THE SOMME, by Richard van Emden. Published by Pen and Sword Military ( £25. Hardback. Tel: 01226 734222

THE Battle of the Somme during the First World War involved a four-and-a-half-month campaign fought on the rolling slopes of Picardy from July to mid-November 1916, which cost Britain and her allies 650,000 casualties. No city, town or village would escape the terrible repercussions of an offensive unparalleled in British history for its longevity and ferocity.

The British occupied the Somme for nearly a year before the offensive began and for four months after it officially ceased. Here, the pre-eminent historian author tells the 20-month long story using a wide collection of soldiers’ recollections – including new and rarely read first-hand accounts of the fighting by the men themselves – and nearly 170 photographs taken by combatants on their own illegally-held cameras, many of which have never been previously published.

In a letter to his mother written before the battle commenced, Lieutenant Alex Thompson, of the 1/6th Northumberland Fusiliers, said: “Well, we are now just about ready for the biggest fight in the history of the world. No-one knows what will happen after tomorrow.”

After the battle began, Lieutenant Arthur Terry of the 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers, wrote: “The casualties have been very heavy so far as we can learn, but the majority of the damage seems to have been done by machine guns so there is good hope of a very large percentage making a good recovery.

“Major Mackintosh is supposed to be wounded and lying out on the field still. They cannot get him on account of snipers. As for the men, I daren’t think of the losses.” The next day he recorded “Major Mackintosh turned up this morning with his right arm shattered and a nasty wound on the chest. His physical strength and willpower enabled him to get to the ambulance on his own but it must have been absolute torture for him.”

Recounting his first impressions on arriving at the Front, Lance Corporal George Brown of the 21st Northumberland Fusiliers (2nd Tyneside Scottish) said: “Most of the men had cigarettes hanging from their lower lips and their conversation consisted of a series of grunts. They are down and out. No spirit, no cheerfulness. These fellows have suffered and their memories are too vivid to be brushed aside, too near to be laughed away.”

And Captain Philip Gosse, Royal Army Medical Corps, 10th Northumberland Fusiliers, wrote about his close shave with an incoming shell as he was tending a wounded German soldier. “I was bandaging him when suddenly we heard the awful scream of a huge shell approaching. There was a terrific crash and explosion, the dugout shook and daylight was blotted out. When the light returned I found myself lying on the floor closely embracing and as closely embraced by my German prisoner. Perhaps it was the reaction from acute terror to the absurdity of the situation which made us both laugh and laugh again. Fear makes strange bedfellows.