In 2005 and more recently in 2010, two interesting books were published about the point of view of the German soldiers and officers, stationed on the Somme front. This week I read the book, that appeared in 2010, Ralph J. Whiteheads The Other Side Of The Wire (1), which made me to re-read again Jack Sheldons The German Army On The Somme - 1914-1916 of 2005.(2)
Well informed friends (3) advised me to buy and to read these two books, and for good reason. Jack Sheldon was one of the first to break the Anglo-Saxon silence about the details of the German side of the Somme forces, setting a welcome trend, which was shared by other historians, like Peter Barton. With his rather recently published, first book Ralph Whitehead completed Sheldons image of the viewpoint of the German XIV Reserve Corps.
Though both books of Sheldon and Whitehead are of high quality, and though both books share the same theme, the Germans on the Somme until 1916, the approach of the authors of this subject is totally different. In both books you might expect a lot of overlapping, which is, with exception of some of the informative appendixes, not the case. The different approaches of this topic make these two books totally complementary to each other! Besides, it is perhaps remarkable to know that Ralph Whitehead mentions in his acknowledgments gratefully Jack Sheldon for locating the German sources for his book. Because Sheldon was the first to launch his book, I will first concisely review his book, to be followed next by a review about Whiteheads book.
Jack Sheldons The German Army On The Somme 1914-1916.
Sheldons approach of telling the German point of view is rather refreshing. Every chapter of his book opens with a sketch of the Somme topography with numbered locations, which are related to the texts later on in the chapter. Sheldons own introducing texts are very concise but clear. These texts are only meant to explain the backgrounds of the described events. Sheldon prefers to set his words aside to make more room for large quotes from personal sources like soldiers letters, personal diaries, or from official sources like regimental journals. The author has translated these quotes with nuance, and organized them to date and location. Together these quotes form chronologically a series of a lot of first-person accounts of members of the XIV Reserve Corps on the Somme between September 1914 until the end of 1916. Sheldon spends the largest part of his book to the period June - December 1916, just before and during the Battle of the Somme.
In contrary to the traditional image in most Anglo-Saxon literature about the French readiness and eagerness to fight, reading in between the lines of the extensive quotes of these first-person accounts, it did strike me that the Germans really feared their French opponents. The French were still giving the Germans a very hard time on the battlefield, not only during the period of September and October 1914, the period of the German offensive and the following consolidation of the Somme front, but also from December 1914 until July 1915, when the French troops were relieved in the sector by British troops.
Ralph J. Whiteheads The Other Side Of The Wire.
I came to this same conclusion about this German fear for the fierce French resistance after reading The Other Side Of The Wire. As I wrote before, Whiteheads approach of telling the German story is totally different than Sheldons. Where the emphasis of Sheldons book lies on the personal accounts, Whitehead sometimes uses quotes of personal accounts as a kind of illustration in his comprehensive, well written texts.
From the departure of the XIV Reserve Corps from the region around Mulhouse, the Sundgau, Whitehead made the choice to describe in detail the arrival of the detachments and their deployment at the Somme sector around Albert from 25 September 1914 until June 1916. From day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, and from village to village, Whitehead offers us in chronological order a detailed description of the fighting actions.
Under pressure of the developing Race to the Sea in October 1914 the German Army was forced to reorganize its Army Corpses, and ad-hoc fighting units. These reorganizations of units makes it always difficult for a reader like me to follow the composition of the fighting units of the moment; the company, battalion, and regiment numbers can sometimes be dazzling. But Whitehead knows a certain flair in writing, which facilitates the reader in easier understanding these complex changes of the composition of the Army Divisions and Army Corpses.
Whitehead also tells in detail the interesting story about the British take-over from the French of a large part of the Somme sector in July 1915; the Germans in their well constructed trenches and fortifications became slowly aware in August that the Engländer arrived at their other side of the wire.
Not only his apparent ease of writing makes Whiteheads story easy to read, it is also his use of his abundant personal collection of 350 German period photographs and period situation sketches of units of the XIV Army Corps which makes his book a delight to read it. My only critical comment is that though these pictures possess a reasonable size, for me these images could have been printed some 25% larger on the pages. I had to use more than often a magnifying glass to study these highly interesting and exceptional photographs. On the other hand I must also emphasize here, there is hardly a page to be found without an image, and for that reason the author still deserves all my praise!
If you are expecting my judgement about which is the best of these two books, I am afraid that I have to disappoint you; I will not judge between these outstanding works. As I wrote in my introduction; these two books know a different approach of the subject and on the same time these books are totally complementary to each other!
Though both books offer situation maps and sketches, if you are not familiar with the topography of the Somme region, I would in both cases advise you to accompany your reading with a map like the French IGN maps on internet. (4)
If you are not that familiar with the events at the Somme between 1914 and the Battle of 1 July 1916, I would like to advise you to read first Whiteheads book and afterwards Sheldons book. Whiteheads book gives you a better detailed overview of the events, where Sheldon does more an appeal to your general knowledge of the events. While Whitehead emphasizes in detail the strategic and tactical implements of the history, Sheldon lets the German soldiers tell their own story about the impact of warfare and the personal horrors, they experienced. So, your choice might depend on your preference: personal accounts or a wider helicopter view of the events.
As you have understood, I am still not able to decide between these two admirable works. As both books deserve to my opinion the same five star rating, I decided to place these books on the same bookshelf next to each other, where these two belong together. Which book you will ever choose to buy, be it Sheldons, Whiteheads, or both, I bet that you will not be disappointed!
Tip: For some interesting info about the Württembergische 26 Reserve Division, a component of the XIV Reserve Corps, visit my photo impressions about Thiepval and the Ulster Tower - Schwaben Redoubt !
(1) Ralph J. Whitehead: The Other Side Of The Wire Volume 1 With the German XIV Reserve Corps on the Somme, September 1914 June 1916. Hard cover. ISBN 1906033293. Attention, until now the Whitehead book only knows a limited edition of 750 individual numbered and autographed copies.
(2) Jack Sheldon: The German Army On The Somme - 1914-1916. ISBN: 1-84415-513-7. Both authors promised to publish a follow-up volume in 2011, covering the period of 1916-1918.
(3) I bought Sheldons book in 2008 after an advise of my old friend, the Guardian of the Ulster Tower near Thiepval, Mr. Teddy Colligan, at the Visitor Centre of the Tower. In connection to these books it is a rather peculiar location, being it the former location of the notorious German Schwaben Redoubt and centre point of the Battle of the Somme. It was my Dutch friend, and fellow front traveller, René Kappert, who showed me his book of Whitehead, after which I decided to order the book via the internet. I thank both gentlemen for the inspiration to my reading adventures.
(4) Click HERE to go to ign.fr, the website of the Institut Géographique National, fill in the box, Albert -Somme, and choose in the option box above left the exploration option.