Lyn Macdonald: Somme

August 25, 2013

418Zbt2RpsL._AA160_Grim reading, but necessary preparation for an upcoming trip to see the battlefields. I taught the literature of the First World War for many years, and have visited the Belgian battlefields but never those on the Somme.

This book was written thirty years ago, so Macdonald had access to the personal testimonies and recollections of many veterans, none of whom are now alive, almost a century after the start of the war. It’s their accounts of their experiences that are most moving, in many ways: horrors retold in a matter-of-fact way, perhaps the only way of telling them… and the realisation of the insane things they were expected to do by their commanders. This perhaps not from any innate wickedness of the high command, but from lack of information about real conditions on the ground, and lack of imagination. The over-riding impression that comes across of the entire battle, which lasted several months in its various stages, even though it’s the slaughter of the first day that’s usually most remarked upon, is of chaos – nobody knowing what was really going on, or what it was best to do in the circumstances.

Macdonald’s book is very helpfully illustrated with clear maps and annotated photographs, but I still find it all hard to imagine, and perhaps seeing the actual places will be illuminating.

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