Martin Gilbert, arguably one of the most respected and revered historians of our time, sets down in a compelling and cathartic evocation, the foibles, frenzy and fate surrounding one of the most scarred battles engaged in by humanity against humanity. The tellingly decisive battle of Somme was also chillingly known for the humongous quantum of casualties. Body counts ran rife as Allied soldiers and their opponents alike, fell by the thousands as they fought in the trenches, sat astride their tanks and observed from the vantage view point accorded by the parapets of terraces. When the ravages of destruction finally ended on the 19th of November, 1916 amidst a befitting atmosphere of snow and fog of a gloomy and thankless winter, more than 300,000 brave and uncomplaining men from the British, French, Commonwealth and German troops were lost to their families and the world for ever.
Like all great chroniclers Martin Gilbert maintains a veneer of perfect neutrality throughout the course of this haunting narrative. Impassive to the cheers of the victors and the cries of the vanquished, and impervious to bias, he just details the sequential flow of mad events as they happened. The true account death, decadence and devastation that occurred over a 22 mile long stretch and lasted for almost a year leave the reader as shell shocked as the poor soldier himself.
The gallantry displayed by the men on the battle ground relying upon their instinct and intuition almost acts as an inspiration to the reader. For instance, the story of the courageous Rifleman William McFadzean from Belfast who placed his own body on two bombs thrown into his trench so that several of his colleagues could survive is one that sears the soul of the reader long after the covers of the book have been closed. McFadzean, who as a result of his selfless sacrifice was killed outright, posthumously was awarded the first of all fifty one Victoria Crosses of the Battle of the Somme.
The research is meticulous (as 8 pages of bibliography and 32 detailed diagrams of maps would bear ample testimony); the rendition is moving and at the same time, matter-of-fact and the result is a moving evocation of one of the most bloodiest and belligerent battles of World War I.
But the most evocative and heart wrenching as well as warming aspect of this battle epic is the reproduction of various beautiful poems and verses penned by the valiant and courageous soldiers in anticipation of a fierce and fatal fight. The utter desolateness and futility that can only be brought on by an armed conflict is portrayed in clinical light in all these verses. A young American poet and a Harvard Graduate Alan Seeger serving with the French Foreign Legion as Legionnaire No.19522 wrote the following poem titled ‘Rendezvous’ to his mother:
‘I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope or battered hill,
When spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down.
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear.
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous’.
Sadly and true to his word young Seeger did not fail his ill-fated rendezvous as he was killed in the battle to control the province of Belloy-en-Santerre. Lying mortally wounded, Seeger was heard crying out for water, and his mother.
The example of Seeger is just one of many embedded within the covers of this engrossing book. As cautious words of wisdom advocating against the offensive at Somme, emanating from Winston Churchill and Lloyd George were turned down by the Commander of the English forces, Sir Douglas Haig, there commenced a macabre onset of mayhem, massacre and melancholy. The area in and around the Somme from the 1st of July 1916 till the 19th of November 1916 was an ungodly hellhole of death and decomposition. Men and horses alive were mercilessly gunned down, bombed out, razed to the ground by fire, dismembered by shells and bayoneted in a barbaric frenzy.
Just as the memories of this terrible battle will continue to haunt the collective conscience of the world for time immemorial, and ages after the dust and grime has settled down, the mind of the reader will be plagued by a catharsis of emotions long after the covers of this marvelous book have been closed. This is a story that pleads with humanity not to ever obliterate from our hearts and souls the sacrifices made by each and every fallen soldier in the Great War and also most importantly not to repeat the foibles of the fractious history which every armed conflict is attendant with.
As a matter of information, Martin Gilbert informs the reader that Alan Seeger is thought to be buried as one of the thousands of unknown soldiers in the French National Cemetery at Lihons. There also exists a memorial bell in his honour in the church at Belloy, and the town also has a square named after him.