Book Review: Somme Success by Peter Hart

Somme Success: The Royal Flying Corps and the Battle of the Somme 1916, Peter Hart  - £12.99
Pen and Sword Books, 2015 reprint (Originally published 2001 and 2012)
⭐⭐⭐⭐ - interesting narrative from perspective of pilots' diaries

Peter Hart's Somme Success narrates the role of air warfare throughout the Battle of the Somme, using personal accounts by both the Royal Flying Corps and the German Air Force. Hart strikes a good balance between the voices of those who were there and his own historical analysis of their impact which makes it both an enjoyable narrative read and an interesting assessment on the strength and significance of aeroplanes in the battle.

The First World War was the first war in which aeroplanes had played an important role. The book flows chronologically through the build up of the aerial units towards the battle as well as describing the battle itself. Unlike many books, it doesn't dwell too heavily on the First Day at the cost of in depth analysis of the latter months, placing the emphasis on the five month struggle of battle. The section on build up was quite lengthy, reaching back to the beginning of the war, but this did establish both how and why the British had achieved aerial superiority by the opening of the Battle of the Somme. This did make a large portion of the book repetitive for anyone with a working knowledge of the Royal Flying Corps but it was nonetheless interesting and the well-executed balance of analysis and primary accounts made it engaging.
Aerial Photograph of Guedecourt and Ginchy (IWM Q57677)
It is these oral histories, for which Hart is notable, that really make the book stand out. He incorporates both British Royal Flying Corps and German Air Force accounts, which is particularly interesting in the places where he has compared opposing reports of the same events. There is also a good use of both the tales of the famous Aces - Albert Ball and Oswald Boelcke most notably - and those less remembered today, through the Imperial War Museum's vast archives. Following the same diarists throughout the war, Hart builds them up as if characters in a thrilling film.

The pilots' role was one of vital importance to a battle of the scale of the Somme as they performed reconnaissance and mapping of the front lines. This led to the new form of plane-to-plane combat as both sides sought to shoot their enemy out of the sky. Primitive bombing also began, with the main targets being railheads and supply bases. The pilots' accounts show a fascinating  perspective of the army's progress which they themselves were not able to see on the ground. They could clearly see how far forwards (or not) the Allies were pushing their front line and Hart has included some of their photographs which illustrate the state of No Man’s Land.
British BE2 aeroplane (source)
This is a good book for anyone looking for a different perspective to the Battle of the Somme or interested in narrative and oral histories of the Great War. It is a wonderful overview to aerial combat and a good exploration of air force diaries. Hart makes no attempt to deal with the historiography of war but provides an interesting and valuable narrative of the learning curve of the early days of air warfare which adds to any understanding of the Battle of the Somme.


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