Between the 1st of July and 18th November 1916, around 1 million soldiers lost their lives in one of the bloodiest and, as a result, one of the most infamous battles of human history. The Somme Offensive, better known as The Battle of the Somme, was one of the key battles of WWI and therefore the subject of a great number of books and historical sources. This article details my pick of the top Battle of the Somme history books you can buy. This array of literature covers everything from the general history of the battle through to personal accounts of those who fought in it, ensuring that the millions of lives lost for a battle whose outcome was inconclusive are remember through historical study.
Walking the Somme (Battleground Europe)
Though a few of the books found in this article deal with a strictly historical breakdown of the events leading up to and surrounding the Battle of the Somme, Paul Reed’s Fantastic Walking the Somme distinguishes itself from the crowd: it is in fact a hiker’s guide to the landscape at the Somme battlefields. As is mentioned on Paul Reed’s Somme 1916 website, the book has been describes as an essential companion for any walker looking to visit the battlefields in France, and offers a fantastic visual guide to the current landscape as well as accurately comparing its current state to that of 1916.
In total, the book describes 15 separate walks through and over the various areas associated with the Battle of the Somme. From Gommecourt to Mametz, history fans will adore the detail that the book contains regarding the nature of the different battles according to the areas of the walk described in the book. To this day it is still the only walking guide to the Somme battlefields, and is also a must-read for anyone looking for an introduction to the land on which soldiers at the Somme fought and lost their lives.
Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century
- Bloody Victory, is arguably one of the most authoritative and immensely detailed texts on the subject of the Battle of the Somme. Rather than come at the subject with the usual British-centric view you’ll find in many histories of the Somme, Philpott’s French-history specialisation allows him to speak with authority and authenticity about the often played-down role of the French in the battle. The French narrative is often cast off to the side-lines, but Philpott argues that the French forces were more central to the battle than standard accounts would have one believe.
It’s difficult to argue with Philpott’s hypothesis. After all, as he reiterates in the book, the French generals were more competent than those of the British, and they suffered fewer casualties in the opening months of the Somme, too. There may be some exaggeration due to bias within the book, but the central points are well made. It also contains his thoughts on battles following the Somme, as well as a concluding aside comparing the warfare in 1940 to that of WWI.
The appalling conditions faced by soldiers in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme, is often drastically underplayed and sanitised for the benefit of various media such as TV and newspapers. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Lynch’s Somme Mud is so incredibly impactful in its account of the unfathomable conditions and events that took place during one of the bloodiest battles of recent times. Lynch’s presence at the battle ensures that his writing is backed with the utmost authority, as well as lined with an uneasy, haunting sense that this is a man that has experienced what most would never, and nor would they wish to either.
An Australian private that served with the 45th bat. of the Australian infantry (a history of which can be found here, Lynch’s experiences in the book range from unpleasant to unbelievably horrific. This is one of the most accurate and readable first-hand accounts of the Battle of the Somme, giving the reader a painful glimpse into the day-to-day life of the infantrymen of the battle and indeed the war. The importance of this book as an historical text also cannot be overstated.
Lyn Macdonald’s other works on World War I are as essential a read as Somme, which is a rather detailed yet chilling look at a variety of events and circumstances that took places between July-November 1916.
This book isn’t presented as an historical work in the classic sense, but is rather a series accounts and viewpoints of (mainly) British soldiers, NCOs, and officers, presented in their wonderful detail and in rough chronological order. The result is largely as one would expect of a battle so embedded in our collective consciousness: futility, horror, and bloodshed are inescapable themes that bleed through virtually every word of each account of the battle and the conditions in the trenches.
It has to be said that the book is somewhat lacking in any overarching, conclusory political angles or viewpoints from the author, but this void is filled most amply with what is a fantastic military history comprised of well-documented source materials and accounts. As a result of the source material, this book is essentially a view from the ground, and a treasure trove of vivid experiences – a view from the trenches, if you will.
Zero Hour: 100 years on: Views from the parapet of the Somme
This is another alternative to the often dense reading material that typifies historical texts surrounding the Battle of the Somme. Fenwick’s Zero Hour is in fact a series of detailed photographs taken from the viewpoint of what would have been the British troops’ frontline, only photographed 100 years on from the event to mark its centennial.
What will interest most historians and more casual readers alike, are the vivid descriptions accompanying the hauntingly beautiful photographs. These descriptions allow the reader to conjure a good idea of the horrific events that took place on the first day of one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Fenwick’s observations of the battlefield that accompany the pictures are quite astounding and, taken in context with the detailed panoramas, results in a text that is quite unlike any other, making it a haunting, and at times chilling recollection of the battle, both visually and mentally.
The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916
For many, Martin Middlebrook’s historical writings have served as a much-needed spark to ignite their passion for the study of military history, and particularly that of the western front during WWI. The First Day On The Somme is in many respects a standard historical text, containing a mixture of both official records from regiments within the British and other armed forces, as well as adding a more personal, off-the-beaten-track approach in its inclusion of interviews with many of the survivors of what was to be Britain’s bloodiest battle.
In tremendous detail and with an engaging writing style, Middlebrook covers the hope-crushing, sobering reality of the first say of the battle. One must remember that, following the ineffective allied bombardment that began the offensive, those who went over the top were Kitchener’s volunteers with hope in their hearts and love of their country acting as their main motivation. Middlebrook manages, through personal and official accounts, to convey the horrific details and personal impact of the events of the first day of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme: The First and Second Phase
John Buchan is considered by many to be one of the finest writers of his era. Born in the 19th century and having lived and worked through WWI as a correspondent in France, Buchan’s experience in his many professions shines through in his contemporary accounts of the both the first and second phases of the Battle of the Somme.
In his accounts, which have the advantage of having been written shortly after the battle took placed, Buchan reminds us of what most already know of the war including the advent of tank warfare and of aerial bombardment, too. Unlike many accounts, however, Buchan goes into detail about not only the first day of the battle, but also regarding the extended conflict’s first and second phases. In the book can be found descriptions of the manoeuvres that comprised the battle’s momentum, as well as some impressive insight into the mentality of both the men that went over the top in the initial push and those who did so afterwards knowing the futility and horror of this new age of mechanical warfare.
Four Years on the Western Front
Four Years on the Western Front is an utterly awe-inspiring read for any historian or casual reader looking to gain insight into the horrors and occasional glimmers of hope experienced by men on the western front during WWI, including those at the Battle of the Somme. Though the book’s authorship is officially credited simply to “A Rifleman”, its pages are in fact comprised of the first-hand accounts of Aubrey Smith, a private who served on the western front as part of the supply transport support on the ground.
Smith’s experiences in the book are not only vital to any historian’s arsenal, but are also well-written entries that have the potential to transport the reader into the mindset and indeed the unbelievable conditions endured by soldiers during the Battle of the Somme. The book isn’t useful as a general text on the Somme, but rather as a very personal journey of one man through the trials and horrors of the western front.
Forgotten Voices of the Somme: The Most Devastating Battle of the Great War in the Words of Those Who Survived
It is rare to find an historical text about the Somme that derives its context and its impact from audio segments at the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. Joshua Levine’s fantastic collection and presentation of the many harrowing accounts of the Battle of the Somme is both moving and disturbing, and educational yet sobering. Rather than containing a general historical account of the battle, this book instead aims to, and most definitely succeeds, in highlighting the true human cost of the battle.
Death, misery, and relentless crushing of hope are themes very common throughout almost all of the accounts found in this book. Though hope and pride in one’s country were definite motivating factors, each account demonstrates not only the horrific violence and loss suffered at the battle, but also reminds us of how rapidly the piles of bodies and guns of fallen soldiers became a normal, day-to-day occurrence. Few history books, therefore, can quite match the touching and often upsetting nature of the accounts found here.
The Somme: The Untold Story in Never Before Seen Panorama
Another refreshingly unique take on one of the bloodiest battles in British history, The Somme presents over 50 unique panoramic photographs taken directly from the battlefield of the Somme. This isn’t just a collection of photographs, however. In its pages, The Somme details some rather unique information regarding the use of a secret tunnel system running beneath no-man’s land, a system that was sadly underutilised (when it was utilised, it resulted in certain minor successes/victories for the allies). This book looks closely at these less-remembered aspects of the war, as well as includes some eye-opening personal testimony from those who were there.