Images of war: Great push on the Somme 1916 by Mark Barnes

Like so many proud companies, the management of the News of the World produced a booklet listing an account of their staff in the service of their King during the Great War; keeping the opening section as a memorial to the twenty-one men who died out of a hundred-and-ninety-three who had answered the call. For many years a fine memorial to them all, both casualties and survivors, hung in the entrance of the paper’s offices just off Fleet Street; but sadly it ended up in a skip when the paper hastily decamped to Wapping in 1986. Happily part of it was saved and is now safely in the company archive. A century on and the faces of those men look out at us and I can’t help wonder what they might make of the modern scandal which brought about the closure of a once proud newspaper and the thought of mentioning the still alleged perpetrators and these heroes in these same lines really makes me very angry.

So here we have another in my favourite series of pictorial books from our chums at Pen & Sword. It wasn’t difficult to see how they signed this one off at an editorial conference
So here we have another in my favourite series of pictorial books from our chums at Pen & Sword. It wasn’t difficult to see how they signed this one off at an editorial conference

One of the men is Alfred Barnaby Tonge. He is buried at Delville Wood on the Somme and he worked in what they used to call Machine but today we call the Press Hall. He went out to France in August, 1916, and died just over a month later. I began a pilgrimage to the Western Front a good many years ago and have always enjoyed the time I’ve spent walking the battlefields of the Somme; which despite the popular name is really a sequence rather than one continuous battle. Good historians will always tell you there is so much more to the war than the Somme and they are absolutely right. But the mythology and iconography of the place are so powerful, so raw, and for me, the sucker punch of the battlefield experience. I haven’t been to Gallipoli, as yet, and there are other places on the Trail I have yet to walk, but there are vistas on the Somme that mean the world to me for reasons I cannot explain. I’d have to take you there so you can see what I mean.

Books about the Somme proliferate and with the centenary approaching rapidly now that shiny Dave has fired the starting pistol, we can expect a blizzard of the good, the bad and the indifferent as all manner of faces seek to cash in. Some of it is bound to annoy the hell out of me and I am bound to make some quite acid observations about the whole experience. But at this point I will temper my cynicism. I have, after all, just about recovered from the Olympics; which I really wanted to hate and could not despite venting my spleen at every opportunity.

So here we have another in my favourite series of pictorial books from our chums at Pen & Sword. It wasn’t difficult to see how they signed this one off at an editorial conference.  You can picture the scene with the Images of War series bods sitting around a Spartan tea stained table looking over a long list of potential projects while someone passes round the Hobnobs. The commissioning editor would be keen to have a good selection of sure fire Great War winners for the centennial procession and this one gets the team off to a solid start.  They had the material, they can see the growing crescendo of interest and they know the price is right. The whole thing is an absolute no brainer. This is a solidly easy to like book about the whole Tommy experience. If, and I stress, if that is as far as you want to take it. I can look at this book for hours. Give me a cup of tea and a tin of biscuits (but ditch the Hobnobs) and I am a happy man.

Many of the illustrations are recognisable as stills from the epic The Battle of the Somme. Wherever you go you will see a still or a sequence of this movie as a totem of the Great War. A bit of it turned up in Ian Hislop’s recent series about British stiff upper lip on the BBC and whenever there is footage of a big mine explosion, they always use the stupendous moment when Geoffrey Malins captured the Hawthorn ridge going up before the attacking troops were slaughtered attempted to reach  the crater.  The film was not surpassed by a British audience until the arrival of Star Wars.  It is recognised as a piece of heritage by the United Nations as the world’s first true documentary film of a battle.

Perhaps the most famous sequence of the whole film is the most controversial. Malins had captured distant and tragic sequences of Tommies running Indian file into a hail of German fire from well placed machine guns dug in at Beaumont Hamel from his position at a location known as White City and these were chopped about to leave out the obvious. But his real problem was his distance from the action and this affected the whole film and some days later he went to the 3rd Army Mortar School at Ligny-St-Flochel and filmed a now much used series of close ups of troops going “over the top” and this was cut into the genuine combat sequences.  Only recently the WHO Facebook page ran a still from this sequence which elicited a number of mournful responses, so even now his carefully planned fib is still having an impact. The soldiers concerned were paid in fags and booze. One of these images turns up as genuine in this Images of War book. I suppose the point I am looking for is I am a little surprised that when commissioning this book the publishers didn’t cross check their back catalogue and have a quick glance through Ghosts on the Somme by Alastair Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts first, because some of the captions in this new book might have been much improved if they had. Maybe I am being a bit too bookish here? I dunno. Maybe they just compartmentalise their titles? Maybe this title really is just very much for the casual reader? Too many maybes?

Images from the Taylor library are also included and the overall package makes for a bumper collection of stunning photographs. You are at liberty to accuse me of nitpicking but rest assured that I thoroughly approve of this book on the whole and like others in the series I can see myself dipping back into it on regular occasions. As an inspiration to model makers and living history enthusiasts the book is a must.

So, let’s get back to our chum Alfred Tonge and his pals from the News of the World. The sadness isn’t quite complete, because his older brother and fellow printer John survived a scrape at Gallipoli only to die at Jerusalem in December, 1917; thus definitively proving the historians right. The war is much, much bigger than the Somme. But as battles go it is extremely accessible to you whether as a newbie to the Trail or as an old hand. You might prefer Flanders or countless other places. Better still, explore it all; the impending centenary will encourage you to do so. There will be so many books to bamboozle you and WHO will do it’s best to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Mark Barnes

The Battle of the Somme 1916
By William Langford
Published in softback by Pen & Sword Military £16.99
ISBN: 978 1 78159 0 416

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.