Historian Matthew Richardson provides a graphic account of the Battle of Somme based on the vivid personal testimony of ordinary soldiers and junior officers on the front line in his latest book.
Eyewitness on the Somme draws heavily on previously unpublished personal accounts – letters, diaries, and memoirs, some never before translated into English – to build up a multifaceted picture of the 1916 offensive.
Matthew is curator of social history at MNH and was formerly assistant keeper of the First World War Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. He has spent a lot of time visiting the battlefield and reading the memoirs of soldiers.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier,’ he said.
‘One of my favourite First World War authors is Frank Richards who left school with no qualifications but who penned one of the greatest accounts of the First World War, Old Soldiers Never Die.
‘I remember vividly finding the spot where he as a signaller watched the attack on High Wood in July 1916.’
Matthew tracked down Richards’ daughter and the photo she sent of him appears in the book.
He he has tried to juxtapose British and French accounts with those of the German soldiers.
Through the internet he found French and German material which had never before appeared in English, and translated these.
‘I think the most intriguing comments come from a Senegalese soldier, who was interviewed by an American academic in the 1980s.
‘This man was fighting in the French army, and perhaps surprisingly for a colonial soldier identified wholeheartedly with the French cause.
‘The book also includes the words of Adolf Hitler, who fought there as an infantryman, and who describes the decline in German morale as the battle ground on.’
Also included are photos of artefacts from the battlefield. ‘My favourite is perhaps an Australian soldier’s shirt button, no bigger than a penny, but it was found directly in front of the German blockhouse known as “Gibraltar” at Pozieres, which the Australians tried repeatedly to capture,’ Matthew said. ‘The Australian monument here states that Australian dead lay thicker on this battlefield than any other place on earth.’
Matthew hopes the book provides a deeper appreciation of soldiers’ mind-sets: ‘Many people today have an image of it which is a somewhat clichéd one, of misguided soldiers, led into a pointless battle by callous generals. There is far more to it than that.
‘One of my favourite commentators is Charles Douie, who wrote The Weary Road about his time as an officer on the Somme.
‘He states that although there was hardship, this was compensated for by the fierce comradeship which grew up among the men.
‘Douie also comments that it was a necessary battle, again something which runs counter to the prevailing orthodoxy.’
Eyewitness on the Somme is available from island bookshops or from the Pen and Sword website, including the Kindle version.