The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldier's own Words and Photograph, Richard van Emden

The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldier's own Words and Photograph, Richard van Emden

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The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldier's own Words and Photograph, Richard van Emden

The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldier's own Words and Photograph, Richard van Emden

This book covers a wider time span than most books on the Somme. Chapter 1 looks at the British arrival of the Somme late in 1915, when British troops replaced the French on the line north of the River Somme. Chapter 2 covers the period when the British were getting to know the area, and the preparations for the great battle. In these chapters the photos show an area relatively untouched by warfare.

The next five chapters cover the battle itself. Chapter 3 looks at the disastrous first day of the battle, and the sense of shock that it caused amongst troops who had been at least partly expecting a success. Chapter 4 covers the aftermath of the disaster, and the recovery. Chapter 5 looks at the smaller scale attacks that made up most of the rest of the battle. Chapter 6 focuses on the successful attack on Thiepval Ridge, and begins with lengthy extracts from the diary of a German officer who was posted on the ridge during the pre-attack bombardment. Chapter 7 covers the final part of the battle, when rain began to turn the battlefield into the familiar muddy wasteland.

Chapter 8 looks at the period between the end of the battle and the unexpected German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, and ends with the British advancing across the area between the old and new lines.

The vast majority of the text comes from soldier's diaries and letters written at the time, swapping quite rapidly between different authors. There are brief explanations of events between some of these extracts, but these are generally quite short - one paragraph every other page. Although we move between writers fairly rapidly, the extracts are well chosen and fit together well to tell the story of the battle.

The text is matched up with an impressive selection of private photographs taken by the soldiers (despite the official ban on private cameras). These photographs give a rather different view of the war to the more familiar official photos.

This is an excellent addition to the very extensive literature on the Somme, and the approach taken is a very effective way to give us the soldier's eye view of the British army's time on the Somme.

1 - Live and Let Live
2 - Bedding-In
3 - Awed and Shocked
4 - Batter and Hold
5 - Toil and Strife
6 - Nut Cracking
7 - Mud and Guts
8 - Fighting Cold

Author: Richard van Emden
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 400
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2016

The Casemate Blog

On this day, 100 years ago, the Somme Offensive began. The Battle of the Somme was the first offensive fought by the English and French army against the German Empire.

Spanning over 3 months, until November 18 1916, the battle was the one of the largest of World War I. It is also remembered as one of the bloodiest battles in human history – killing or wounding more than one million men. On the first day of battle alone, the British army faced the most casualties in their entire history losing 54,470 men, 19,240 of those whom were killed.

In Pen and Sword’s new book The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs, author Richard Van Emden has compiled a collection of soldier photographs and writing that illustrate the extraordinary carnage and courage of the campaign.

From Second Lieutenant Frederick Roe, 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiment:

How do men conduct themselves at such a time, whether wounded or unwounded? I saw a great many who had become uncontrollable, shouting loudly and swearing violently. A few wept with the excitement. Others were desperately benumbed and quiet at the sight of such awful carnage. I saw quite a number of men with their lips moving soundlessly in some sort of prayer…If I try to think back as to how I myself behaved, I can only remember an acute awareness of all that was going on down to the smallest detail, and a feeling of overwhelming tiredness and brain-numbness which had to be fought against the whole time. Perhaps the worst of all was knowledge that I was entirely on my own: no appreciation of the general progress of the battle was at all possible and yet I was terribly concerned that I must do what I had been set to do in spite of all the adverse circumstances…

Two sights from this hour also cling to my memory. I saw through my glasses a shell explode close to a recumbent soldier. It shot him into the air like an arrow and apparently all in one piece. As the human missile slowed down at the top of its trajectory it turned very slowly into a horizontal position high up in the air and seemed to stay quite still for what seemed like an eternity of time. It then suddenly came hurtling down to the ground head first and did not move again. Sometime later in the afternoon I saw through my glasses a soldier sitting up in a shallow crater in no-man’s-land and tearing up his shirt to make himself some bandaging. To my horror on the next morning, I saw that he was still sitting up in the shell crater.

Due to its scale and destruction, thousands of recollections and studies have been written about the offensive. However, unlike other famous battles throughout history, the Battle of the Somme was also filmed and released to the public on August 10, 1916 under the title The Battle of the Somme. A great success, 20 million people saw it in theaters within the first six weeks of its release.

In Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the Battle, June-July 1916, the introduction states:

The film’s greatest importance, however, and the reason for its astonishing success with British cinema audiences on its release in 1916, was the feeling among members of those audiences that the film was making it possible for them to share some of the reality of what their husbands, sons, brothers, neighbors and other loved ones were experiencing in the actual battle of the Somme.

Watch a clip from the film below:

To learn more about this offensive and its effect on the war, take a look at all of our Battle of the Somme books.

Published: 22:03 BST, 5 March 2016 | Updated: 08:30 BST, 6 March 2016

It was the bloodiest battle in our history. Yet it’s taken 100 years to get an insight as vivid as this – from a brilliant new book commemorating the centenary, astonishing photographs taken by soldiers’ illicit cameras… and their mesmerising, humbling descriptions of the horrors they endured – starting here, with the harrowing account of Private Frank Lindley

HQ Company 8th East Lancashire Regiment at Whizz-Bang Corner, Fonquevilliers, 1915, picture taken by Lieutenant Patrick Koekkoek

You could hear the bullets whistling past and our lads were going down, flop, flop, flop in their waves, just as though they’d all gone to sleep,’ recalled Private Frank Lindley, of the 14th York and Lancaster Regiment.

‘Second Lieutenant Hirst was near to me, almost touching.

'He had just got wed before we came away, and was a grand chap, but it wasn’t long before he got his head knocked off,’ he recounted in his grimly compelling description of going over the top and into a hail of German bullets on July 1, 1916, the first day of the great Somme offensive.

What he goes on to report is one of the most extraordinary eyewitness narratives about Britain’s bloodiest battle that you will ever hear – and which, along with other horrific testimony and astonishing illicit pictures taken by the soldiers themselves, are contained in a mesmerising new book that gives a compelling new perspective of the Somme.

The infamous WWI battle began 100 years ago this year, on July 1, 1916, and would rage for four months.

On that first day it claimed 20,000 lives – the most ever in a single day in British military history.

But, as we learn from Private Lindley’s account, it is the uncomplaining commentary on random horrors that truly make us understand the scale of the carnage – and the humbling tenacity of the troops.

‘I was in the first wave. There was no cheering, we just ambled across, you hadn’t a thought you were so addled with the noise.

'Out of the corner of your eye you could see the boys going down but there was no going back. They had what we called “whippers- in” with revolvers and they could shoot you if anybody came back, so we moved forward as best we could.

Taken at 3.30pm on July 1, the day of the first assault, soldiers of the Royal West Surrey Regiment take cover on the road to their objective, Montauban – which they later reached, albeit with heavy casualties

'As I laid flat out there in no-man’s-land, up on top jumped one of our whippersin with revolver ready, and we were all laid out in shell holes, and he said, “Come on, come on.” He hadn’t gone two yards before he went up in the air, riddled…

‘Bullets were like a swarm of bees round you – you could almost feel them plucking at your clothes. Them that made for the gaps in their wire were all piled up where the machine guns just laid them out.

'It was pure murder, so we tried picking the Jerries off because they were on the trench top, some of them, cheering their mates on while our lads on the wire were hanging like rags. Some I recognised. “That’s so and so,” I thought, but one burst of their big machine guns and they were in bits. Arms and legs were flying all over. I didn’t know anybody in the shell holes I got in. We were all mixed up.

'There was no conversation, it was self-preservation, dive in and risk what you got. The final shell hole we got in was the finish, a whizz-bang came over us and split.

'I never heard it coming. Shrapnel went right through my thigh and took my trousers in with it. I looked down and there was blood running freely.’

The carnage and devastation were in stark contrast to the comparative tranquility that had greeted British troops 12 months previously when, as a signal of London’s willingness to shoulder more of the responsibility in the war, they marched south from Belgium to take over French positions north of the River Somme. The German and French troops there had cleverly learnt to avoid antagonism.

Private James Racine of the Seaforth Highlanders was in the first division of British troops to relieve the French.

He wrote in his memoir: ‘The French troops gave us a hearty welcome and informed us that the sector was extremely quiet and that only eight light shells a day were fired into the village.

'They were sent over in pairs at the following times, 11am, 2pm, 4pm, and 8pm, and the French artillery replied similarly.

‘At the times stated, the trench troops had gone into the dugouts while the shells burst, and returned to the estaminets [cafes] at the conclusion of the comic bombardment. We thought this to be an extraordinary way of carrying on war…’

British soldiers were unimpressed with the quality of the French trenches they were taking over.

They were often filled with mud and water. During the winter they froze. Nor were the filth and the cold the only challenges troops had to deal with. An officer described in a letter the trenches’ other inhabitants.

An officer of 183 Tunnelling Company, the Royal Engineers looks warily over the edge of the trench. It was his men who dug and detonated a huge mine blown at Kasino Point, near Carnoy

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‘The place is honeycombed by rats – brown rats with whitish bellies, big as young cats, heavy with good living blundering, happy-golucky, fearless brutes. Trench life was exhilarating to those new to the line, but interminably dull to those who had been there month after month. It was punctuated by moments of intense excitement and fear, but in the main it was characterised by boredom, days passing slowly in an endless and repetitive round of duties – until the offensive began.

The Germans, having observed the movement of troops and weaponry, were well aware of the planned assault. Lieutenant Frederick Bursey, of the Royal Field Artillery, wrote on June 23: ‘The Huns put up a board yesterday in their front line trenches and on it was pinned a paper with the following: “We know you are going to attack. Kitchener is done, Asquith is done. You are done. We are done. In fact we are all done.”’ Second Lieutenant John Engall, 20, of the London Regiment, wrote to his parents on June 30.


The Allies begin a week-long bombardment of heavily fortified German positions on the River Somme.

The British Army suffers the greatest number of casualties in one day in its history as some 20,000 soldiers are killed and many more wounded in the opening salvo of the Battle of the Somme.

Tanks are used on a battlefield for the first time as the British renew the offensive and attack German positions along a five-mile front. But there are few of the armoured vehicles, and they make little impact.

British troops capture the towns of Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt at the northern end of the front. Five days later the battle ends, as the British and French decide to end the offensive.

‘The day has almost dawned when I shall do my little bit in the cause of civilisation. Tomorrow morning I shall take my men – men whom I have got to love, and who, I think, have got to love me – over the top to do our bit. Engall was one of the 20,000 men killed the following day when around 150,000 British troops left their trenches to attack the German lines. Forty thousand men were wounded, many of them stranded in no-man’s-land. Pinned down by sniper fire, Sergeant Walter Popple of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry decided it was better to get the inevitable over with and raised his head to give the enemy rifleman a clear shot.

‘A sharp crack, and my helmet flew off and my neck stiffened,’ he later recalled.

‘I sank to the ground. Utter silence. At first there was a buzzing sensation in my head and then sharp piercing darts of pain. Had I been killed as I first thought? I dared not lift my head and there I remained through the heat of the day, wondering if in fact part of my head had been blown away.’

When night fell, Popple crawled into a shell hole filled with bodies. He had been wounded but not seriously. He spent four days in the crater, by which time all the bodies around him had turned black, before he was able to summon the energy to crawl back to his own lines during the night.

The Battle of the Somme dragged on for months, through renewed assaults and phases of varying intensity, before finally ending in mid-November.

The British had suffered around 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans some 650,000. The Allies had gained around five miles.

For so long, the men had seen the battlefield through a trench periscope or a risky look over the top. They were finally able to see the ground, and they were profoundly shocked.

Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Fildes, of the Coldstream Guards, wrote: ‘From the open door of our goods van, we were able to realise more than ever before the magnitude and fury of the struggle of the previous autumn.

'In every direction stretched a desert of brown shell-ploughed slopes and hollows, and scattered upon the face of this landscape, clumps of splintered poles, gaunt and blackened by fire, marked the sites of former woods.

‘Such a region as this, exceeding the limit of our vision in every direction, presented a scene surpassing human imagination. It haunted one like a nightmare.

‘Life – human, animal, and vegetable – had been engulfed not a leaf, hardly a blade of grass, no sound of bird, greeted us all was done and finished with. Here indeed was the end of the world. ’

Men of the 8th East Lancashire Regiment in waterlogged trenches near Foncquevillers, winter 1915

120th Battery Royal Field Artillery gunners digging an emplacement for an 18-pounder field gun

Troops swim in the River Ancre, near Aveluy

Seaforth Highlanders enjoy a rare moment of relaxation in the sunshine in early September

Men of the 8th East Lancashire Regiment in waterlogged trenches near Foncquevillers, winter 1915

The soldiers were relatively safe inside the trenches, but all that changed when they were ordered to go over the top.

Major Beauchamp McGrath of the East Lancashire Regiment in a flooded communication trench at Fonquevilliers in the winter of 1915. McGrath was killed on June 2, aged 44

Three officers of the Yorkshire Regiment relax behind the lines. All were killed in the battle

Men prepare a mortar minutes before the infantry attack on Thiepval. Picture taken by Lieutenant Patrick Koekkoek

Urgency is etched on the faces of men running through a trench at Beaumont Hamel. Below: troops had to endure squalid conditions – note the rifle used as a tent pole

Troops had to endure squalid conditions – note the rifle used as a tent pole

One of the walking wounded from the fighting at Mametz Wood walks through the Pommier Redoubt

German soldiers relax in their trenches

German defences at the edge of the Thiepval Spur, a position that overlooked the British

German prisoners are marched to captivity by Australian soldiers

British officers of 183 Tunnelling Company sport highly prized German ‘pickelhaube’ helmets, captured from the enemy

Fear and loathing. dispatches from the front line

Soldiers tell their terrifying Somme stories

‘Bodies were riddled with bullets’

Private Sydney Fuller, 8th Suffolk Regiment, was involved in the September assault on the German bastion of Thiepval. He described reaching the enemy lines, which had been heavily bombarded.

‘Two of the enemy were lying dead on the top of the dugout entrances, wearing their steel helmets and equipment, and with their rifles under them, just as they had died, riddled with bullets. Another was lying, buried almost to the neck by a shell which had dropped near, but still alive. I shall never forget the expression on this man’s face – ghastly white, his eyes staring with terror, unable to move, while our chaps threw bombs past him down the dugout stairs. The explosions of the bombs in the dugouts could be felt rather than heard – we could feel the shock of the explosion, but the sound was deadened by the depth of the dugout. One little German popped out, wearing his steel helmet, holding both hands above his head, and crying “Mercy, mercy!” He was shot at once, and dropped like an empty sack.’

‘I didn’t expect to survive the day’

Having been shot twice, Private Henry Russell, of The London Regiment, managed to make it into a shell hole where he found a wounded comrade.

‘He told me that he had been shot through the middle of the back and that the bullet had emerged through his left ear. We were lying together, he wondering whether we would finish up in the same hospital. I could not help feeling that he was being rather optimistic. I did not expect that we could survive the day. ‘We had not long to wait before a shell burst on the edge of our hole it killed my colleague and injured me in such a way that I was virtually emasculated.’ As the barrage continued, Russell reckoned that the situation was hopeless and elected to kill himself. ‘I managed to get hold of the bottle of rum which I had put in my haversack, and drank the lot hoping that it would result in my death. In fact, it did me no harm at all. It probably made me slightly merry and bright and rather stupefied. It also probably caused me to drop off to sleep. I came to the conclusion, when I had recovered my senses, that, in spite of my condition (my left arm being torn and the bone shattered, my left thigh damaged, my right leg wounded and strips of flesh hanging down from my abdomen) it was still worthwhile making a serious effort to save myself.’

‘Sir, we are your prisoners’

Second Lieutenant Arthur Young, 7th Royal Irish Fusiliers, was impressed by the élan of one the enemy officers.

‘When Captain O’Donnell’s company rushed a trench round the corner of the wood, a German officer surrendered in great style. He stood to attention, gave a clinking salute, and said in perfect English, “Sir, myself, this other officer, and ten men are your prisoners.” Captain O’Donnell said: “Right you are, old chap!”’

‘Both of his hands were blown off’

Major Rowland Fielding, 1st Coldstream Guards, was billeted in a village behind the front line, but even there, safety was not guaranteed.

‘This morning at ten o’clock, I went to Mass. As I was leaving the church I met Cecil Trafford, who asked me to his mess (Headquarters, 1st Scots Guards). ‘The latter is a house with a small yard in front of it. As we were crossing this there was a sudden loud explosion, and bits flew through the air about us. We looked round and saw [Second Lieutenant] Leach, the bombing officer of the battalion (who had just come from visiting my own mess), on the ground, four or five yards away. He lay on his back, in a pool of blood, his arms outstretched and both his hands blown off. ‘I later learnt some particulars about poor Leach’s accident. He was detonating [arming] a bomb in the orderly room, which is a shed opening onto the yard, when the safety pin slipped. Seeing that it was going to explode, and some of his men being in the shed, after ordering them to lie down, he picked up the bomb and dashed outside to get rid of it. He then had less than four seconds in which to decide what to do. I can only suppose that seeing Cecil and myself in the middle of the yard he came to the conclusion that his one chance of throwing it safely away was gone. ‘So he turned his back to us, faced the wall, and hugging the bomb in his hands, allowed the bomb to explode between his body and the wall. ‘It is impossible to speak much of such courage and self-sacrifice. He is since dead. ‘He was only 22.’

‘The poor beasts dragged to hell’

It was not only the soldiers who suffered on the Somme, as Private David Polley, 189th Machine Gun Company, Machine Gun Corps, reported.

‘To me, one of the beastliest things of the whole war was the way animals had to suffer. It mattered not to them if the Kaiser ruled the whole world and yet the poor beasts were dragged into hell to haul rations and gear over shell-swept roads and field paths full of holes to satisfy the needs of their lords and masters. Bah! Many a gallant horse or mule who had his entrails torn out by a lump of shell was finer in every way than some of the human creatures he was serving. I believe I might normally be described as a peaceful, easy going sort of chap, but the sight of a team of horses, hitched to a limber, on a road in the forward areas, screaming with fright at a shell burst in the ditch beside them, turned my mind in such a direction, and instilled a desire to wipe out those responsible for the poor brutes’ presence.’

‘Blood and entrails. it’s obscene’

Capt Theodore Wilson, 10th Sherwood Foresters, was angered by the glorification of war.

‘Whatever war journalists may say, or poets either, blood and entrails and spilled brains are obscene. I read a critique of [English writer] Le Gallienne out here, in which he takes Rupert Brooke to task for talking of war as “cleanness”. Le Gallienne is right. War is about the most unclean thing on Earth. There are clean virtues about it – comradeship and a whittling away of nonessentials, and sheer stark triumphs of spirit over shrinking nerves, but it’s the calculated death, the deliberate tearing of fine young bodies – if you’ve once seen a bright-eyed fellow suddenly turned to a goggling idiot, with his own brains trickling down into his eyes from under his cap – as I’ve done – you’re either a peacemaker or a degenerate.’

How I uncovered the Somme secrets

For me, as a writer and film-maker specialising in World War I, the Somme is a special place.

It was the first Great War battlefield that I visited, back in 1985, and I have returned at least once every year since and intend to be there for the 100th anniversary this year.

To mark the centenary of the battle, I have assembled a collection of extraordinary photographs, taken on their own illegally held cameras, by the men who fought there.

There were just two official photographers on the Western Front and the Army threatened disciplinary action against anyone else found with a camera.

The top brass had banned their use just before Christmas 1914, when it was discovered that soldiers were selling their photos to the press.

Fortunately, cameras were still kept by a small number of officers and even fewer other ranks. In the main, private photographs were not taken in moments of critical danger – the men had more pressing issues to take care of.

The pictures shown here, the vast majority never published before, have come from a variety of sources: from online auctioneers to regimental museums direct from the families of the men who fought and from repositories such as the Imperial War Museums.

The words are from soldiers’ diaries, letters and memoirs.

A century on, they give a different perspective of the war.

‘The Somme: The Epic Battle In The Soldiers’ Own Words And Photographs’ by Richard Van Emden is published by Pen & Sword Military, priced £25. Offer price £18.75 (25 per cent discount) until March 20.

Battle of the Somme centenary: Soldiers' letters and photos reveal horrors of First World War

New book by historian Richard van Emden offers vivid impression of what it was like to serve in the Somme.

On Friday (1 July 2016), the world marks the 100th anniversary of the first battle of the Somme – one of the bloodiest battles in history. By the time it ended on 19 November 1916, British, French and German casualties totalled more than 1,250,000.

The first day of July 1916 was the heaviest single day in terms of British casualties in the whole war, with 21,392 killed and 35,493 wounded.

The British attacked with 15 divisions on a front 15 miles north of the Somme, and the French with five divisions on an eight-mile front, mainly south of the river. The absence of the element of surprise, combined with strong German resistance, turned most of the British attack into a failure.

A new book offers a vivid impression of what it was like to serve on the Somme. Historian and First World War expert Richard van Emden tells the story of the Somme through the soldiers' own words – written in diaries, letters and memoirs – and photographs that the men themselves took on their own illegal cameras. The army banned cameras just before Christmas 1914 when it was discovered that soldiers – mainly officers – were selling their photographs to the British press.

Three officers of the 1/4th Yorkshire Regiment relax out of the line. The contemporary caption notes that all three were killed on the Somme Richard van Emden

In his introduction to The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs, Van Emden writes: "M en stopped taking pictures not simply for fear of army retribution, but because they were increasingly tired of the war. They had lost that sense of adventure and excitement that had encouraged so many to take their cameras in the first place." Fortunately, for posterity, cameras were still kept by a small number of men.

As winter 1915 approached, heavy rain turned the British trenches into hellish mudbaths. Second Lieutenant Frederick Roe, 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiment, wrote: "Th e German choice [of the high ground] naturally ensured that all the surface waters in rainy weather and throughout the winter drained downhill into our trenches because there was nowhere else for it to go."

In a letter home, Private Sydney Fuller, 8th Suffolk Regiment, wrote: " After these weeks of rain alternating with hard frosts, the state of what is left of the trenches is indescribable. Where our dugout emerges from below on to the trench bottom we have a dam either side. One side is 21⁄2 feet of water and another of mud, now all frozen, but not hard enough to bear and the other is about a foot deep."

Major Beauchamp Magrath, 8th East Lancashire Regiment, wades through deep mud in a communication trench near Fonquevillers in winter 1915 Lieutenant Patrick Koekkoek by kind permission of Patricia and Michael Brock

On 24 June, the British began their bombardment of enemy trenches. The day of the assault had been set for Thursday 29 June, but bad weather caused a 48-hour postponement, leaving the batteries and trench mortars to continue until the morning of 1 July.

Private Frank Williams, 88th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, wrote: " Very wet. Orders at last. Moved off 9.30pm, as we neared the line met huge columns of infantry marching up. N earing Mesnil a horseman rode up and warned us to put on our goggles, which I did quickly. For my eyes had already started to run and a strong smell as of mustard and cress filled the air [tear gas]. The tears were running down my face so that I could hardly see at all and we practically felt our way along to Mesnil, where after a great deal of delay we got into dugouts, good deep ones I'm thankful to say, my ears splitting almost from the continuous burst of shells and roar of our artillery."

A photo taken by Lieutenant Patrick Koekkoek minutes before the infantry advance on Thiepval Lieutenant Patrick Koekkoek by kind permission of Patricia and Michael Brock

On 30 June, Second Lieutenant John Engall, 1/16th London Regiment, wrote: "My dearest Mother and Dad, I'm writing this letter the day before the most important moment in my life – a moment which I must admit I have never prayed for, like thousands of others have, but nevertheless a moment which, now it has come, I would not back out of for all the money in the world. The day has almost dawned when I shall really do my little bit in the cause of civilisation. Tomorrow morning I shall take my men – men whom I have got to love, and who, I think, have got to love me – over the top to do our bit in the first attack in which the London Territorials have taken part as a whole unit."

An officer sits anxiously at the mine face excavated under the Hawthorn Redoubt at Beaumont Hamel. This mine would be blown at 7.20am on 1 July Imperial War Museums

On 1 July, the British guns opened up a final hurricane bombardment on the enemy trenches, and a number of mines were detonated under the German lines. And then the infantry assault began. Private Frank Lindley, 14th York and Lancaster Regiment [2nd Barnsley Pals] wrote: "Th e birds were singing in the copses around. It was a beautiful day, beautiful. We had this morning chorus and then it all happened, just like a flash. We were stood there waiting, ready for the officer to blow his whistle, and our barrage lifted and then bang! A great big mine went up on the right-hand side. We saw it going sky-high, one huge mass of soil. It shouldn't have gone up till we were on the top because it alerted the Germans and they were up waiting for us and when we attacked they cut us to ribbons, totally ripped us to pieces . Bullets were like a swarm of bees round you, you could almost feel them plucking at your clothes. "

One of the German Maxim MG08 machine guns that caused havoc amongst the British infantry as they attempted to storm the seemingly impregnable Thiepval defences Private collection of Richard van Emden

The 36th Ulster Division were in Thiepval Wood, the trees helping to conceal their presence. They made a dash across no-man's-land to a sunken lane. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Crozier, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, wrote: "Th is spirited dash across no-man's-land has cost us some fifty dead and seventy wounded. The dead no longer count. War has no use for dead men. With luck they will be buried later the wounded try to crawl back to our lines. Some are hit again in doing so, but the majority lie out all day, sun-baked, parched, uncared for, often delirious and at any rate in great pain.

"All at once there is a shout, Lt Crozier continued. "Someone seizes a Lewis gun. ' Thee Germans are on us' goes round like wildfire. I see an advancing crowd. Fire is opened at 600 yards' range. The enemy fall like grass before the scythe. I look through my glasses. 'Good heavens,' I shout, 'those men are prisoners surrendering, and some of our own wounded men are escorting them! Cease fire, cease fire, for God's sake,' I command. The fire ripples on for a time. The target is too good to lose. 'After all, they are only Germans,' I hear a youngster say."

Germans surrendering, while in the foreground a member of the 36th (Ulster) Division lies wounded or dead Private George Hackney the Hackney and Maultsaid Collections, The National Museum of Northern Ireland, Belfast

Many battalions would lose more than three-quarters of their strength in the assault, but few would be as hard hit as the 8th King's OwnYorkshire Light Infantry. Attacking up a steep slope they were cut down, the wounded being picked off by snipers. The battalion suffered 539 casualties.

The regiment's Sergeant Walter Popple wrote: " As I neared the enemy wire, I felt a sharp thud accompanied by a pain in my chest and I fell. A German was firing from an advanced post, picking off anyone he saw, including the wounded. As I glanced upwards, he saw me. He fired, a bullet taking the heel off my boot. I came to the terrible decision that it was better to get it over with quickly and die, rather than be picked off piece by piece, so I raised my head and pushed myself upwards, almost kneeling to look straight down the muzzle of his rifle. A sharp crack, and my helmet flew off and my neck stiffened. I sank to the ground. Utter silence. At first there was a buzzing sensation in my head and then sharp piercing darts of pain. Had I been killed as I first thought? I dared not lift my head and there I remained through the heat of the day, wondering if in fact part of my head had been blown away."

An officer of 183 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, looks warily over the top. His men had dug and detonated the large mine blown at Kasino Point, near Carnoy Private collection of Richard van Emden

"You could hear the bullets whistling past and our lads were going down, flop, flop, flop in their waves, just as though they'd all gone to sleep,' wrote Private Frank Lindley, of the 14th York and Lancaster Regiment. "Second Lieutenant Hirst was near to me, almost touching. He had just got wed before we came away, and was a grand chap, but it wasn't long before he got his head knocked off."

Bodies just brought down from the line await burial. The dead men are still lying on stretchers and covered with blankets Imperial War Museums

In this gallery, IBTimes UK presents just a few of the photos published in the book. To see more, many of them previously unseen, and to read more of the soldiers' vivid accounts of the horrors of war, get The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs by Richard van Emden, published by Pen & Sword Books, r ecommended retail price £25 (also available in paperback for £14.99).

German soldiers of the 180th Infantry Regiment hunt for lice amongst their clothes, Thiepval, in early 1916 Private collection of Richard van Emden

The 1/6th Seaforth Highlanders near Thiepval. Private Adam Wood is reading the Daily Sketch newspaper Private collection of Richard van Emden

Signallers at the bottom of Lochnagar mine crater at La Boisselle. The men are signalling the word 'Somme' in semaphore Private collection of Richard van Emden

Pure chance: Sergeant Hugh Bourn Godfrey (known as Huborn) serving with 121 Siege Battery, meets his brother Jim (right) on the Somme battlefield. Jim had emigrated to Australia before the war. This would be the first and last time they met. Both brothers survived the war Sergeant Huborn Godfrey By kind permission from Richard Hills

An abandoned tank from the September fighting near Delville Wood Sergeant Huborn Godfrey by kind permission from Richard Hills

The increasingly squalid conditions of the Somme battlefield are obvious. Note the rifle used as a makeshift tent peg Private collection of Richard van Emden

A German sentry lies dead in the trenches at Thiepval, the day after capture. Above him, top right, is a trench periscope still in position while lower down two German stick grenades sit in a box Lieutenant Patrick Koekkoek By kind permission of Patricia and Michael Brock

A patrol of the 1st Salford Pals 3 miles in front of the old front line, assessing the extent of the German withdrawal Private collection of Richard van Emden

The old German line at Gommecourt, now entirely safe to cross Private collection of Richard van Emden

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The Somme Invades Your Smartphone

The Royal British Legion and Dan Snow, Britain’s best-known public historian, have joined forces to produce an impressive (and totally free) interactive digital app: Remember: The Battle of the Somme 1916 – 2016. Available for both Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, the collection features historic film footage and photography, first-hand accounts of the action and lavish animated maps that track the battle as it unfolded. For those who like their history on the cutting edge, this one’s for you. Check it out HERE.

The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ own Words and Photographs

Pen and Sword, 2016, £20.00 hb, £11.99 pb and £15.00 e–book, 355pp, fully illustrated throughout, index.

Richard van Emden is an ‘everyman’ author.

He has published many titles that need no repetition here. His work is very popular and it seems that this book is an almost instant bestseller not surprising in this centenary year of the Somme battle.

The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ own Words and Photographs consists of letters and photographs – the author assuring us that many have never been seen before – and also four pages of sources and permissions and two general maps. The author deals with events in chronological order, not just from the start of the battle on 1 July 1916, but from the time in the summer of 1915 when the BEF took the area over from the French Army.

One of the strengths of this book is the author’s introduction, in which he explains just how these men came to be at war with cameras, often the relatively new Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK).

Photography had become much more accessible to the masses in the years before the war, with the introduction of the ‘vest pocket’ camera. Not really pocket by modern standards – although the dimensions of the VPK were not much different to those of a modern iPhone – but at least amateur photographers no longer had to visit specialist studios or rely on professionals lugging around cameras on tripods with bulky glass plates.

Although the VPK type cameras were relatively inexpensive, at around 30 shillings (£1.50), it has to be said that most of these photographers would have been officers given that the cost would have been beyond the income of the typical working man.

Soon after the war started, the photographs taken by these amateurs started to be published in newspapers and magazines such was the demand for ‘action shots’ as the War Office had not appointed official photographers from the start of hostilities. As these images started to appear, the authorities panicked and the use of cameras on the Western Front was banned. Severe punishments were threatened.

Many men complied and sent cameras home with the re–issuing of this edict during 1915. Fortunately for us, some men ignored the warnings and carried on. Many amateur photographs were annotated on the rear or in albums so that one could identify who the subjects are. The author asserts that many men gave up their cameras because they had become disillusioned as the war descended into unremitting attrition and the sense of adventure and optimism had ebbed away even more so after the Somme.

Generally I feel that these types of books are ‘lazy’ history, in that they do not include any original research. In spite of that I do like this book because some of the photographs have links to the text, rather than just being a narrative illustrated with stock photographs. Personally I would have liked to have seen see a few more linking pieces, but at least the author allows the officers and men to tell the story of the battle as it unfolded and as they saw it at the time. Finally I must applaud Pen and Sword for the quality of paper this volume is printed on. A big improvement and a trend that they need to persevere with.

[This book review first appeared in the Western Front Association journal Stand To! 108]

About Us

The Western Front Association (The WFA) was formed with the purpose of furthering interest in First Word War of 1914-1918. We also aim to perpetuate the memory, courage and comradeship of all those who served their countries on all sides, across all theatres and fronts, on land, at sea and in the air and at home, during the Great War.

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The Somme - The Epic Battle in the Soldier's own Words and Photograph, Richard van Emden - History

'Best for first hand accounts of battle&rsquo: Featured among the Mail on Sunday Event magazine's 'Books of the Year' selection, December 2016.

Double page feature in the Daily Mail and the number one story on their website. Also featured in, the International Business Times and in the Express where images from the book have been used in their picture gallery launch.

MORE PUBLICITY: more Express coverage, a 2 page spread in the Daily Star and a piece in the Guardian

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The offensive on the Somme took place between July and November 1916 and is perhaps the most iconic battle of the Great War. It was there that Kitchener&rsquos famous &lsquoPals&rsquo Battalions were first sent into action en masse and it was a battlefield where many of the dreams and aspirations of a nation, hopeful of victory, were agonizingly dashed.

Because of its legendary status, the Somme has been the subject of many books, and many more will come out next year. However, nothing has ever been published on the Battle in which the soldiers&rsquo own photographs have been used to illustrate both the campaign&rsquos extraordinary comradeship and its carnage.

The result is very pleasant, both for the quality of the testimonies, very varied and original, and for their number. Van Emden is a historian of great quality.

Read the full Italian review here

Old Barbed Wire Blog

The author allows the officers and men to tell the story of the battle as it unfolded and as they saw it at the time.

Stand To! Western Front Assc No.108

Because of its legendary status, the Somme has been the subject of many books, and many more will come out next year. However, nothing has ever been published on the Battle in which the soldiers’ own photographs have been used to illustrate both the campaign’s extraordinary comradeship and its carnage.

Pennant, Forces Pension Society

As featured in.

The Irish Mail on Sunday 4/12/16

'In the centenary year of the infamous World War I battle, this book brings the Somme vividly and luridly to life through the words and photographs of some of the combatants. The poignancy is heightened by the knowledge that many of these soldiers did not make it home.

Mail on Sunday 4/12/12

'In the centenary year of the infamous World War I battle, this book brings the Somme vividly and luridly to life through the words and photographs of some of the combatants. The poignancy is heightened by the knowledge that many of these soldiers did not make it home.

Mail on Sunday 4/12/12

The words from the letters and memoirs etc. give vivid accounts of the day to day life they had to endure to survive, like keeping up communications, dealing with hunger, getting rest, obtaining supplies, dealing with vermin, making and maintaining trenches all very harsh living conditions, never mind the actual fighting with the enemy and bravery of these men.

The photographs very clearly illustrate the muddy, damp conditions from the harsh weather and the horrors and devastation which the soldiers saw, images which probably stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

It is an easy read which describes the horrors of war and it makes no comments about the futility of the battle but allows the words of the men to speak for themselves.

A book well worth reading.

North of Ireland Family History Society

Richard Van Emden has delivered another excellent book on World War I that magically portrays this segment in time. The rare photographs are aligned with the timeline and add to the text greatly.


Competition featured in

Your Family History, December 2016

Soldiers in the British Army risked severe discipline for taking photographs on
the battlefield. This illustrated book for researchers, history buffs, and
students offers a detailed impression of the fight for the River Somme in WWI,
which was one of the most brutal fronts of the war, through the lenses of
ordinary British soldiers with their own contraband cameras. The sepia photos
(170 total) are accompanied by excerpts from soldiers’ diaries, letters, and
memoirs. The first-person recollections are separated by brief introductions
and woven into an accessible chronological narrative. The book’s introduction
contains historical background on the war, plus information on the men’s
cameras and uses of the photos, which were often sold to journalists or sent
to families of the dead and wounded. Through the photos and first-person
accounts, the book chronicles events over a period of 20 months, from the year
before the offensive began, through the four-month battle, and the four months
after the battle. Author Richard van Emden has written 17 books on WWI


This a wonderfully written book. The subject has been handled with the upmost care, accuracy and sensitivity. If you are interested in the subject don't miss it.

Amazon Reviewer US

A great book on a personal view of a battle that is celebrating its 100 anniversary in England for those who fought and died there. There are other good books on this battle and of WW1, but personal letters of those who were there gives insight in how life was in the trenches and back behind the front lines for rest before going back up when it was their turn back in the front line. Just started reading it, but the letter of a twenty year old infantry man who was tasked to show the commanding general of their company the trenches they were in, got the grand tour. The general came back muddy and filthy as those who were there and thanked the person who took him around. The last line of the letter was how often could a twenty year man do something like that to his superior and get away with it. Can't wait to get back to read the rest of this book.

Amazon Reviewer US

Quite superb! I read this after finishing "Slaughter on the Somme" by Mace & Grehan (a transcription of every war diary of every battalion who took part on the 1st July). Together the 2 books provide a much more evocative picture of the battle. Middlebrook, Macdonald et al provide the important historical taster, but to move onto the next level I cannot recommend the other 2 books highly enough.

Amazon Reviewer

Richard van Emden’s “The Somme” is essentially an oral and visual history, and so largely avoids the historical debate about what went wrong and who was to blame. But it includes much new material, particularly in the form of photos taken by British soldiers on their own illegally held cameras, and sets the battle in its proper context by covering the entire 20-month period that the British Expeditionary Force spent on the Somme. It deserves to be read.

Gulf News 26/9/16

Quite simply, superb. I found myself unable to put this book down.
Anyone looking for a first-hand, soldier's account of the battle should read this.
Another well researched, highly readable book from a great author.
Thank you.

Mr B Senior, Amazon Reviewer

This is an excellent addition to the very extensive literature on the Somme, and the approach taken is a very effective way to give us the soldier's eye view of the British army's time on the Somme.

Read the full review here!

John Rickard - History of War

'… so memorable and compelling.'

Mid Wales Journal

This is an excellent addition to the very extensive literature on the Somme, and the approach taken is a very effective way to give us the soldier's eye view of the British army's time on the Somme.

Read the full review here!

History of War Web

This is an excellent addition to the very extensive literature on the Somme, and the approach taken is a very effective way to give us the soldier's eye view of the British army's time on the Somme.

Read the full review here!

History of War Web

Richard never writes a bad book. This is a brilliant offering

Karen McKenzie, Amazon Reviewer

'The Epic Battle in the Soldiers' own Words and Photographs' is how the book describes itself and what could be more poignant than that? A disaster described by men on both sides.

This England Autumn 2016

As features as a special offer in

Barnsley Chronicle

Very moving and well presented. Recommended.

Amazon Reviewer

Book of the month.

Forces War Record July 2016

As featured in.

Amateur Photographer July 2016

It is one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme began and now the last veterans have died a decade ago and civilian recollections are diminishing.

The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldier's own Words and Photographs is published to mark the centenary of the battle, although the battle is only part of the legacy.

The British occupied the Somme for nearly a year before the offensive began and for four months after it was officially over. The book tells this wider, twenty-month-long story, by utilising soldiers' recollections and nearly 170 photographs taken by the men themselves on their own illegally held cameras.

Cameras had been banned at the battlefield and so the vast majority of these images have never been published before, giving a much more personalised account of time spent there.

It is also an interesting format for the story is divided into eight chapters and the entire narrative is taken from the soldiers' letters giving a fascinating account of life at that time. This is a lovely volume that anyone interested in this time in history should not miss.

Timeless Travels Magazine, June 2016

As featured in.

Stand To! Western Front Assc No.106

This new book relays on the soldiers' own recollections, their letters and secretly-taken pictures tells the remarkable story of life on the Somme in the run-up to the battle and the grim reality of trench warfare.

The Daily Express 25/6/16

Essentially an oral and visual history, and so largely avoids the historical debate about what went wrong and who was to blame. But it includes much new material, particularly in the form of photos taken by British soldiers on their own illegally held cameras and sets the battle in its proper context by covering the entire 20-month period that the BEF spent on the Somme. It deserves to be read.

The Daily Telegraph 25/6/16

This new book offers a vivid impression of what it was like to serve on the Somme.

International Business Times 30/6/16

The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs by journalist and historian Richard Van Emden is an oral and visual history of the landmark offensive from those who took part in it. Haunting first-hand anecdotes from survivors of the slaughter are interspersed with rare and in some cases never-before-published snapshots taken in the trenches on both sides of No Man’s Land. The 400-page volume is certainly worth a look.

I can't recommend The Somme by Richard enough.
I laughed aloud at parts and on more than one occasion, had to put it down to clear the dust from my eyes. Ahem.
Again, brilliant.

Sadly, I've finished reading it now- I say 'sadly', as I wouldn't have been disappointed had it been three times the length (and it's not a short book either). The authentic voice of the soldier really comes across- more so than in many other books I've read, and it was nice to see everyday routine things mentioned too, rather than just dwelling on the horror. A thoroughly recommended read.

I can thoroughly recommend it. An essential addition to the Somme library.

J Banning,

Great War historian Richard Van Emden combines a remarkably candid collection of more than 160 mostly unseen photographs, taken on soldiers' illegally-held cameras, with first-hand accounts from their letters, memoirs and diaries. The outcome is a haunting but compelling hidden history that makes our Tommies' Somme experiences as raw and real as if they took place only yesterday.

Family Tree Magazine July 2016

A moving book. Despite knowing the overview which we have all learnt, the true horror, as always, is in the personal detail.
The strength of this book lies in the juxtaposition of the often graphic battle accounts with the mundane, simple and humble detailing of everyday life in the trenches.

Amazon Reviewer

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Some stories will make you laugh out loud, some will put a lump in your throat. With a great selection of photographs never seen in print before.

Amazon Reviewer

Because of its legendary status, the Somme has been the subject of many books, and many more will come out next year. However, nothing has ever been published on the Battle in which the soldiers' own photographs have been used to illustrate both the campaign's extraordinary comradeship and its carnage.

Antiques Diary, July-August 2016

For those of us old enough to have met veterans and talked about their experiences, that is no longer possible for those who fought on the Somme. This collection of personal accounts, coupled with period photos, is what we have left to us for study today, and which will be an excellent reference if you were to take it with you and make a trip to the old battlefield, which today is a colourful and quiet countryside once again.

Want to read the rest? Click me

Military Modelling online, May 2016 - Robin Buckland

As always with Richard Van Emden's books a well written book with the voices and photographs of those who were there.A book to reflect on and one which gave me a greater insight into my grandfather's time during the war.An excellent purchase.

Amazon Reviewer

There have been many books written about the battle but this one provides a very slightly different slant on things. Richard van Emden, who has been involved in considerable research and programmes concerning the Great War, has written a most unusual history of the battle.

It is well worth reading for those who wish to get more of a personal feel for that period of the Great War.

ARRSE - ancienturion

Utterly compelling, unbelievably sad. We mustn't forget

Amazon Reviewer

Van Emden, a First World War specialist, marshals his material chronologically with considerable skill he curates rather than comments, allowing the combatants to speak for themselves, matching where possible the images to the text. We have become inured to images of conflict, battle-weary ourselves perhaps the testimony from this apocalyptic hell-hole should give us pause for thought.

Mail on Sunday 1/5/16

The bestselling author and expert on World War One has gathered together researched and edited one of the most moving and comprehensive books available for the centenary of the Battle of The Somme. Like those that have researched and studied history over many years, the only time you are really touched is when you read the words of those who were there and those that perished. This book is packed with these feelings and it is brilliant.

In his introduction he quotes the historian AJP Taylor, whose views are today often ignored, ‘Idealism perished on the Somme,’ just about sums up the feeling of the soldiers. Whether we like the sentiment or not, Taylor’s point is just as valid today as when he wrote it, and this book justifies that sentiment. In a picture of 5 officers of the 9th Rifle Brigade 2 were to be wounded and the remaining 3 were killed in action, look exhausted, these men had to lead other exhausted men in to battle.

Across eight chapters the reader is taken on a journey that deals with the harsh reality of battle, and when you are bogged down in mud how cold life, if you were surviving was. None of the chapters glorify in any way the Somme, but the harsh life the men face drips from every page, with their own words and pictures.

With the words of tunnellers who had to carry 50lbs of explosives for the mines which they would blow up to aid the advance of the soldiers on the first day of the battle. Captain Stanley Bullock describes what it is like to be down there, that the job was the least desirable in the army and with the amount of explosives they were using they could blow the Germans back to Berlin.

When you read some of the officers asking for reinforcements that were desperately needed and not getting a reply from headquarters, to the description of Thiepval Wood disappearing under the hail of shrapnel. Watching his men reach the limit of human endurance, or that they received messages from men less than an hour later were dead.

When using the words of the men that were there to describe the toil and strife, it is the pictures that really hammer home the points. When you see the mud, the endless mud or the stumps where trees once stood. One letter sums up the Somme, ‘Darling Moth’, I am so thankful to be alive …’ before listing those friends who are dead.

If you want to be chilled to the bones by the description of The Somme, not by historians, but those that were there then this is the book for you. There has been a great deal of research undertaken, both in documents, letters and diaries but also pictorially and it all brings through the sense of idealism dying on the battlefield or more truthfully the battle mud.

This is an excellent book, well worth reading and keeping as a reminder why war is not always the answer, and that it is our young that are the ones who are expected to surrender their lives for the greater good.

Freelance, Paul Diggett

I was first alerted to this book by a many paged feature in the Mail on Sunday a few weeks back in which a fair number of images from this book were published. I bought the book and was delighted, not just by the variety and quality of the images, but by the fact that almost all of them were entirely new to me (and I buy a lot of books on WW1). The book covers the story of the Somme from mid 1915 until the German withdrew in 1917 to the Hindenburg Line, so this is not just a book of the fighting but also of the quieter times before and after the famous offensive. The images are fascinating, the majority are of a high quality you might not expect from cameras of 100 years ago, including shots taken from behind the German lines too. Of course, not all are pin-sharp but that adds to their authenticity - and you'd forgive a man, fighting for his life, for not always composing his pictures when death lurked around the corner. And try taking a picture with woollen mittens in -20 degrees on the Somme in January 1917, one of the coldest in living memory! That said, the vast majority are clear and detailed and, what is more, these are pictures taken by soldiers, not by some Government paid photographer. I loved this book and I haven't even talked about the text!

Amazon Reviewer

One of the best books I've read on the Somme campaign. All from the sharp end

Amazon Reviewer

Brilliant book. Everyone should read this and get the truth about just how bad things really were on the Somme

Amazon Reviewer

What is most striking about these letters is their ability to make the reader smile, laugh even, as much as cry. We learn a new side to the war that the history books missed out.

Van Emden's book does these men a huge service, many of whom deserve a place among the First World War literature greats, and who now will never be forgotten.

All About History No. 038

As featured on 'highlights of the week' page

Mail on Sunday 24/04/16

Book review of sorts. A genuine contender for the "If you're only going to buy one book. " ( That is if you already have Peter Hart's, Lyn Macdonald's, Martin Middlebrook's books on the Somme) This was an eagerly awaited book. Richard Van E is, as it says on the tin, the bestselling World War One author. He is easy to read, doesn't come across as patronising, and he knows his stuff. "The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldier's Own Words and Photographs" follows "Tommy's War: The Western Front in Soldier's Words and Photographs"(2014) and "Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldier's Words and Photographs"(2015 - with Stephen Chambers) in that the Vest Pocket Kodak is the main focus and the photos shown reflect as closely as possible the words that are spoken. It's a winning combination and hopefully not a trilogy. Van E's 'The Somme' is not just about the 1st July, or the ensuing four and a half months that the battle raged on over. There had been a British presence there prior, so the book covers the twenty months, that saw the British forces there. And unlike the Official War Photographs at the time, which were often staged and rarely would the subject be identified by name or regiment, the photos we see (again proper use of the term "never before seen") and the soldiers we see, are named. The faces shown are known to the photographer, and the expressions, from the smiles to the dazed and confused are real. The snappers risked a lot, as the VPK's and similar such cameras were banned, and the penalties for been caught with one were severe - enough that by 1916 there were nowhere near as many as in 1914. The ban was reissued in 1915. The author has been able to use nearly 170 images, and those coupled with diary entries ( the soldiers personal ones, not the Unit War Diaries) and interviews with survivors of the battle, many of which were given to the author whilst they were still alive make this a stand out book. Anyone familiar with Van Emden's books will know and appreciate his narrative style which lacks the blah-blah filler. But for me it's the photos. They capture pals together. Looking at them will make you smile. Some of them look like holiday snaps, which would be of interest only to those involved. But when you consider the backdrop. many of the men would not survive - in some cases shortly after- and coupled with their words, it stops you in your tracks. It could make you weep. Some of the photos would be sent to families with " this was the last photo taken before he died" type words, and you feel almost like you are seeing something you were not meant to see. In his previous book 'Gallipoli' (with Stephen Chambers who has himself written some s*** hot books) it was a nondescript photo of a bunch of 156th Brigade boys on the deck of the RMS Empress of Britain, embarking at Liverpool for Gallipoli. My great uncle was on that boat. Probably not in the picture, but he was there. Anyone who had a relative who was at the Somme, will be able to see what the place was like. Not the few official staged photos that do the rounds, but the almost ordinariness and routine of the moments captured. Powerful stuff. And on a personal note, my grandad was at the Somme, though thankfully not for the battle. The 1RS were there after 2nd Ypres on their way to Salonika. And thanks to this book, the words of Captain Francis Smith of the 1st Royal Scots give me wee glimpses of what my grandad might have seen. A fantastic book. Well worth it.

Amazon Reviewer

Thanks to authors such as Van Emden, the voices of those who were there, the fallen and survivors alike, will echo through time. His dedication to ensuring that their story is heard is written across every page. This is the first book that has been published on the battle that uses the soldiers' own photographs to depict the horrors of life in the trenches of this iconic battle.
This really is the soldiers' true story, and as such, it is raw and unvarnished, the pictures exhibiting the truth as opposed to the carefully staged pictures taken by the authorities at the time.

Van Emden has saved the best until last, finishing his excellent trilogy of books on WW1 with this revelatory collation of first-hand accounts. Time will show it to be a priceless insight into one of the defining struggles of this attritional war.

History of War issue 28

There will be many new books this year, covering the second Battle of the Somme in 1916. If you can only afford to buy one, make this the book you buy. Highly Recommended.


Absolutely superb, a new look at an old story.

Amazon Reviewer

A poignant portrait of camaraderie and courage, remarkable unpublished photographs show Seaforth Highlanders at ease. just months before 1,000 of the regiment were slaughtered on the Somme, 100 years ago this summer.

Scottish Mail on Sunday

This year marks the centenary of the Somme offensive - the bloodiest battle ever fought by British troops. [This] new book revisits the horrors of the Somme, through the testimony of those who fought there.

The Week

As featured in ''Conspiracy' to lure underage boys to war.'

The Sunday Times, 27/3/16

It was the bloodiest battle in our history. Yet it's taken 100 years to get an insight as vivid as this – from a brilliant new book commemorating the centenary, astonishing photographs taken by soldiers' illicit cameras. and their mesmerising, humbling descriptions of the horrors they endured.

Event magazine, Mail on Sunday

About Richard van Emden

Richard van Emden interviewed 270 veterans of the Great War, has written extensively about the soldiers' lives, and has worked on many television documentaries, always concentrating on the human aspects of war, its challenge and its cost to the millions of men involved. Richard van Emden&rsquos books have sold over 660,000 copies and have appeared in The Times&rsquo bestseller chart on a number of occasions.

He has also worked on more than a dozen television programmes on the Great War, including the award-winning Roses of No Man&rsquos Land, Britain&rsquos Boy Soldiers, A Poem for Harry, War Horse: the Real Story, Teenage Tommies with Fergal Keane and most recently, Hidden Histories: WW1&rsquos Forgotten Photographs. He lives in London.

German forces cross the Somme River

On March 24, 1918, German forces cross the Somme River, achieving their first goal of the major spring offensive begun three days earlier on the Western Front. Operation Michael, engineered by the German chief of the general staff, Erich von Ludendorff, aimed to decisively break through the Allied lines on the Western Front and destroy the British and French forces. The offensive began on the morning of March 21, 1918, with an aggressive bombardment. The brunt of the attack that followed was directed at the British 5th Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, stationed along the Somme River in northwestern France. This section was the most poorly defended of any spot on the British lines, due to the fact that it had been held by the French until only a few weeks before and its defensive positions were not yet fully fortified. Panic spread up and down the British lines of command, intensified by communications failures between Gough and his subordinates in the field, and German gains increased over the subsequent days of battle. On March 23, Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the German side of the line, remarked that The progress of our offensive is so quick, that one cannot follow it with a pen. The next day, German troops stormed across the Somme, having previously captured its bridges before French troops could destroy them. Despite having resolved to concentrate on weaker points of the enemy lines, Ludendorff continued to throw his armies against the crucial villages of Amiens (a railway junction) and Arras—which the British and French were instructed to hold at all costs—hoping to break through and push on towards Paris. By that time, German troops were exhausted, and transportation and supply lines had begun to break down in the cold and bad weather. Meanwhile, Allied forces had recovered from the initial disadvantage and had begun to gain the upper hand, halting the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30. On April 5, Ludendorff called off Operation Michael. It had yielded nearly 40 miles of territory, the greatest gains for either side on the Western Front since 1914. He would launch four more offensive pushes over the course of the spring and summer, throwing all of the German army’s resources into this last, desperate attempt to win the war. (

Passchendaele is the next volume in the highly-regarded series of books from the best-selling First World War historian Richard van Emden. Once again, using the winning formula of diaries and memoirs, and above all original photographs taken on illegally-held cameras by the soldiers themselves, Richard tells the story of 1917, of life both in and out of the line culminating in perhaps the most dreaded battle of them all, the Battle of Passchendaele. His previous book, The Somme, has now sold nearly 20,000 copies in hardback and softback, proving that the public appetite is undiminished for new,…

The true faces of the Somme – uncoloured by the new nationalism

T heir faces look back at us from the abyss. Faces of the doomed. In photographs of British soldiers on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, which started 100 years ago on 1 July 1916, we see men who are about to die or suffer appalling wounds. The British army suffered 57,470 casualties on the first day of the Somme, including 19,240 men killed.

So here is truly an anniversary to stop in silence for, and the sadness of the Somme goes beyond the politics that currently divide us. Or does it? When published in the Daily Mail, these pictures are not what they seem. They appear to give us an uncannily close encounter with young men who about to die, as Wilfred Owen put it, “like cattle” – yet in reality they are a peculiar kind of fiction.

The original photographs from which the Mail created its picture story are in black and white. Of course they are – this was 1916. So instead of asking readers to make the imaginative leap into the other country that is the past, the paper has changed them, updated them, distorted them.

The pictures, it reveals, have been “specially coloured-up in astonishing detail for the Daily Mail”. To colourise an old photograph or film is to falsify it. The rosy cheeks are not theirs. The hair colour is not theirs. The effect is to create the illusion that it all happened just yesterday, that we know how these men felt.

British soldiers wearing German helmets. Photograph: Richard van Emden

And it’s more specific than that. Like so many first world war commemorations – from the poppies at the Tower of London, one for every British and Commonwealth soldier killed between 1914 and 1918, but not a single one for the German, French, American, Russian, Austrian or Italian dead, to the flood of books written from a little-England perspective by Max Hastings or Brexiteer historian Andrew Roberts – these doctored photos urge us to empathise only with “our” troops.

Given where we now are, an island as never before, it is impossible to see such patriotic commemorations as either an innocent reflection on history, or a sentimental sideshow. Instead, the cult of Britain’s first world war dead is part of the same introspective cultural lurch that saw a vote to leave Europe and curb immigration: part of the death of internationalist Britain.

It’s worth looking a bit closer at the way the Mail uses those pictures of doomed youth. “Heartbreaking photos of our troops”, declares the headline, gently reminding readers to see these images patriotically. The Somme, it goes on to say, was “the bloodiest battle in British history”. The day after having these happy pictures taken, our boys would go over the top “to be met by a hail of German machine-gun fire that mowed down half of them”.

Soldiers dwarfed by a crater, in a photo also taken from Richard van Emden’s book. Photograph: Richard van Emden

The article gives the British casualties, but not those of other nations. By August 1916, the German army would also suffer 250,000 casualties. The Somme was called “the muddy grave of the German field army” by Captain von Hentig, a German officer who witnessed it.

Worse, and typical of the way that Brexit Britain is determined to misremember the first world war, there is no attempt to contextualise what happened. So all our brave Tommies marched into those evil German machine guns. In fact, every battle on the western front worked in a similar way. The reason this war was so murderous had nothing to do with German wickedness. It was a tragic irony of technological development. The war broke out at the exact moment when weaponry was so rapid-firing and powerful that traditional infantry tactics failed, while new kinds of mobile warfare had yet to be developed. So armies got stuck in the same trenches for years and whenever one side attacked, the defenders had the advantage. Advancing German armies were mown down just as lethally as advancing British and French ones.

Battle of Passchendaele: The horror of World War One in the soldiers' own words and photographs

A new book tells the story of Passchendaele through the words and photographs of soldiers in the trenches.

On 31 July 2017, the world marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele – one of the longest, bloodiest and most controversial battles of World War One. Appalling weather conditions had turned the Flanders lowlands into a mud-churned swamp rendering tanks immobile and virtually paralysing the infantry. Any gains either side made were almost invariably soon lost, and the battle became a war of attrition.

The battle was finally halted in in November 1917. Casualty figures are disputed, but it is thought around 310,000 Allied soldiers and 260,000 German soldiers lost their lives at Passchendaele.

A new book tells the story of Passchendaele through the words and photographs of soldiers in the trenches. Historian and First World War expert Richard van Emden has compiled extracts from soldiers' letters, diaries and memoirs and photographs taken by the men with their own illicit cameras. The army had banned cameras just before Christmas 1914 when it was discovered that soldiers – mainly officers – were selling war photographs to the press.

Left: Officers of the Queen’s Bays with cameras more sophisticated than most taken overseas. Right: The ubiquitous Vest Pocket Kodak, by far the most common used camera by both officers and men. Private collection of Richard van Emden

Some of the most remarkable photos in the book were taken by Captain George Birnie, an Australian medical officer and keen photographer who was attached to the 8th East Surreys (18th Division) at Passchendaele. He was wounded in the shoulder by a piece of an exploding shell, but he carried on treating the wounded until he was relieved some eight hours later. He was later awarded the Military Cross for gallantry during active operations against the enemy. His images capture the desolate conditions of the battlefield and the camaraderie of the men in the trenches.

A Lewis gun team, photographed by Captain George Birnie, the Medical Officer attached 8th East Surrey Regiment. Photograph taken by Captain Birnie, ‘Record of six months in 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment’, complied by Lt Lovell. By kind permission of the Surrey History Centre

Captain George Birnie, photographer and medical officer, attached 8th East Surrey Regiment. Photograph taken by Captain Birnie, ‘Record of six months in 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment’, complied by Lt Lovell. By kind permission of the Surrey History Centre

Men of the 8th East Surrey Regiment stand in Jeffrey Trench. Behind, a working party crosses the battered landscape. Photograph taken by Captain Birnie, ‘Record of six months in 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment’, complied by Lt Lovell. By kind permission of the Surrey History Centre

Second Lieutenant Rolland Franks (centre), 8th East Surrey Regiment, during a pause in the fighting. He was killed on 12 October near Poelcappelle. Photograph taken by Captain Birnie, ‘Record of six months in 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment’, complied by Lt Lovell. By kind permission of the Surrey History Centre

The book covers the four distinct battles on the Western Front in 1917: Arras (early April to mid-May), Passchendaele (July through to November) Messines (June) and Cambrai (late November to early December).

Van Emden writes: "1917 [was] a year of unparalleled misery on both sides of the line: an end to the war was nowhere near in sight, and popular enthusiasm for the struggle had long since eroded. The struggles . were characterised by a grim resignation to the necessity of attrition and gradual battlefield predominance in men and arms. All in all, 1917 completed the transition to the 'wearing out' war. And, perhaps for the first time, the soldiers began to question the competence of their most senior commanding officers."

The advance to the Hindenburg Line, March 1917. Officers of the 2nd Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment resting close to the village of Bullecourt. Photograph by Captain HB Secretan MC, 2nd Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment

31 July 1917, the first day of the Passchendaele offensive, started well for the Aliied troops, but by the afternoon, casualties increased as they met with stiffer resistance, and then the drizzle turned into pouring rain. In his account published in 1920, Major William Watson, D Battalion, Tank Corps, wrote: "It began to rain, and it rained until 6 August, and then it rained again."

The tanks had mixed success: some did sterling work, but many became hopelessly stuck in the thick mud. Two-thirds of those deployed were eventually bogged down and many were gradually destroyed as they floundered.

Tanks stuck or knocked out in the mud close to the Menin Road, on 31 July. Private collection of Richard van Emden

Lieutenant Edward Allfree, Royal Garrison Artillery, wrote: "To give some idea of the mud, I need only mention that I saw a horse, harnessed to a French wagon, with its hind legs so deeply sunk in the mud that it could not move. Its hind legs were buried right up to its haunches, so that its stomach was level with, and lying on the ground, with its front legs stretched straight out in front of it along the ground." Allfree also described how the shell-churned mud was so bad that it took a stretcher party of six, four hours to bring in one wounded man.

Stretcher bearers at work: battlefield conditions meant that it could take several hours to extricate one wounded man. Private collection of Richard van Emden

On 10 August, the weather relented, permitting an attack close to the Menin Road. The attack was a disappointment and over 2,000 casualties were sustained for a maximum gain of 400 metres.

A few days later, as the troops were preparing to launch an assault on the German village of Langemarck, a shell screamed over the head of Second Lieutenant Henry Foley, Somerset Light Infantry, and burst with a deafening crash behind him. "I swung round," he wrote, "and saw that where but a second before had stood some thirty men, chatting and joking as they slipped on their equipment, there was now nothing but an appalling shambles. The shell had landed right in among them. Many men were simply blown to pieces. All told, this one shell cost us twenty-six casualties – practically a whole platoon gone."

The battle was disintegrating into a grinding, attritional struggle, with limited gains. There was no prospect of a breakthrough, just the slow wearing down of an enemy who could least afford the losses. Private Thomas Hope, Liverpool Regiment, wrote: "We flounder in and out water-logged shell holes, stumble over foul-smelling heaps of putrefying flesh, or, as machine guns sweep the ground, crawl over the more recent dead of the morning's advance, which emit strange noises – half groan, half sigh – as the weight of our bodies presses the air from their lungs."

Rescued just in time: a man is pulled from a collapsed dugout during the Battle of Arras. Imperial War Museum, London

August 1917 was not a success for the British troops, but their fortunes seemed to improve – along with the weather – as September arrived. They were pushing the German troops back in a methodical series of assaults.

On 17 September, Private Hugh Quigley, Lothian Regiment, wrote: "The country resembles a sewage heap more than anything else, pitted with shell holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project. It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death traps, for drowning is almost certain in one of them."

A tank stuck fast in Inverness Copse, 25 September. Private collection of Richard van Emden

Private Hope wrote this vivid account of a nighttime push across the German line: "A machine gun suddenly spurts out right in front of us, and automatically we drop flat. Some I notice drop clumsily and lie still others clutch frantically at limbs. The gun rattles again and is easily located in the semi-darkness by its flashes streaming from a concrete pillbox. We crawl on our stomachs from shell hole to shell hole. At last we have wormed our way round, and are now to the rear of the emplacement where we form in a semi-circle with bombers a few yards in front. There is a sudden rush, and it is all over. Regardless of uplifted hands three of the occupants are bayoneted as they emerge from the narrow entrance, before we realise what we are doing. It is not that we are brutalised, but we are so keyed up to killing, that our minds can't relax quickly enough.

"Prisoners emerge from dugouts, their hands in the air, fear and bewilderment expressed on their faces. Still dazed from the terrific bombardment, which has passed over them like a scourge, they are almost childish in their desire to show friendliness, dreading the unknown future, yet eager to leave behind the hell from which they are escaping."

German soldiers looking pensive. The prolonged British bombardment drove many of the enemy to the verge of madness Private collection of Richard van Emden

The offensive was driven on throughout October, regardless of the worsening weather. It did not rain on 1 October but it did for twenty-four of the thirty-one days that month. Conditions that had bedevilled the start of the campaign, returned with a vengeance.

There were further advances on 4 October and again on 9 October, with further bites out of the German line. Battlefield conditions now precluded any further use of tanks, The next step would be taken on 12 October. Private Hugh Quigley of the 12th Royal Scots would be going over the top for the first time. He wrote: "With rifles slung, and great trepidation in our hearts, we scrambled up and went forward into the heat of the flame. One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer's face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms.

"Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun. You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the Germans' as something provided for our entertainment. We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell hole, resting along with others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life – flames, smoke, lights, SOS's, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage properties to set off a great scene. Then going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me."

A shell dump, one of hundreds in the fields around Arras – an obvious target for the Germans. Photograph by Sergeant Huborn Godfrey, 215 Siege Battery, RGA. By kind permission of Richard Hills

The Allied troops failed to make any useful impression on the enemy positions, barely reaching the first objective and in many cases ending up back where they had started. Artillery guns were sinking axle deep into the mud, some deeper. The action was called off. The battle dragged on into November. What the Germans required most was persistent bad weather and it was granted in bucketsful. The fighting continued, advance up the line onto the Passchendaele Ridge, as much to get the troops onto dryer ground as to finally take this long-term objective. The offensive was finally halted on 10 November.

A wagon belonging to the 1st Scots Guards stuck in the Ypres mud. Imperial War Museum, London

Major George Wade, an officer serving in the 20th Light Division, captured that sacrifice and undoubted heroism of the men on both sides of the war when he wrote about conditions near Langemarck. "There were a number of wounded men lying about on the knee-deep muddy battlefield and conditions were so impossible that no stretcher-bearers or carrying party of any kind could rescue them. They lay dying in icy shell holes or in the open. It was so bitterly cold that they did not mercifully bleed to death but just lay there in hopeless misery. For six days one of our men, shot through both legs, lay out in no-man's-land, which was periodically swept by rain, hail, snow, machine-gun fire, and shrapnel from both sides. Each night Germans from a nearby shell hole crept out to give him a warm drink, every drop of which they must have longed for themselves as their plight was as bad as that of the British."

In contrast to the long, muddy months of stalemate at Passchendaele, the Battle of Cambrai which followed it was decisive and unexpectedly swift. At 6.20am on 20 November, a 1,000 gun bombardment smashed enemy batteries and defences before the tanks rolled over the enemy's barbed wire, while the infantry followed, using the tanks as cover. The Hindenburg Line was breached with comparative ease, allowing the cavalry to exploit the breakthrough.

As the troops moved forward, one village after another fell. But then the momentum slowed and the Germans regrouped and counter-attacked, recapturing most of the ground lost on 30 November. British troops fell back in confusion it seemed likely that large numbers of men would be cut off and surrounded. The fighting subsided and then officially ended on 4 December. The year's four offensives had cost Britain and her Empire around 450,000 casualties, or an average of around 2,700 casualties each fighting day, and that figure excludes the attritional losses in merely holding the line.

Captain Cross with two runners, 33rd Battalion Machine Gun Corps at Tyne Cot pillbox. Imperial War Museum, London

Young Private Hope was wounded in early December while carrying an urgent message across the open. His time at the front had lasted less than five months. On 8 December, he wrote of his mixed feelings as an ambulance carried him away from the front. "The day for which I have longed and prayed has arrived. I am going down the line, away from it all, and yet a strange feeling mars my happiness. It is something almost beyond my ability to explain. I am leaving this manmade hell. That occasions my joy and also my sorrow, my joy at escaping from the shadow of death so lightly, my sorrow at losing all the things that shadow gave me.

"And those staunch comrades I'll never see again on this earth. Mac, who rests peacefully in a little cemetery on a gentle Picardy slope. Webby, who has no known grave, whose restless spirit must ever haunt the waterlogged flats of Flanders, prowling unseen over rain-soaked ridges and hovering in the valleys at dawn with the morning mist as its shroud, seeking, always seeking, the resting place that was denied its earthly form. Streaky, Naylor, Taffy, old Bellchamber, and all those others I knew.

"Whatever is before me and whatever life brings, I must always be a better man for having known these things and lived with such men."

For more of the soldiers' accounts and photos, many of them previously unseen, get The Road to Passchendaele by Richard van Emden, published by Pen & Sword Books, at £20.

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