009
I first read one of Lyn MacDonald's World War One books when a friend gave me "They called it Passchendale" and found it informative and an excellent read. Since then I have bought all of her books about WW1. Like the others Somme is told from the viewpoint of various participants from Generals to the footslogger interspersed by a very good narrative style from Ms MacDonald. At times it reads like a novel with characters you can identify with. At the same time giving the salient historical facts. The reader becomes involved unlike with normal recounting of battles. For anybody interested in WW1 I would suggest to start with 1914, Hope Springs then go through to 1915, Somme (1916) Passchendale (1917) and end wit 1918.
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on 2 May 2010
I didn't enjoy this book as much as her book about Paschendaele, but it must be said that for the personal side of war it is pretty good. I have two negative comments about it:

- The maps used to visualise the situation at a particular time aren't very clear and I found it hard to follow the overall story using them. I even went so far as to download a couple of Somme battle maps from the internet which were much more helpful.

- As others hve said, the German side is not very well covered at all. I understand that there may have been difficulties in doing this, but with such a plethora of British and commonwealth accounts, it wouldn't have been THAT difficult to research the German perspective.

Other than these two minor points, it is a very capable account of one of the most famous actions that the British Army has ever participated in and a worthy salute to the men of Kitchiner's Army.
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on 2 June 1999
This is a fantastic synopsis of first hand accounts of the Battle of the Somme. In places the accounts are shocking, in others humorous. Throughout this book there is a continual background of shelling and other activity, so much so that you can almost hear it, even after putting the book down. After finishing this book, you will be left feeling stunned and empty at the tragic wastage of human life. We should be grateful to Lyn MacDonald for giving the veterans the opportunity voice their memories.
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on 4 February 2010
I have an avid interest in WW1 and have read numerous books on the subject of The Somme - this, however, is without equal and is a harrowing and almost traumatising account of the battle and is, to date, without equal. It is worth reading for the last two pages alone, which moved me to tears. There are few books which should be prescribed reading for every human being but this is one of them.
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on 26 August 1999
Although not mentioned by name, my grandfather was amongst the men described in this book. I have known for many years that he took part in the Battle of the Somme, but reading Lyn MacDonald's account of the battle, and the eyewitness accounts of the fighting made it seem much more real. A valuable contribution to the oral history of this country.
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