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Forgotten Voices of the Somme: The Most Devastating Battle of the Great War in the Words of Those Who Survived
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Group Reads Archive > July 2016 Forgotten Voices of the Somme by Joshua Levine

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message 1: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
Welcome to July's nonfiction group read of Forgotten Voices of the Somme: The Most Devastating Battle of the Great War in the Words of Those Who Survived by Joshua Levine. Please join us in discussing this book by posting some thoughts on it. What do you think of the characters? The writing? What did you expect going in? Would you recommend this book to others? Etc.

Enjoy!


Barbara While I was watching BBC World News just now, I was surprised to hear David Cameron quoting this section of the book that I just read this morning, about a major who rescued a man from the barbed wire: "He walked as though he was on parade. The Germans never fired a shot at him as he went, they never fired a shot as he went back, and they cheered him as he lifted the man on to his shoulders."


message 3: by Judy (last edited Jul 02, 2016 12:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Fascinating to read accounts which are in the soldiers' own words, taken from the Imperial War Museum's sound archive. They are all so different, both in their experiences and in the way they talk.

At the moment I'm still reading the opening section, about various soldiers' pre-war lives and how they joined up. Quite a bit of black humour, like the man who was a former theological student, Private William Chapman. The person allocating him a posting wasn't sure what that meant but thought it might be something medical, so he found himself assisting in operating theatres where amputations were taking place.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments This quote struck me, from a former tap dancer and clown, Sergeant Jim Davies:

"I was young and stupid, full of patriotism and the Boy's Own Paper. That's what my childhood was based on. I couldn't get into the army quick enough."


Nigeyb I really like these “Forgotten Voices” books. Hearing the voices of those who were there is really instructive and gives a very different perspective to a regular history book. Reading "Forgotten Voices of the Somme: The Most Devastating Battle of the Great War in the Words of Those Who Survived” is a very humbling experience. The cumulative effect of the Somme stories become overwhelming, as many feature death, suffering and violence, however, as Joshua Levine says in the preface, it is the least that we can do to read their stories and understand their sacrifices.

I have a few programmes recorded off the BBC to mark the centenary which I hope to watch soon. I'll report back. I am sure they will further enrich reading this powerful book.


message 6: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
My library doesn't have this one, so I've checked out The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. I haven't had a chance to start it yet. I have to admit that I don't know much about the Somme.


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments Jennifer W wrote: "My library doesn't have this one, so I've checked out The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. I haven't had a chance to start it yet. I have to admit that I don't know m..."

I don't think I do either. I have been contemplating looking at either Strachan's or Keegan's books on WWI and their section on the Somme.

I've only just started the book.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments We hear a lot about the Somme in the UK because so many British soldiers died there - nearly 420,000 dead, missing or wounded.

Here's a link to an article about it:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/...

This article says : "For the French it's Verdun, the Australians and New Zealanders it's Gallipoli.

For the British, however, the single battle that defines the bloody attritional nature of the First World War is the Somme."


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I meant to also post this link which has some figures for the Battle of the Somme:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/...


message 10: by Val (last edited Jul 02, 2016 10:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val This book is good for getting some idea of what it was like to be involved in a battle. There are obviously better ones for understanding it from an overall military perspective, but in this case the losses were so high that the reasons for the attack seem irrelevant.
In the three battles the Independent mentions all the attacks failed (or had very limited success) and all involved great loss of life on both sides.
(De Gaulle tended to play down the successful defence of Verdun after WWII, because he wanted Petain to be regarded as a traitor to France rather than a successful war hero who didn't think the victory worth the cost in human lives. It is still divisive.)


message 11: by Val (last edited Jul 03, 2016 02:28AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val Jennifer W wrote: "What do you think of the characters?
These are short extracts from (mainly) soldiers accounts, too short to get much sense of their characters, but the first section where they say a bit about their lives before joining up shows they came from all walks of life.

The writing?
I think these are written up from taped archives, so each individual's account flows quite well.
I have also read a selection of written accounts On the Front Line: True World War I Stories, which were collected in 1930. These show the individuals' writing styles and shows the varying levels of education and understanding.

What did you expect going in?
What I got, pretty much, but I have heard interviews from the Imperial War Museum archive before reading this.

Would you recommend this book to others?"
Yes, but only to people who already know something about the battle.


message 12: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I came across this little gem: 'In a confidential memorandum, circulated to the War Committee on 1st August, Winston Churchill criticised the incoherent strategy and limited ambition of the campaign'.


message 13: by Dawn (new) - added it

Dawn (goodreadscomdawn_irena) Did anyone catch the ceremony on TV the day that William , Kate, Harry , and the Queen went to France to honor the Recognition of the Somme . I watched it and it was a very sincere and noble ceremony . You could really see hou many people had died by the names listed . There were stories told that day too. I get BBC History Magazine and there was a special issue . I also taped some specials on TV to watch . I will give y'all a review when I get to them . This was the most bloodiest battle and this is not the first book I have read about this beginning . I still read the list of books for our group on WWI which covered about 4 years. The group contains world wide members . The red fields of poppies were in full bloom this past summer in remembrance of those lives lost in WWI . So many young men were so unprepared . In WWII it was really the same way in my feelings .


Nigeyb Thanks Dawn. I also watched that television special, and, like you, found it very moving. Shirley Williams was brilliant. I have also recorded other Somme television programmes to watch soon.


message 15: by Nigeyb (last edited Jul 06, 2016 09:41AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nigeyb Drone reveals Somme battlefields 100 years on - BBC News...


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4e6v...

Battle of the Somme: First day's dead marked with 19,240 figurines - BBC News....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0dHZ...


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments Quite an exhibit.

The soldiers signing at all the stations and on the street must have been something too.


Barbara Judy wrote: "This quote struck me, from a former tap dancer and clown, Sergeant Jim Davies:

"I was young and stupid, full of patriotism and the Boy's Own Paper. That's what my childhood was based on. I couldn'..."


I imagine that was the case for many who joined up, not just in WW1, but in all wars. Ideas of glory and heroism, with no real sense of the reality of war. Norman Collins said "The bravest man was the man who'd never been in the trenches before, because he didn't know what he was getting into." (location 3640) Who could imagine it was going to be as horrible as it was??


Barbara Nigeyb wrote: "Drone reveals Somme battlefields 100 years on - BBC News...


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4e6v...

Battle of the Somme: First day's dead marked with 19,240 figurines - BBC News....

https:/..."


Thanks for these links. Right after looking at the one about Lochnagar Crater, I read about it in this book--certainly made it more real.

And the figurine exhibit--what a moving, meaningful presentation!


Barbara William Holmes said: "I look upon the war as an experience. I got just as much pleasure out of it as I did the bad times. I saw horrific things, but we were so disciplined that we took it all for granted, as though it was normal. When I came back, I was no different from when I went."

I wonder how that is possible? How long after the war did he say this--had the passing of years mellowed his attitude? It seems that it would HAVE to had changed people. Of course, some people are by nature more phlegmatic than others, more emotionally "disciplined"--but still, how could you be no different at all?

I've often been amazed at the ability of the human spirit to endure. Look at all the survivors of the Nazi death camps who went on to have more or less normal lives after the horrors of what they'd seen/experienced. Or kids who suffer from years of parental abuse. Or victims of violent crime. Etc, etc, etc. We are very resilient beings. Fortunately! But I can't believe that you come out of such things unscathed.


message 20: by Judy (last edited Jul 16, 2016 02:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I was very interested in the Verdun section of the book, with comments from the French and German soldiers.

Another bit that startled me was the description of miners who dug the trenches and were separate from the other soldiers - and the terrible incident where two miners were shot dead by an officer for not reacting to his order, even though they weren't usually expected to do so.


message 21: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments More on the miners - just found this page about their experiences of digging tunnels and how dangerous it was.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zggykqt


message 22: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Barbara wrote: "William Holmes said: "I look upon the war as an experience... When I came back, I was no different from when I went."

I agree it would be interesting to know how long after the war he said this - must agree with you that it's very hard to believe he can really have been so unscathed, but clearly he felt able to put a positive interpretation on his experience.

Something else that slightly startled me was a soldier quoting Larry Grayson on a TV show from the 1970s - a reminder of just how long after the event many of these powerful reminiscences were recorded.


message 23: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val The Imperial War Museum Sound Archive was established in 1972, Judy.


message 24: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks, Val, so that means all these were recorded long after the event - but still so vivid.


message 25: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Sorry about the short notice, but there's a 3-part documentary about the Somme starting at 9pm on BBC 2 tonight in the UK, The Somme 1916 - From Both Sides of the Wire

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07lst9t

It's repeated at 11.15pm on Thursday and will also be on iPlayer.


Nigeyb ^ Thanks Judy. My recorder is all set to capture it.


message 27: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments The first episode is about the first day - I've just been reading in the book about how horrific that was, with soldiers just being mown down in whole groups.


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments Judy wrote: "The first episode is about the first day - I've just been reading in the book about how horrific that was, with soldiers just being mown down in whole groups."

What a shame so many of them signed up as pals. During our Civil War the future of entire towns was wiped out because they signed up as units. And it looks like something similar could be happening with these pals units.

I'm still reading - still on the first day.


message 29: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val It was one of those things which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. This was the first major battle for large numbers of wartime volunteer soldiers. They had to live very close together and there was not time for them to get to know each other and build friendships in the same way as in a peacetime army, so it was an advantage if they already knew each other fairly well and got on.
After this battle the army tended to split groups of volunteers (and then later conscripts) up into different companies.


message 30: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Must admit I was a bit disappointed with the first episode of the TV series - an awful lot of footage of the presenter wandering around, and not as many eye-witness accounts as I'd hoped for. Still interesting, though, and the clips from film shot at the time bring home the level of the carnage.


message 31: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I'm still reading this, but it is so heart-rending I've found it hard to read a lot at one sitting. Just read about some of the men who were shot for desertion - there is a powerful account by a padre who had to sit with a man condemned to be shot, then was told after he was killed that he had been one of the bravest soldiers at a previous battle. The accounts by soldiers who had limbs amputated are also horrific.


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments I just read that section this afternoon, too. Touched by the guy who had to fill in on an earlier shift and when the guy came to replace him he was shot. So it was an ironic twist and something that saved him but cost someone else. And sending people back to work before they were fully healed.


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments I've been reading along and most of it hasn't bothered me, although Judy is right about not reading too much at one sitting.

I was brought up a little short this afternoon when I got to a part where they discussed how they buried people - 6 men to a grave. Question for me is: were these temporary graves? Were they dug up and re-buried later?

I know that some years after the war they brought my great-uncle home to be re-buried in Baltimore. I didn't know if this was the same for England. For that matter, I don't know if it was the same for every American or just for special ones (he was decorated).


message 34: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val They were dug up and reburied, but in France and Belgium.
Here are some: http://www.remembering.org.uk/poziere...


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments Thanks, Val.


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments Jan C wrote: "I've been reading along and most of it hasn't bothered me, although Judy is right about not reading too much at one sitting.

I was brought up a little short this afternoon when I got to a part whe..."


I think it was only heroes who were brought back. My sister was just here for a visit and she brought me a packet that included clippings from when my uncle was brought back. This was in 1921. The clippings indicated that the entire regiment (700 men) turned out, flags were at half-staff all along his street, thousands turned out at the church and thousands more at the cemetery. Probably hyperbole about the thousands, but who knows. But it was moving. So if that's how it was here I can only imagine what it must have been like in Britain, with so many lost in the Somme and other places.


Barbara I think, but am not sure, that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission may have forbidden repatriation--in an effort to keep things fair. Since poor soldiers' families wouldn't have the money to bring their loved ones home, it wasn't fair that the wealthy could so it was ordained that No one could. Pretty sure I read that somewhere....


message 39: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks, Jan, Val and Barbara, that's very interesting. Reading down the thread you linked to, Barbara, there is a lot of detail about the rules in different countries, which explains how repatriation was banned in the UK but not in the US.


message 40: by Val (new) - rated it 3 stars

Val I don't think most ordinary soldiers' families would have expected the bodies to be repatriated. Marking the individual graves at all was unusual before WWI and burial was more about hygiene than commemoration. (So was the Royal Navy's practice of burial at sea.) Officers were more likely to have grave markers, but even those were usually buried where they died.
http://www.britishempire.co.uk/forces...
http://www.victorianwars.com/viewtopi...
http://www.greatwar.co.uk/war-graves/...


Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments I finally finished this afternoon. Just a little bit late this time.

I found it very effective. But, also, something that I didn't want to read too much of at any one time.


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