Paul Reed, author of Walking the Somme.
You have become a leading name in military history, where did your interest in the field come from?
Some of my earliest memories are my father talking about Anzio where he fought, and my grandmother remembering the chalk-covered wounded coming back from the Somme. Anyone like me who grew up in the 1970s had a diet of war comics and Airfix kits, so there was plenty of inspiration. I think I must have read almost every military history book in our local library! I was also lucky to have good history teachers who encouraged me to actively interview Great War veterans and finally took me across to the battlefields; something I am forever grateful for.
Do you remember the first time you ever visited the battlefields of the Somme? What effect did the experience have on you?
My first visit to the Somme was more than thirty years ago. I came by train and can picture now that journey from Amiens where the panorama of Albert dominated by the famous Basilica spreads out before you. The Somme back then had hardly changed since the 1920s and the corners of fields held old helmets and rusty rifles, and there were far more trench remains than now. We walked everywhere on that first visit; and even then I knew that someday I had to express all this in writing.
How did you get started as a battlefield guide?
I’ve been working as a guide since I was at university; this year is my twenty-fifth of guiding groups around both WW1 and WW2 battlefields; I’ve lost count as to exactly how many, but it is more than 15,000 people who have travelled with me now. I started by doing tours for friends and then did my own for a while until I was head-hunted by Leger Holidays in the mid-1990s; since then we have taken the company to being the largest battlefield tour operator in the UK.
Do you have a favourite place on the battlefields to visit?
One place I never tire of visiting, or taking people to, is Hawthorn Ridge on the Somme. There you can see a vast panorama of the Northern Somme battlefield and buried in a small cemetery in the old No Man’s Land is Eric Heaton, who died there as a young officer on 1 July 1916. I knew his sister and his story stands for them all; a symbol of the best of his generation, of hope of what was to come, cut short by the cruel hand of war; his family forever living in his shadow. I’ve been there at dawn, at dusk and on a cold winter’s morning; it really is a special place where you can almost reach out and touch the past that the Somme still resonates with.
What made you decide to re-release Walking the Somme? Have there been big changes in the region since the book was first published?
I actually wrote Walking the Somme in the early 1990s and in more than twenty years much has changed in the area; partly influencing that change and how we see the war is of course the internet, and I was able to add detail to the new edition from sources now online that were just not available when I first published it. The tracks and dusty lanes are all still there, but the amount of macro-detail we have now is staggering; it has never been a better time to be a military historian.
You are very active on Twitter do you find that social media benefits you in your work?
I realized very early on that Twitter was another way to engage with a history audience in the same way books and television can do; but in a much more direct way. The interest in history has grown incredibly on Twitter in the past couple of years and I’m amazed that my average tweet (@SommeCourt) now gets re-tweeted several thousand times a day! I like the way I can quickly and easily talk with people who have read my books, and how we can break news about the subject in a way that was not possible a few years ago. I also think that historians should be ‘available’ to their public and I very much enjoy some of the discussions we’ve had on there. I like to think I’m an ‘accessible’ historian in every way, and Twitter is a big part of that.
You have now written six books on the Great War, how do you go about researching the subject and finding original material to work with?
I start every book in the archives; finding first hand accounts, contemporary accounts from war diaries and unit histories, and then follow that with research on the ground, to make sense of it all. I am lucky that I have been collecting Great War material since I was at school so I have a large personal archive to fall back on. I try to use as many original images as possible, and I’ve sourced those in collections right across Europe as well as from my own archive. The research phase of a book is fascinating, as the most unexpected material often turns up – but I still very much enjoy putting it all together in the writing stage as well.
You also work as a consultant for various historical television shows, do you prefer this to writing books and leading battlefield tours?
To be successful as a
professional military historian you have to multi-task; one thing alone rarely
earns you a living, so I enjoy the broad nature of my work; one week writing,
another showing a Producer round the battlefields and another talking on-camera.
History is for everyone and I see all these facets of my work as a way of not
just engaging with the subject but with the audience that history draws in, and
that is important.
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment and what you have coming up for 2012?
I have just finished
the first of my WW2 walking guides for Pen and Sword, Walking D-Day, which
will be published this Spring; the start of a new walking trilogy. I am also
revising Walking the Salient in the same way I did with the Somme title, and I
have several TV projects in the pipeline. In terms of the Great War these will
be following a major archaeology project with 360 Production for the BBC and
working with my old friend Dan Snow on a programme he is doing on the Battle of
the Ancre film for the Imperial War Museum.
For first time visitors to the Somme, what would be your advice when planning an itinerary?
Think about what you
want to get from the experience and do not try to fit in too much. Start small,
and spend time in places; you need time to wander and reflect – the first time
you see all those names on the Thiepval Memorial it is hard to consider each one
was a life lived, and a death on the battlefields. Make the preserved trenches
in the Newfoundland Park a priority, see the Thiepval Memorial and its excellent
visitors centre, and for a wider view I would always recommend the Historial
museum at Peronne. Also – speak to people you see. I learned a lot by asking
questions in my early visits, and I have met some fascinating individuals on my
travels round the Somme. The staff at the Thiepval Centre are very friendly, for
example, and are always pleased to assist.
Do you have any other tips or advice for battlefield travellers?
My advice for any battlefield traveller is always do your homework. Don’t turn up blind, as even in the internet age you can miss so much. Get some guide books, look at some websites and have a rough plan – but not a rigid one, as some places may fascinate you more than others. Think about a guided tour as having a guide can help put it all in the picture, but choose your tour wisely; the Somme Tourism authorities have a Somme Battlefield Partners Programme now listing local companies that meet the criteria of the scheme; and I am sure places like Flanders will introduce similar projects as the visitor numbers expand. Finally, don’t read too much before you go; visit, look and listen, and then return and pick up the books; they will make so much more sense.
Do you have big plans for the upcoming Great War Centenary?
I have just launched my Centenary website – Great War Photos – but I am also in the early stages of developing a number of television ideas and planning a couple of book ideas. One thing I would like to see come out of the Centenary is a greater involvement from and understanding of the German side. This should include everything from attending commemorations and paying respects for the German dead, to educating the wider German public into just what a sacrifice was made and how it fits into modern German history. Historians like Jack Sheldon and Ralph Whitehead have paved the way with German accounts of the war, and I sincerely hope we will see many more between 2014 and 2018.