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The First of July

3.74  ·  Rating Details ·  305 Ratings  ·  77 Reviews
On July 1st, 1913, four very different men are leading four very different lives.

Exactly three years later, it is just after seven in the morning, and there are a few seconds of peace as the guns on the Somme fall silent and larks soar across the battlefield, singing as they fly over the trenches. What follows is a day of catastrophe in which Allied casualties number almos
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published November 14th 2013 by Pegasus Books (first published 2013)
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Feb 15, 2014 Jane rated it it was amazing
Oh, my goodness!! This novel was astonishing and mesmerizing! It took my breath away. Do read this book; you'll be glad you did!

This novel begins in 1913; then World War I breaks out and leads up to the Battle of the Somme [which "began on the middle day, of the middle year of the War", July 1, 1916], the battle itself and aftermath. This is the story of four different men from different social classes: the Englishmen, Benedict, gentle organ student at Gloucester Cathedral and son of a vicar; F
Diane S ☔
Oct 16, 2013 Diane S ☔ rated it really liked it
Speller certainly has the ability to craft a well-plotted, tightly constructed novel. I found that they way this novel was written was amazing. Four men from diverse backgrounds all find themselves involved in fighting in France during World War I. We first learn about these men from separate chapters, each devoted to one of the men, and thus we learn their hopes and dreams, about their lives and loves and the reader becomes emotionally vested in each of these men.

That is not to say that this is
Nov 14, 2013 Joseph rated it really liked it
Shelves: war
The First of July by Elizabeth Speller is a novel that examines the lives of four men leading up to the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Speller has lived throughout western Europe and currently splits her time between Gloucestershire and Greece. She has written for The Independent, Financial Times, Vogue, and Big Issue. This is her third novel.

I spend quite a bit of time reading World War I books, from Ernest K Gann's In the Company of Eagles which started me in my early teens to Paul Janko
Nov 02, 2013 Ali rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the third novel by Elizabeth Speller, a stand-alone novel, following the brilliant; The Return of Captain John Emmet and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, which feature a character in the years following WW1. This novel follows the fortunes of four very different men, just before and during the First World War.
Next year of course it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of WW1 – so the publication of this novel then is very timely, pulling no punches, it is an emotional, evocative
Dec 18, 2013 Sarah rated it really liked it
For a book titled, The First of July, this novel has very little do to with the first day of the battle of the Somme and a great deal in leading up to it. Which is ok, we care about the characters when the worst day of their collective lives approaches. At the beginning we meet four different men, three Brits and one Frenchman and follow their lives before and leading up to the fateful day. Their paths cross, sometimes significantly and sometimes just in passing.
The frame is constructed perfect
Richard Brand
Sep 25, 2014 Richard Brand rated it liked it
For some reason I never got connected to this book. There are five or six different strands that get woven together as they approach July 1, 1916. The lives of these people are nicely developed. They are from a variety of socio-economic conditions. They have their own histories. But I never became concerned or emotionally interested in any of them. There is a lot of vivid description of the horrors of the trench warfare, and the pain and suffering of the combatants. As one might suspect in a boo ...more
May 01, 2014 Sue rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Stories of 4, very different, men who enlist and towards the end of the novel find themselves in the bloody battle of the Somme in one way or another. Vivid battle scenes mainly from different angles, which made it interesting. Although the stories appear diverse they are linked to each other in different ways. I love Speller's writing - although at the beginning it was hard when the characters kept changing, just when I was getting into their stories, her writing flows. Looking forward to her n ...more
Holly Fetter
Jan 30, 2014 Holly Fetter rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. At first, I wasn't sure I was going to like it, but it didn't take long for me to be sucked in. I love reading WWI era fiction, and this one didn't disappoint (unlike Wake). I liked how the 4 main characters were connected, yet separate, and didn't feel like a far fetched "you gotta be kidding me" coincidence when their lives intersect. Well done!
This was a wonderful book to start off the new year. If I were given the entirely of the world’s history to study, WWI and the inter-war years is my choice, hands down. Basically anything from 1910-1935 I just devour. This was a great novel in that it showcased not just the war and the soldiers who fought it, but their lives before the war, the culture(s) they were part of the, and most importantly, how the war affected them, despite their different cultures/stations. Everyone seems to prefer to ...more
This book as was a quick and – despite the subject matter – light read. Unfortunately, it did not do much for me: I kept thinking that I was supposed to feel more than I actually did. The book follows four separate men (three British and one French) caught up in World War I, culminating in the Battle of the Somme. Though each character has his own thread, they coincide too frequently to be credible.

The book clearly is aiming straight for the heart – as the postscript informs us, the Battle of t
TheRLPL Rice Lake Public Library
Patron Review:

This book centers on the experience of four young men, on French and three British, who experience and participate in World War I from the eye of the war on July 1, 1913, to the eye of the great battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Jean-Baptiste comes from a small village in France; Bennedict,an organ student at the great cathedral at Gloucester; Frank Stanton, the son of a casket maker, who goes to London to seek his fortune as a cabinet maker and then department store clerk; and
Aug 28, 2014 Veronica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This is in a different league to Elizabeth Speller's first two novels which were inter-war Agatha Christie-style whodunnits, and more akin to her lovely memoir The Sunlight on the Garden: A Memoir of Love, War and Madness in its psychological insights. Praise for The Return of Captain John Emmett wrongly said it was "like Birdsong only better". This novel actually is in Birdsong territory, albeit less verbose, and even if it's not "better" she does it really well. She convincingly involves the r ...more
Aug 29, 2014 Annie rated it it was amazing
The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and continued for the next four and a half months. By the end of the engagement, more than 1,000,000 men had been killed or wounded. It is one of the deadliest (if not the deadliest) battle in history. The title of Elizabeth Speller’s incredible novel, The First of July serves as a constant reminder to the reader of what’s coming for the five protagonists. The men The First of July centers on enlisted in their countries’ armies because of misguided ca ...more
Aug 05, 2014 Ally rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I very much enjoyed this book and the stories of the four different men from different social and family backgrounds. Initially I was really grabbed by Harry's story but in the end it was Jean-Baptiste's story that I most took to. For me the other two stories were interesting but not compelling. My only disappointment was that given the subject matter I expected to be much more emotionally engaged than I was. I've read a few WWI stories this, the centenary, year and haven't been able to contain ...more
Heather Schmitt
Aug 18, 2014 Heather Schmitt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I enjoyed this book very much. Thank God it wasn't like a bunch of WWI fiction I have had the misfortune of wasting my time with,where the female characters are so wishy-washy you want to smack them or so militant you want to tranquilize them just to get them to calm down a tad. This book did not have that. Excellent character development, and I was emotionally involved/invested in all four of the men.I was overjoyed with the survivors and the characters who perished...well,I was destroyed. I si ...more
Oct 20, 2014 Tim rated it it was amazing
Wasn't sure what to make of this when I started it, but then found it hard to put down. Writing is excellent, especially the character development. Well-worth reading!
Feb 06, 2015 Lollita rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first 100 pages or so was rather slow, but it gets better once you get to the actual war part
Paul Cook
Feb 04, 2014 Paul Cook rated it really liked it
The First of July is Elizabeth Speller's third novel, all three set in and around WWI. The July 1 date in the title refers to the first day of the horrendously bloody Battle of the Somme, which dragged on into mid-November of that year, dragging a million casualties with it.

The narrative focuses on the stories of four young men, one British and living in New York City, two others who live in Britain, and one Frenchman. Speller begins their stories in 1913, placing them in their civilian lives,
Jun 22, 2014 Mr rated it really liked it
Four young men, possibly heroes, are protagonists in THE FIRST OF JULY: Frank, a former coffin-maker turned London department store clerk who fancies himself an Internationalist; Benedict, a Gloucester music student with the gift/curse of synesthesia and a homosexual crush on his impulsive best friend; Jean-Batiste, an indomitable blacksmith's helper who thinks the amorous doctor in his French village is a German spy and who dreams of stealing a rowboat to seek his fortune in a wider world; and ...more
Ultimately I found this novel a bit disappointing. Much of it was very good and in some places it was outstanding, but a few things really brought it down from where it could have been.

Given the title of the novel At Break of Day and it's alternate title of The First of July, I expected much more of the narrative to be set in the days just before, during or in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Somme. Of course we need the back stories of the main characters so our emotions can become
This is a sweeping war epic that deserves a place with the better books about the first world war.

With recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, readers often forget the worst battles and terrific losses of WWI. In the disaster that was the Battle of the Somme, final numbers showed over 57,000 casualties, of which over 19,000 killed and over 35,000 wounded.

The story portrays the lives of four men in the years prior to WWI. We follow their paths from 1913 to their actions in the battle on July 1, 1916
Oct 30, 2013 Claire rated it really liked it
I am endlessly fascinated by WWI, and it was in that spirit that I picked up this book, which exceeded my expectations. It's the story of five men and how their lives intertwine just prior to and then during the first World War. They seem so different: Jean-Baptiste, a rural French boy who grows up along the banks of the Somme; Henry, a British national who has moved to America and is about to be married; Frank, a coffin-maker from rural England who loves cycling; and Benedict and Theo, who are ...more
Karen Cole
Dec 12, 2013 Karen Cole rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At Break of Day (published as The First of July in the USA) follows four men, Jean-Baptiste, a French teenager from the Somme who dreams of adventure; Frank, an ambitious shop assistant working in London; Benedict, an organ scholar at Gloucester Cathedral and Harry, a wealthy English industrialist living in New York. Beginning on July 1st 1913 as Europe teetered on the brink of war, we learn what leads each of these men to their involvement in the first day of the Battle of the Somme exactly thr ...more
Jo Barton
Dec 19, 2013 Jo Barton rated it really liked it
This story begins in 1913, on the cusp of WW1, and introduces us four very different young men, whose lives are about to be changed forever by what happens on the First of July 1916, during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I found the book to be a well written account of the horror of warfare and of lives broken and lost in the heat of battle. I liked how the author combined the stories so that we are given the perspective from each of the four men, Frank, Benedict, Jean-Batiste, and Har
Mar 07, 2016 Sue rated it really liked it
Jean-Baptiste Mallet, Benedict Chatto, Harry Sydenham, and Frank Stanton. Four young men who each become caught up in the Battle of the Somme July 1, 1916. None of them know each other and although their paths cross at various points only the reader knows that they're crossing. This WWI historical fiction novel is a grabber. I had mistakenly thought from the blurb that the four would be serving together but that is not the case. Much of the book is the background and path that each took up to t ...more
Harve Lemelin
Mar 27, 2016 Harve Lemelin rated it liked it

The First of July is a novel describing the lives of several characters who end up enlisting to fight in the First World War, prior to the battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. Although the battle of the Somme is central to the novel, very little of the book is dedicated to the actual battle, and the challenges surrounding the battle (beyond the wire not being cut). Second, the perspectives of the characters (British, British-American and French) participating in the battle is somewhat typi
May 07, 2013 Jennifer rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
I've really liked Speller's other books, so I was glad that this was another good read. Following four young men before and as they become cannon fodder during the Great War, Speller does a great job of depicting them, warts and all. Their journey toward the 1st of July is both compelling and heartbreaking - leaving the reader mourning the lads who don't make it all the way through (that's not really a spoiler, surely? I mean, statistically, readers wouldn't/shouldn't assume that they all surviv ...more
Lorin Cary
Dec 14, 2015 Lorin Cary rated it liked it
Four quite different young men (three English, one French) are tracked here, and each ends up near Verdun as the Battle of the Somme begins on July 1, 1916, hence the title. That battle was a turning point in warfare, and the novel provides an anti-war view of how this particular battle changed the lives of these individuals. It's well-written and plotted, and I found myself wanting to know a bit more about the characters---a good sign really. The author switiches points of views (and from third ...more
An enjoyable engaging and at times emotive novel depicting the lives and experiences of four men who are somewhat intertwined in the battle of the Somme in WW1. I felt that the flow of the story was disrupted by the irregular jumping from character to character and leaps in time and location. It caused some slight confusion particular earlier on but this settled to some degree as the plot progressed. The characters are all likeable and I was rooting for each of the four protagonists but I felt t ...more
Tom Gordon
Jan 22, 2014 Tom Gordon rated it really liked it
Well written, characters well defined, nice detail throughout, and I thought those qualities offset the serendipitous way these characters came together. A statistical summary of the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916, is an important bit of information at the end of the book. I've walked on parts of the battlefield, stopped at small, well-tended British cemeteries adjacent to farm fields and seen sprawling monuments to the many who died never knowing that their sacrifice would do ...more
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Sinopsis en Español // Synopsis in Spanish 1 1 Aug 27, 2015 12:49PM  
  • Fear: A Novel of World War I
  • The Cartographer of No Man's Land
  • 1914 Days Of Hope
  • Not So Quiet...
  • The Lie
  • Strange Meeting
  • The Shadow of War (The Great War, #1)
  • Goodbye Piccadilly
  • Cafe Europa: An Edna Ferber Mystery
  • The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century
  • The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse
  • The Travels of Daniel Ascher
  • We Shall Not Sleep (World War I, #5)
  • Brigid of Kildare
  • The Virgin's Spy (Tudor Legacy, #2)
  • Paths of Glory
  • Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918
  • The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I
Elizabeth Speller is a poet and author of four non-fiction books including a biography of Emperor Hadrian, companion guides to Rome and to Athens, and a memoir, Sunlight on the Garden. She has contributed to publications as varied as the Financial Times, Big Issue and Vogue and produced the libretto for a requiem for Linda McCartney, Farewell, composed by Michael Berkeley (OUP). She currently has ...more
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