The Writing of The First Day on the Somme

Posted on Thursday 27th June 2013

The First Day on the Somme was first published in 1971, and remains in print to this day. It was the first of 16 military history books by Martin Middlebrook, and was a book that Martin never actually intended to write. Here is the story of Martin's beginnings in military history research, and how he became an 'accidental author'.
It started in September 1967. I was 35 years old, a businessman, a family man with three daughters, living in the town of Boston, Lincolnshire.
My father and his brother were both too young to have served in the First World War. My mother was only eleven years old in 1914, the youngest of six children. In my own childhood she told me many stories of the deep effect the war had on her family.
Her eldest sister, my Aunt ‘Ettie’, was in Belgium when war broke out, working as governess to the daughter of a wealthy family at Mons. She was trapped in Belgium, under strict German supervision for most of the war, an anxious period for her family with another English lady in Belgium at that time, Edith Cavell, being executed by the Germans.
Her eldest brother, my Uncle Andrew, was a pre-war Territorial who went to Belgium in March 1915 as a Platoon Sergeant in the 4th Lincolns, was severely wounded in the stomach by a ‘whizz-bang’ near Armagh Wood in early October 1915, and died a few days later at Remi Farm near Poperinge. He is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
A second, brother, Uncle ‘Charlie’, joined up in Kitchener’s Army, serving in the 8th Gloucesters, 19th (Western) Division until he was captured in the March Offensive in 1918. He was slightly gassed at the time of his capture, which did not prevent the Germans from putting him to work in a coalmine. He is said to have thrown his medals away as a protest at the neglect of the 1914-18 servicemen after the war. He died from the chronic bronchitis that his touch of gas in March 1918 had given him.
This introduction illustrates how a youngster born in 1932 became so intrigued by the First World War while living right through the Second. As a boy I was an avid reader of war books and stories in comics. Who remembers ‘Biggles’ (Captain Bigglesworth, RFC) and ‘Rockfist Rogan RAF’; was it in the Hotspur that the latter performed his heroics? Later I read most of the First World War books published in the 1960s but, while they gave me a good working knowledge of the progress of the war, they seemed to describe little more than the decisions of generals and the movements and actions of units no smaller than divisions; they contained little of the experiences of the ordinary soldiers.
I later found two books that were more enlightening on those aspects. They were The General by C. S. Forester, published in 1936, and Covenant with Death by John Harris who had interviewed men from his native Sheffield’s City Battalion of Kitchener’s Army and whose book appeared in 1961. But these books were fiction. Did they reliably portray the factual background? I came to accept that not only were the underlying stories accurately told, but they brilliantly portrayed their respective views of the war – the one looking at the conflict from the top looking down and the other from the bottom looking up. I have never deviated from the view that these are the two best books on the First World War and would recommend them to any newcomer wishing to start their study of that war.
I left school at the age of seventeen after a sound basic education. It was my own choice to leave; I was not naturally academic. I went to work in my father’s wholesale potato merchant business. I did my National Service, escaping being sent to Korea as a private soldier in the Leicesters because of my colour-blindness, and became a Second Lieutenant in the RASC. I was posted to the Middle East, becoming a Transport Platoon Commander, first at Aquaba in the Jordan (Lawrence of Arabia country) and then in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt (boring). I never heard a shot fired in anger.

how about a trip to the battlefields?
I have a good friend named John Howlett, who also had strong family links to the First World War. His mother, a Manchester-born lady, had lost her fiancée. He was Private Harry McLinden, 17th Manchesters (2nd Manchester Pals). He took part in the first day of the 1916 Somme battle but was killed on 22 April 1917 at Héninel near Arras. He has no known grave. The bereaved lady became a nurse at Southport Royal Infirmary where she nursed Private George Howlett, from Hull, who had been twice wounded while serving in the East Yorkshires – 8th and 7th Battalions. The nurse married George Howlett and my friend was part of their family brought up in Hull. John and I soon discovered out common interest in the First World War and in September 1967, we made our first trip to the battlefields.
We set off in my Morris 1100 and ‘did’ Verdun, the Somme, Arras and Ypres, with a side visit to Mailly-le-Camp where a close friend of my family, a Lancaster navigator, had been shot down in May 1944. I think we had just five days for the whole journey. There were no motorways between Boston and Dover (200 miles) or between Calais and Verdun. We had no guidebooks, only a series of place names that were known to us from our reading of war books, although I did know where my uncle Andrew was buried and John knew approximately where Harry McLinden had been killed.
We crossed the Channel and reached Arras in the evening. We treated ourselves to dinner at the Restaurant des Arcades overlooking the Grande Place. We continued our journey through the first part of the night to Verdun. We passed signposts to places made famous in the two world wars. We drove along roads on which I imagined that German Panzers had swept through in 1940. In the early hours we stopped and slept a few hours in the car parked on a track by a canal. Next morning, we brewed up, had a shave (that is John in the photograph), went into Verdun and had breakfast. We spent the rest of the day on the Verdun battlefield visiting the obvious places – Fort Douamont, the Ossuary, the Trench of Bayonets and the lost village of Fleury. The Museum at Fleury had not been built then; I was thrilled to find a complete French rifle cartridge in the village ruins.
We went on to complete the full programme but in the most sketchy and haphazard of ways. John found a cemetery near Héninel where there were six graves marked as unidentified Manchesters; there was strong evidence that one of them was Harry McLinden’s. I visited the graves of the Lancaster navigator and of my uncle at Poperinge. I do not remember seeing any other British visitors during the tour.

the effects of the tour
Although my family interest was unconnected with the Somme, it was this part of the tour that left me deeply and emotionally impressed – the open nature of the battlefield, not only the large number of cemeteries but their constantly varying sizes and designs, the large number of unidentified graves, the sheer number of dead in such a small area of ground. I had imagined that The Battle of the Somme was a sweeping affair over a large area of ground. I was amazed that we could drive from La Boisselle to the Butte of Warlencourt in just a few minutes.
We had approached Albert, where we intended to spend two nights, from the direction of Péronne. On the way in we visited the Gordon Cemetery and then the Devonshire Cemetery. Virtually every headstone was marked as ‘1st July 1916’. I was particularly moved to find myself looking at the graves of six Gordons’ subalterns buried together in the corner of their cemetery. I had spent a year of my National Service in the close company of fellow subalterns and could hardly visualise the sadness of having six comrades killed in one morning.
Moving on to other cemeteries next day, we saw the date ‘1st July 1916’ many more times. I think that no one can realise the scale of the disaster that day until they have seen the cemeteries in which the men killed that day are buried.
We returned home. There was one amusing sequel. We had found various souvenirs and kept them in a bag. After a few days showing them to my friends, the bag went to John’s house. One day a scrap merchant came looking for unwanted items. The cleaning lady gave the entire collection to him. That was the only light note. I told everyone who would listen about the tour. I scraped some dried Somme mud from my walking shoes and regarded it almost as a religious relic. Whatever happened in my future life, that visit to the Somme would be a turning point. To find out more became an obsession.

'I'm going to write a book about the somme'
In April 1968, I decided to re-read John Harris’s Covenant with Death. Most of my reading is done in bed at night. I can remember clearly closing the last page and saying to my wife, ‘I’m going to write a book about the Somme, through the eyes of the ordinary soldiers.’ The primary reason for this declaration was not that I had any hope of the book being published but that, if I said I was writing a book, I would have an acceptable reason for approaching the sources of research and the men who were in the battle. I soon refined my exact approach. Where John Harris had written a fictionalised version of the experiences of one battalion, I would cover just the first day of the Somme but cover all of the British units that took part. The possibility of covering the German side was nowhere remotely in that early plan.
I have to explain at this point that a year earlier I had been elected a member of the British Egg Marketing Board and I attended meetings in London about twice a month, with First Class rail travel and overnight hotel expenses provided. Those benefits would prove to be valuable assets. Very soon after my bedtime decision I was in the train to London and took out a large plan of an Egg Exhibition due to be held at Leicester. On the back I made a list of headings for my proposed book. (I kept the plan for many years but cannot lay my hands on it now.) I already had a very clear and simple title: The First Day on the Somme. I have never regretted that choice.
The first doubt crept in. I had left school at seventeen and had written nothing longer than a business letter for nearly twenty years. How could I write a book? I went to my friend John Howlett – a University Graduate, a College Lecturer. Would he like to join me? I had the time and opportunity to do the research; he would do the writing but we would share the credits if the book ever came to be published. John was enthusiastic and agreed. We even had some letterheads printed with The First Day on the Somme emblazoned across the top along with both of our names and addresses.

the research
I set to work on my share of the work. On my next visit to London I went to the Imperial War Museum, stated that I wanted to research a book and ‘Please, can you help?’ The answer is well remembered, ‘You had better see our Miss Coombs’.
I was shown into her office. Sitting at an untidy desk was a dumpy lady, smoking. But she had a nice smile and was both patient and helpful. She told me two things that immediately set me on the right path: that I should concentrate on research from ‘original sources’ (an unknown phrase to a poultry farmer), and that the best place for this was the Public Record Office (equally unknown). Before parting she said she would give me a final piece of advice: ‘When you have so much good material that it is breaking your heart that you can’t find room for it all, you might, just might, succeed in writing your book’.
I did not realise at the time that it was my first meeting with a lady who would become one of the most respected and knowledgeable of Western Front enthusiasts. Such people numbered only a handful at that time. I was to count her as a close friend and helper for the rest of her life that was ended prematurely by her addiction to tobacco – but she did enjoy life and gave great pleasure to all who knew her.
There now occurred a combination of circumstances that proved to be so fortunate to my objective. Under the ‘Fifty-Year Rule’, the official documents of the First World War period had just been released at the Public Record Office; few researchers had as yet touched them. Furthermore, in those days the PRO was located in Chancery Lane, a short distance from my regular hotel in London and from the Egg Marketing Board offices. Board meetings started at 10.00am. The first train from Boston did not reach London until just after that time. I had been told that I was to travel the previous day, stay the night in a hotel, and be on time for meetings. I found that, by catching the first train from Boston on Day One, I could be in the Public Record Office by 10.30am and work there until closing time. The Egg Board meeting on Day Two was usually concluded by lunchtime. A further afternoon’s research followed and then the train home to Boston.
In this way I managed a day and a half’s research in Rose Coombs’s ‘original sources’ at no expense to myself and with no extra travelling involved. I found that there were bulky files on every formation from GHQ, through Fourth Army, then Corps, Divisions and Brigades down to Battalion level. I will not pretend that I looked at every file. The Official History was based on many of those files so, after looking at the higher levels of command, the only need was to investigate individual points as they arose.
Enter onto the scene one Patrick Mahoney. I had started to seek out men who had been involved in ‘the first day’ and the London Evening News was one of many local newspapers that published my appeals. I think it was published in London on a Friday evening. That evening a man called Patrick Mahoney telephoned to say that he was very interested in the First World War and how could he help? He arrived on my doorstep next morning. Patrick was a bachelor, living at Chadwell Heath in Essex, and worked permanent night shifts in the Post Office’s International Telegraph Department. He needed little sleep at home (he slept quite a lot at work when telegraph traffic was quiet); his days were free and he knew where the Public Record Office was. I sent him there with my next list of tasks.
Patrick turned out to be a brilliant researcher and took over most of my PRO work. Not only did he see to all my requests but also, by trawling various files that I would not have had time for, he frequently found interesting items that I would not have discovered. For the next two years he carried out any task in London that I requested. The only recompense that he asked for was that I would one day take him to the Somme.
The combination of Public Record Office and Official History research, together with the many published battalion histories, eventually gave me a more than satisfactory accumulation of original source material and, thus, a firm framework on which to base interviews with the participants of the battle. There was much that was new but, with two exceptions, there was nothing startling. I have always contended that, although The First Day on the Somme allowed a mass of soldiers to tell of their experiences for the first time, the book contains only two fresh contributions to military history.
The first came when I studied file WO95/447 at the PRO; it contained the Fourth Army’s Director of Medical Services documents. General Rawlinson had obviously insisted that the correspondence concerning the Ambulance Train failure be preserved. I later sent special ‘medical evacuation’ questionnaires to about 150 men who had been wounded on 1 July 1916, asking for the details of their experiences. The subsequent story appears in the book.
The second contribution was the disclosure that a copy of the so-called Rawlinson Diaries available to the public at an Army museum at Camberley was not the original version of his diaries. Patrick Mahoney went there on my behalf and advised me that I should examine the original in the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge. I did so and found that Rawlinson had revised many passages, putting himself in a better light, before releasing the typewritten version to public examination.

obtaining the soldiers' stories
A golden rule, that admittedly took more than one book to establish, is that contacting potential contributors should not start until all research is complete. For The First Day on the Somme there was some overlapping, but the following notes will assume that most research was complete at this stage.
I had always said that I would not be satisfied unless I could find at least a hundred men who had taken part in the attack on that first day on the Somme to obtain their personal contributions. Fortunately the only Empire infantry effort involved was the Newfoundland Regiment – just one battalion. As for any contribution from German soldiers, that would have to wait.
A dual policy evolved. Men who lived within a reasonable travelling distance from Boston, or in the course of journeys connected with my poultry business, would be seen personally, mainly by me because that was my part of the proposed division of work between John and myself at that time. For more distant men, I produced a carefully prepared questionnaire. On the front were basic questions about the man’s pre-war occupation, his date of enlistment and unit, questions about when he crossed to the Western Front, whether wounded or prisoner of war, date of release, post-war occupation. On the rear was just a simple question asking the man to write out at whatever length he wished what he personally had experienced in the immediate run-up to the battle and on the day itself. That questionnaire would have to suffice for men I could not reach for personal visits.
I sat down at the kitchen table and typed letters to newspapers, mainly to local ones. (The typing was done with one finger; 35 years later it is still one-fingered. I never did learn to type properly.) Each letter was tailored to the local involvement of an area. The nature of county regiment areas and particularly of the Kitchener Pals battalions made this easy.
The response was amazing. Approximately 500 men responded to that first round of appeals. I started interviewing. The first was Private H. Kemp of the Grimsby Chums. To me he was ‘Mister Kemp’ a dignified man who lived over the road from my childhood home in Boston. The crippled leg I had grown used to seeing had been earned in front of La Boisselle. His was the first of many vivid stories that would become available for the book.
I must generalise over the experience of visiting such men in the following year. It was fascinating to be able to talk to so many who had been there on that first day. I evolved a simple method of interviewing which, with almost no change, was to last me for the next 30 years.
Before asking any questions I spread out the appropriate corps map from the Official History and produced the relevant battalion file I had prepared. I checked his battalion, brigade and division, showed him where the battalion was on the map, told him the name of his battalion commander and, sometimes, of his company commander, and then gave a rough summary of what had happened to the battalion on that first day.
This initial procedure had several benefits. It screened out the occasional man who was not involved on July the First but who had contacted me out of curiosity or boredom or confusion; if that was the case I terminated the meeting as gracefully as possible. If the man was genuine, it told him that I was someone who had carried out the necessary preparatory work and this invariably gave him the confidence to share what might be an intimate and distressing story with someone who would use it in a responsible manner. I was also often able to tell him things he did not know or understand.
I have never used a tape recorder. I think that it makes the scene too formal; there is the risk that the man starts thinking about his answers instead of talking naturally. Also, I have occasionally been sent tapes by post and find that they take a huge amount of time to transcribe for the small amount of usable material, if any, that they contain. What I wanted from my meetings with the Somme men were specific stories of limited length that I knew I could use. I would chat to him as informally as possible until I reached the point where I needed something written. I would then ask him to tell that part of the story carefully while I scribbled it down as fast as I could. I developed a rough shorthand: NML was No Man's Land; BFLT or GFLT was the British or German front-line trench; there were many more.
The other technique I developed was always to sit at the end of my questioning and allow the man to chat on. He would often mention something that I had not thought of covering. Down it would go on paper. Finally, after I had packed my papers away, a man might express some deep, very personal, intimate thought that he assumed I would not need or use. What I did then was leave, drive away out of sight, park and record that last comment on paper. If I thought that the man would not object to seeing it in the book in the context of similar material, I used it; if not, it would be included but not under his name. When the book was published not one man complained that I had betrayed his confidence. (I did have three complaints. One man said I had not written enough about his division; a second, not enough about his battalion; the third, not enough about him!)
Over a period of about a year, I met about 100 of the men. As with my good fortune in having access to the recently released documents in the Public Record Office, I was lucky again to catch these men at just the right age – retired and with time to spare for daytime interviews (unlike many of the Second World War men I would meet in the next three books), and still young enough to have clear memories. I hesitate to use the term ‘veterans’ because I am now in my early seventies, the same age as the Somme men were at that time. From some of the men I met I gained very little, but from many there were the vivid stories you will see in the book. If I came away with no more than two or three paragraphs of usable material I was well satisfied.

the postal questionnaires
Meanwhile the postal questionnaire campaign was being waged to approximately 300 men who had offered their help: most of them were in the more distant parts of the country. It was a very simple and economical process – a friendly covering letter, the questionnaire and a stamped return envelope were all that was needed.
About 10 per cent of the men did not reply. The efforts of those that did varied enormously. Many contained little quotable material, but they did contribute to the steady build up of my ‘feel’ for the subject and they eventually gave the men who had taken part in the battle on that day an acknowledgement in the book which became a source of pride to him and his family. Other replies contained useful small items. If a contribution showed obvious potential for more material, I was sometimes able to include the man in a later interviewing tour.
But the big surprise was that there were a number of well-written contributions, extracts from which would form a major part of the book. These men were from a generation that had received a sound basic education and then often been employed in clerical positions that required the preparing of reports. I felt that they were ready, in their retirement, quietly to set down their experiences of what had been a traumatic episode in their lives for a stranger who seemed to have a serious interest in it. I had the feeling they were telling me things they had never spoken of before.

the writing - a false start
I had come to the end of my period of preparation – without any advice except that given to me at the outset by Rose Coombs, made up, often in muddled manner, as I went along. I had expended far more in effort and expense than I had ever imagined, but my poultry business subsidised both my time and expense. I had already fulfilled my first ambition, carrying out research and talking to the men who had taken part in that day, the graves of whose dead had so moved me on the visit to the Somme with John Howlett. He had been kept in touch with all the work so far and had actually done some interviewing in Manchester where his mother and her dead fiancée had lived. He declared himself ready to start writing once I had sorted the material into some sort of usable order.
I found the task of sorting the material ready for writing an enjoyable challenge but it would be tedious to go into detail. The notes for the first chapter – The Men – were handed over to John.
It seemed a tremendous setback at the time, but the whole basis of our partnership did not work. John did write the chapter but we both agreed at once that it was not a success. The reasons were not difficult to identify. I had carried out the research and nearly all the interviewing, and had become deeply immersed in the subject; I had a strong ‘feel’ for it. I had left my poultry business in the hands of a capable manager. By contrast, John was Head of a Department at a recently established local College of Further Education and his family of young children was larger than mine.
It was mutually agreed that John would not write the book. I must pay the greatest tribute to him that he accepted this disappointment without any resentment. If the original plan had worked, The First Day on the Somme would have been published showing it to be ‘by John Howlett and Martin Middlebrook’, with most of the public credit going to John. He has remained a close friend and loyal supporter of my work right up to the present day. He has also proved that he is far from being short of literary talent, having since written and produced a series of plays for young people.
I now found myself in a dilemma. I had a mass of material that I was confident could be turned into a book. Other people like John Howlett and Patrick Mahoney had also expended a lot of their time. About 400 old soldiers had trusted me with their memories and their hopes of seeing a publication. But I had no confidence in my ability to write a book; I had only said I would do so originally in order to gain access to research sources and talk to the men who had been on the Somme. I had written nothing longer than a business letter in more than twenty years.
I started to consider who did I know who was able to do the job and might be persuaded to give up an unknown quantity of spare time to write a book that might never be published? I thought seriously about a lady schoolteacher from Blackpool. Nina Hodgson was the wife of an old Army friend from my National Service days in Egypt. I had stayed with them when interviewing in the Blackpool area and she had seemed interested in what I was doing. Before approaching Nina I discussed the problem with my wife. Mary made a completely unexpected suggestion. ‘Why don’t you have a go at writing it yourself?’
And that is what I did.
a note from tom morgan of the hellfire corner website:
I have always been a fan of Martin Middlebrook's book, The First Day on the Somme. When I bought my first copy - over 30 years ago now - it gripped my attention from the first page and it is the only book that I have ever read from start to finish, in one go. I stayed up all night to do it. That was in 1971. Earlier this year I heard that Martin Middlebrook was to retire from writing and guiding, so I wrote to him to ask if he would tell me the story behind the writing of the book. After all, I thought, a book which has made such an impression as this one must have a history of its own, and I would like to know it. Martin Middlebrook's answer to my question eventually took written form, and I'm very grateful to him for allowing me to publish it on the Hellfire Corner Great War web pages, so that others can read the story for themselves.

John Howlett with Martin Middlebrook's Morris 1100 on their first WW1 battlefield tour.

'We set of fin my Morriss 1100 and "did" Verdun, the Somme, Arras and Ypres... There were no motorways between Boston and Dover or between Calais and Verdun. We had no guidebooks, only a series of place names that were known to us from our reading of war books... I do not remember seeing any other British visitors during the tour.'

'I never used a tape recorder. I think that makes the scene too formal; there is the risk that the man starts thinking about his answers instead of talking naturally... What I wanted from my meetings with the Somme men were specific stories of limited length that I knew I could use. A technique I developed was always to sit at the end of my questioning and allow the man to chat on. He would often mention something that I had not thought of covering.'

other titles by martin middlebrook

After The First Day on the Somme, Martin Middlebrook wrote The Nuremberg Raid, Convoy, The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse (with Patrick Mahoney), The Kaiser’s Battle, The Battle of Hamburg, The Peenemünde Raid, The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, The Bomber Command War Diaries (with the late Chris Everitt), Operation Corporate – The Falklands War, The Berlin Raids, The Argentine Fight for the Falklands, The Somme Battlefields (with Mary Middlebrook), Arnhem 1944, Your Country Needs You, Captain Staniland’s Journey.

A copy of a Great War books chart compiled by the Western Front Association, with The First Day on the Somme as number one.

Further Reading

The First Day on the Somme
(Hardback - 352 pages)
ISBN: 9781844154654

by Martin Middlebrook
Only £19.99

After an immense but useless bombardment, at 7.30 am. On 1 July 1916 the British Army went over the top and attacked the German trenches. It was the first day of the battle of the Somme, and on that day the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, two for every yard of their front. With more than fifty times the daily losses at El Alamein and fifteen times the British casualties on D-day, 1 July 1916 was the blackest day in the history of the British Army. But, more than that,…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

To find out more about Martin Middlebrook and the story behind The First Day on the Somme, see part two of this article.

Of further interest...