Book Review: The British on the Somme

The British on the Somme

By: Bob Carruthers 

Publisher: Pen And Sword Military

Pages: 128

The battle of the Somme lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916 and resulted in 420,000 British casualties. This book is a visual record of the trials they endured and showed the conditions the soldiers had to suffer.

The black-and-white photos show a variety of situations during the battle and are presented in chronological order. The photos are preceded by a map of the area and a small amount of text describing the overall conditions of the battle. 

If you are familiar with World War I and the Battle of the Somme, you will know some of the locations and tactics called out in the text of the photos. If not, there is no problem as the photo descriptions are informative.

The photos present all sorts of scenes during the fight for the Somme. Some of the most moving are photos of soldiers simply getting everyday things done. Shaving, getting a haircut and taking a much-needed shower are all shown here. Daily needs do not necessarily stop for war.

Preparations for the artillery barrage before the start of the battle are shown by the photos of gun batteries with piles of ammunition ready to go and the ammunition dumps behind the lines. The aftermath of the bombardment is also documented by the photos of the huge piles of spent shell casings. At the start of the battle the British fired over 1.7 million shells.

Unfortunately, this initial assault did not tear up enough barbed wire or crush the German trenches as they hoped. The photos of Tommies in captured German trenches show mostly intact dugouts and reinforced positions. The British were probably very surprised when they found their initial barrage did so little damage.

One thing the photos bring out especially well is the terrain and the weather conditions during the battle. Many show the results or rain on soil that has neither grass nor trees to hold it. The result is a sloppy, gooey mess that bogs down transport and makes attacking difficult.

The text makes the point in one photo of men washing with water from a large depression on the battlefield that one should not look too far into the water because it often concealed human or animal bodies. This brings home the truth about battlefield conditions. Men had to fight in an area that was devoid of forests, fresh water, clear terrain and cover.

There are photos of casualties, wounded and dead, from both sides of the lines. There are also photos of soldiers relaxing or sleeping, working or evacuating the wounded and lining up at what may be the world’s first food truck.

In short, everything people do during war is well represented here. The historian and modeler will be interested in seeing what the conditions were like during the Battle of the Somme. It is also a fitting memorial to the men who fought.

When reality intrudes

Scale modelers are dedicated to modeling history as accurately as possible, for the most part. War, however, is something which has brought down entire nations and changed history, as well as affecting generations of people who survived. Those who did not survive also leave a hole in their families that is difficult to bear at best. 

So how much of this reality of war should modelers reflect in their work? I thought about this as I was looking at a modeling forum and spotted a post from someone looking for dead soldier figures. They are out there and you can also convert your own figures. 

The post immediately brought comments about not overdoing death in a diorama, which I agree with. I am not one to tell people what to model in their dioramas, but I think some subtlety is called for. 

We have plenty of photos and films about what goes on during a war and how weapons affect the human body. It’s not necessary to model every detail like it’s a body horror movie.

But I also believe in the educational factor of dioramas. Take for example, the opening of Saving Private Ryan. I can’t image being one of the scared soldiers who struggled up the beach. That scene shows how serious the job was that day and some were not bound to make it. It also shows the bravery of those who did make it and paved the way for those to come.

Some people can’t take that kind of graphic representation, which is understandable. If you talk to a veteran who’s seen action, he or she might tell you about similar things they’ve witnessed in their career. They might not. It’s not pleasant reliving experiences such as those.

I have a neighbor up the street from me who somehow survived the second wave of D-Day. I thanked him for his service, but I did not press him for details. I can only imagine what he saw and experienced and I am content to leave it at that.

All wars have situations that leave unpleasant memories in people’s minds for years. I prefer to think if I am modeling a serious scene, I am educating the viewer and honoring those who fight for us, as well as showing the high cost of war.