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...
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.
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.
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.