This review is taken from the November 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.p> strong> The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War br> by Martin Gilbert br> (Henry Holt & Co., 332 pages, $27.50) /strong> /p>
Over 90 years ago, British, French, and German troops began a five-month battle in northeast France near the River Somme. Some two million men participated in the contest, which saw the first widespread use of tanks, along a 30-mile front.
In an interview about his earlier, definitive work, The First World War, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert remarked: “All wars end up being reduced to statistics, strategies, debates about their origins and results. These debates about war are important, but not more important than the human story of those who fought in them.” In his latest book, The Somme, Gilbert again, through use of remarkable firsthand literary accounts, brings readers’ thoughts to dwell on the human — personal, if you will — side of war.
There is the story of Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien, a 24-year-old signals officer on the Somme. Sixty or so years later, in the introduction to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien would write of the “animal horror” of the trenches and how, “It seems now often forgotten that to be caught by youth in 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
There is the story of the German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, also 24 years old when he made his first kill over a nearby French battlefield on September 17, qualifying him for the award of a silver drinking goblet with the inscription “To the Victor in Air Battle.” A year and a half later, with a record of up to 80 downed British and French aircraft, the Red Baron was shot down over the Somme battlefield. He was buried in the cemetery at Bertangles near Amiens. Six Allied airmen with the rank of captain — the same rank as Richthofen — served as pallbearers. An honor guard fired a salute.
Or the story of a British sergeant, 27-year-old Frederick Coulson, in peacetime a Reuters correspondent. Coulson had refused an officer’s commission on the grounds that he preferred to “do the thing fairly. I will take my place in the ranks.” He was fatally wounded during an October 7 attack on the Transloy Ridge.
Or the story of Captain Harold Macmillan, the future prime minister, who was badly wounded in the battle for the outskirts of Lesbouefs on September 14. He survived the better part of a day lying in a shell hole reading his pocket edition of Prometheus Bound in the original Greek. He was eventually evacuated from the battlefield, but later admitted to his biographer that once he was again alone “grim fear set in.”
“Bravery is not really vanity, but a kind of concealed pride,” Macmillan said, “because everybody is watching you. Then I was safe, but alone, and absolutely terrified because there was no need to show off any more, no need to pretend.”
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