Three Indispensable Guides To The Great Battlefields Of World War One

 
8-inch howitzers of the 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery conducting a shoot in the Fricourt-Mametz Valley, August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.
 
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Books Reviewed by Mark Barnes

Whether you are a newbie or an old campaigner on the battlefields of the Great War, collecting guides and information books is an essential part of getting out on the long, long trail.

The three on offer here from Pen & Sword cover a wide range of locations and form part of a lengthy series of essential battlefield guides. The reason for putting them together is to illustrate just how much there is to appreciate, and it throws light on the brilliant work done over a long period by the authors featured here.

Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland are longstanding footsloggers on the battlefield trail with many books under their belts. We start off with something special from them, a guide devoted to events from the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Now, I have only recently reviewed the Holt’s guide that covers the whole series of battles making up The Somme but to have a book like this for day one alone is a boon.

The media are fitfully obsessed with the first day of the battle. It offers us the worst of casualty statistics and small gains for so much loss. Much of the story of July 1st feeds the Blackadder and ‘Donkeys’ mythology propagated by a raft of people who should have known better.  A book like this well help you cut through all that, but the fact remains the day was a disaster for the British and it wasn’t too great for a large number of Germans either. What this book does is put you on the ground with the information you need to follow in the footsteps of your ancestors.

While Martin Middlebrook’s much loved classic account of the first day remains an essential read, it is not a guidebook. I suggest you make use of both.  Mr. Cooksey and Mr. Murland have traced events in considerable detail offering eleven routes to follow on foot, by bicycle or in a car.   They bring people, places, and events to life.

Even as the centenary years of the Great War pass us by, this handy pocket book will be around for a long time to come. Highly recommended.

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THE FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME
Gommecourt to Maricourt
A Visitor’s Guide
By Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
ISBN: 978 1 47383 803 1

Two books in the Battle Lines series fit exactly in to the same bill.  The first looks at the southern part of the retreat from Mons in 1914, covering events from Etreux to the River Marne. The Battle of Mons was the legendary action by Britain’s old regular army facing up to the Kaiser’s juggernaut. It has entered mythology for many good reasons, and while there are some things we can now take with a pinch of salt, the overall picture of the battle and the BEF’s withdrawal is one of heroism, resolution, and sacrifice.

I am an admirer of Horace Smith-Dorien, the corps commander who made bold decisions that did nothing to arrest the antipathy held towards him by the BEF commander Sir John French.  Alongside both men was the up and coming Douglas Haig, a man who came through the retreat with his performance much debated to this day.

The retreat was something of an epic, and the publicity of it did a great job of redressing defeat as something like a victory. This was essential because there were serious trials to come and the tens of thousands of volunteers at home needed positive news to draw them into the recruiting office.  The authors explain the events covered in the book in four stages and once again their routes can be followed on foot, by bike or on four wheels.

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THE RETREAT FROM MONS 1914: SOUTH
Etreux to the Marne
By Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
ISBN: 978 1 47382 336 5

The authors have also looked at the battlefields of French Flanders, an area sometimes overlooked by pilgrims intent on seeing Ypres, Vimy or the Somme.

There is much to see in the area confirmed by the important battles of the early years of the war at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and Festubert. The authors take things further to Loos, the battle that finished the career of Sir John French, leaving the stage clear for the ascendency of Sir Douglas Haig.

We also get to see events at Fromelles, a place that has gained much publicity in recent years following the discovery of a mass grave of Australian and British dead from 1916.  It is important to remember that this battlefield was also hotly contested in the years before as the proximity of Aubers Ridge highlights. The recent drive to give the area an exclusively Australian connection falls wide of the mark. Someone who was also at Fromelles was a Bavarian army runner named Adolf Hitler.  Some of the bunkers he knew from his time there survive to this day and, indeed, he was a cheery battlefield tourist when he returned to see them in 1940.

The Loos battlefield is hardly unknown, but it is another place that tends to be ignored because it is not the prettiest part of the world with the scars and remnants of the local coal industry so very evident.  The story of John Kipling draws casual interest but there was much more to the battle than the tragic death of Rudyard Kipling’s only son. The battle underlines why 1915 was such an epic year with crucial battles being part of the British army’s learning curve.

My dear Sue loves this book because it covers places known to her great grandfather from the Royal Warwicks who remains there to this day, buried in an unknown grave. This is a substantial book that deserves serious consideration because it really will get you away from the places shallow media coverage attracts. French Flanders is a great place to tour around, and this excellent book is an essential guide to events. You can do your tour and finish the day with a beer and a flammkuchen and go away very happy. Great stuff.

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THE BATTLES OF FRENCH FLANDERS
Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Loos, and Fromelles
By Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
ISBN: 978 1 47382 403 4