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Book Review: 'The Somme' by Peter Hart

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Somme

By Peter Hart.

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589 pp. $35

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

-- Laurence Binyon from "For the Fallen," a traditional eulogy for British soldiers since World War I

Peter Hart's "The Somme" is a memorial. The book brings to life the men who fought at the Somme in an accurate and precisely detailed history of one of the most gut-wrenchingly obscene desecrations of humanity our species ever perpetrated upon itself. The Battle of the Somme took place in the low, rolling countryside of northeastern France in the summer and fall of 1916. By then the war was two years old, Europe was reaching complete mobilization, and the angry scar of front-line trenches stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Despite Hart's caution against "emotional vampires" who perpetually misstate the scale of the battle for modern political reasons, one cannot avoid some enumeration. On the very first day of a struggle that was to last four-and-a-half months, some 19,240 British soldiers fell dead. Twice that number lay wounded. Add to this the casualties suffered by the French and Germans, multiply them over the course of the battle, and the number of killed and wounded on all sides easily exceeded a million, according to most sources.

The mind staggers in trying to comprehend this cold fact. Here is the ultimate strength of "The Somme": One cannot reduce the story to mere statistics because the book is only half-written by Hart. The other half consists of the words of the men who were there, telling their stories themselves. If there is a fault in this book, it is an understandable one. In 534 pages of narrative, the author barely manages to cover the British side of the battle; the Germans and French, who lost heavily as well, are essentially left out.

As director and oral historian of the British Imperial War Museum in London, Hart is uniquely positioned to do justice to the British participants in the battle. A talented historian, he succeeds in that most important element of history, storytelling. However, one needs time to read this book. I suggest it be taken in small doses. To do otherwise, as I have for this review, invites nightmares.

-- Robert Bateman


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