By Martin Middlebrook
The name of Martin Middlebrook is inseparable from the name of the Somme. Nobody visiting the battlefield will be unaware of his ground-breaking work, The First Day on the Somme, first published nearly fifty years ago. It is still, to this day, an essential reference book. In this article, specially written for Lochnagar Crater Today, Martin recalls a strange encounter at Lochnagar Crater.
It was probably in the summer of 1969. I had first visited the Somme with a friend in 1967, after which I decided to write a book, The First Day on the Somme, and I was making the final preparations for its publication in 1971, travelling alone in France to check up on some of the details of places I intended to include in an appendix – A Tour of the Somme Battlefield. It would be the last opportunity I would have before the publisher commenced the publication process.
On an earlier solo visit, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Arras had kindly provided me with a guide, Bill Dunkow, a retired or semi-retired CWGC employee who stayed on in France for many years after retirement. He was a genial and helpful man, who had been of much help to me on earlier visits.
After my solitary visit to the Crater, I walked round it to where I had parked my car. It was then that I met newcomers – Bill Dunkow and another visitor.
Bill introduced me to the stranger.
The new visitor was a nephew of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had commanded the Fourth Army throughout the 1916 Battle of the Somme! We exchanged a few polite words –nothing of any great importance – and then went our separate ways.
End of story – or was it?
General Sir Henry Rawlinson
I don’t remember encountering any other British visitors on that trip, nor on any of my earlier trips to the Somme since my first in 1967.
But I have a friend, Robin Thorne, who likes to visit the Somme on every tenth anniversary. Over lunch with him in 2016, he brought the well-used paperback copy of The First Day on the Somme, which he liked me to re-autograph on his anniversary visits to the battlefield. He rather took me aback when he said: ‘Martin, there’s a mistake in your book’ – not what an author likes to hear. I challenged him to point out the error. He was right. There it was on page 314. After writing of the many pilgrimages in the 1920s and early 30s, I had written: ‘There are few visitors to the Somme now’ without commenting that things might change.
As a small example of how I was going to be proved wrong, on a previous battlefield trip, I was dining with a tour group at the Hotel de la Basilique in Albert on the eve of another tenth anniversary, when Robin and his wife pulled up in their car outside. ‘Martin – can you help me?’ said Robin. ‘I can’t find anywhere with a vacant room’ – a good example of my failure to foresee the rise in visitor numbers after the publication of my book.
Fortunately for Robin and his wife, I arranged for the Basilique’s chef to offer them a spare room that I had sometimes used at his home nearby.
After many reprints, that erroneous statement about the absence of visitors to the Somme still remains in The First Day on the Somme.
Martin hasn’t changed that comment about the lack of visitors in subsequent editions because that was what he observed when he did his research and when the book was published in 1971. At the time, he hoped the publication of The First Day on the Somme would stimulate more visits – but even he admits he’s now surprised at the scale of interest. The number of visits each year is numbered in hundreds of thousands.
The First Day on the Somme was Martin’s first book, published in 1971.
Since then, until 2011, he has published: The Nuremberg Raid; Convoy; The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse (with the late Patrick Mahoney); The Kaiser’s Battle; Firestorm Hamburg; The Peenemunde Raid; The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission; The Bomber Command War Diaries (with the late Chris Everitt); The Falklands War; The Berlin Raids; The Argentine Fight for the Falklands; The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields (with the late Mary Middlebrook); Arnhem, 1944; Your Country Needs You; Captain Staniland’s Journey; The War Dead of Twyning Parish; A Sergeant-Major’s Death.