‘What should we read on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme?’

An article has appeared in the Guardian with the above title. It is not actually about what we should read, but about what they should read, since, after a nod to the better-known war poets, it is mostly about books to give children at the time of the centenary of the Somme. Most highly recommended is the work of Michael Morpurgo, since, according to the author,

he makes it possible for contemporary children to understand better what happened and to understand how it was that teenagers like themselves could handle such dreadful situations.

The author’s highest praise is for Private Peaceful, ‘a remarkable and important book that needs to be read now to remember the Battle of the Somme but also at all times as a reminder of the essential need to preserve peace.’ I have written before about this book’s historical inaccuracies and ludicrous simplifications. It bears very little relation to any ‘truth about the war.’ (Read Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We to get an idea of what a faithful and insightful depiction of the war looks like.)

But of course, when well-meaning people say they want to inform children about the war, they do not generally mean that they want to expose children to historical accuracy, and all the confusion that that might engender. Rather, they want to give them a simple ‘War is bad; preachy people like us are good’ message. Private Peaceful does this job very effectively.

Books like this militate against historical understanding.  Private Peaceful presents its young readers with a black and white world of moral simplification. Anyone who supports the war is nasty; anyone who is nice does not believe in the war. This is of course preposterously inaccurate about the Great War, which was supported, however unwillingly, by the great majority of the population as a righteous, though appallingly costly, battle against the evil of German militarism (and the better writers of the time explored the awkward paradox that you may need militarism to defeat militarism).

Morpurgo’s book propagates the myth of the Great War as a mere exercise in jingoism. The soldiers are innocents, forced to fight, who become the victims of  cruel bullies. Such stories do nothing to prepare children for the complex world that they are growing up in.  They merely encourage a moral complacency – the easy cost-free pacifism of those who are not asked to fight.

So what book would I recommend to young people who want to know about the war? I’d leave depictions of battle to the documentary films, and for reading I’d suggest Rilla of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery. It’s one of the Anne of Green Gables series, and describes the reaction of a small Canadian town to the war in which their young men are fighting.  It has a lot to say about the idealism of the war, and about its cost.  It’s a book to make you think, as well as feel.



  1. Dennis Anderson
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi George.
    What would be on your Battle of the Somme reading list?
    Dennis Anderson
    Dunlap, IL

    • Steve Paradis
      Posted June 29, 2016 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      While George is away from his desk . . . I would recommend the books which incorporate the accounts of the people who actually experienced it. I think Martin Middlebrook stared the ball with “The First Day on the Somme”. Lyn Macdonald’s books do this as well. They set the scene and then let the participants tell their stories. You read the accounts of a diverse group, few if any professional writers, whose stories not not otherwise appear in print.
      Most importantly, they use contemporary letters and diaries, so you follow the story of someone through the battle, and then find at the end they died a month or so later. Nothing makes you feel the loss more than that.

      • Dennis Anderson
        Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. Those books are already in my library.

  2. Roger
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Another – better – reading list: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/28/somme-lyn-macdonald-in-parenthesis-david-jones

  3. Bill
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    A large part of my childhood reading consisted of small pictures of heroic Englishmen delightedly blowing away snarling Germans and bestial Japs, but I can’t say that I ever believed it was a true history of the Second World War. I think it is marginally better that children believe that war is a wasteful conspiracy, rather than an heroic and manly game, even though neither contains much of the truth. Incidentally, my favourite book of a child in WW1 (if so obliquely you hardly notice) is “The Aimer Gate” (third book of Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet).

  4. Posted June 30, 2016 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Steve, Bill and Roger, thanks for these contributions.

    Middlebrook and Macdonald are indeed the best way to understand the experience of the Somme. For a historical overview, Gary Sheffield’s The Somme is good, balancing the disasters of the campaign against its later modest but genuine achievements.

    The second Guardian article highlights David Jones’s In Parenthesis, and quite right too. No other book gives you such a sense of the complex social life of the army, or its voices.

    As for myself, this week I am reading Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push on the Somme, which I found on a market stall a while back. It is a lavishly illustrated book, published by Hutchinson ‘By Arrangement with the War Office’, I think as a sort of gift book for Christmas 1916. The operations are described in fascinating detail, and the tone is overwhelmingly positive, stressing achievements and victories. British losses are underplayed, and the whole battle is presented as an outstanding success. Maybe I’ll write about it more fully later.

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