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The Great War story that so fascinated a military historian

Great Wars author Martin Middlebrook with his revised edition of his book The First Day on The Somme.''Picture Mark Westley ANL-161005-171411009
Great Wars author Martin Middlebrook with his revised edition of his book The First Day on The Somme.''Picture Mark Westley ANL-161005-171411009

Military historian Martin Middlebrook has a busy time ahead over the next few months.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of The Somme (July to November 1916) and the 84-year-old Cavendish historian and author is about to embark on a series of public talks, taking place all over the UK.

Great Wars author Martin Middlebrook with his revised edition of his book The First Day on The Somme.''Picture Mark Westley ANL-161005-171143009
Great Wars author Martin Middlebrook with his revised edition of his book The First Day on The Somme.''Picture Mark Westley ANL-161005-171143009

They have been organised by The Western Front Association, a group formed in 1980 with the aim of furthering interest in The Great War of 1914- 1918.

Martin is an expert on the subject; he is an acclaimed author of 16 military books.

His publisher describes him as having a great reputation as an historian, battlefield guide and writer. He is not the only member of the Middlebrook family with a great reputation.

When I contacted Martin for this feature, he suggested I Google him, telling me with humour: “You will first of all be confused over finding two of us. The younger one, a photographer is my nephew.””

He didn’t mention the fact his nephew Martin is a world-famous photographer, currently documenting the ivory trade across Africa and that he has another notable nephew, Peter, who is a world-renowned economic and political adviser.

But that is another story.

Martin came to settle in The Columbines, Cavendish, a few years ago with his companion Anne.

He lived most of his life in Lincolnshire where family stories, and tragedies, from the First World War fuelled his interest and intrigued him.

Living in Boston, married and with three young daughters and running a poultry business “so established I could spare time to take short breaks from it”, he embarked on a trip to the battlefields of France and Belgium in his trusty Morris 1100 along with his good friend John.

And so began the journey that produced his first book The First Day on The Somme, chronicling the fighting on July 1, 1916.

On that day there were nearly 60,000 casualties on the British side alone – exceeding the casualty figures for the entire Crimean, Boer and Korean wars combined.

The First Day on The Somme is described as one of the great classic books on the Great War and now – more than 45 years after it was published by Penguin - it has been revised for the 100th anniversary by Martin’s present-day publisher Pen & Sword Books, and it includes a new introduction. Martin has sold 143,893 copies.

In an account of how he wrote it, Martin says: “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.“

Martin interviewed hundreds of soldiers for his book. About 500 contacted him after he ran appeals in local newspapers. Many told their stories to him for the first time, having never revealed to their own families what they had been through.

He established a good rapport and relationship with the men by showing that he had done his research – and was even able to tell them things about the battle they did not know.

He said: “You really do have to do your research properly. I would get a map and would spread it out on a table. Once I’d checked their battalion, brigade and division or commanding officer’s name, they would have confidence in me. It was a two-way thing.”

Of paramount importance to him was that his book would contain experiences of ordinary soldiers – something he found other books on the war (with a couple of notable exceptions) did not do.

With the stories of hundreds of survivors published, he only had 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!” he said.

His ambition is to reach one million copies from all of his 16 titles combined.

The Middlebrook Guide to The Somme Battlefield, was written with his late wife Mary, and details everywhere on The Somme where there is a military cemetery, memorial, preserved trench or crater.

This book has just been republished as a paperback, with a new cover.

“It was a hardback book and the publishers felt it would now be better as a guide as a paperback – so you can easily pack it away and refer to it on a trip,” he said. “My wife did all the photography.”

Martin’s experience of being a battlefield tour guide helped. In 1984, he set up his own tour company and ended up running it for 20 years, only retiring in 2004 at the age of 72. By his own admission “the accidental, almost casual, way in which I fell into writing military books and then battlefield touring turned out to be a boon”.

Martin says he hopes to give a talk in Cavendish about his books – but that will be next year because, at the moment, he’s rather busy.

l The First Day on The Somme Revised Edition is published by Pen & Sword Military. ISBN: 9781473877160 Hardback £25

l The Middlebrook Guide to The Somme Battlefields is published by Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 9781473879072 Paperback £14.99

l Signed copies are available from Landers Bookshop, Long Melford, W H Smith in Sudbury, and Harris & Harris Bookshop in Clare.

l Martin will be giving a talk about The Somme on June 20, at the Royal Naval Association Club, in Southend, starting at 8pm. No booking is required.

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