Confessional tales of self-preservation by a British foot soldier on the Western Front
"This is the story of millions of men—of millions. This is the war as the man in the street will get if it comes again…. [Gristwood's book] is a living page in the true history of democracy. It is a book that every boy with a taste for soldiering should be asked to read and ponder."—H. G. Wells, from the preface
First published in London in 1927, The Somme and its companion, The Coward, constitute the only published literary achievements of A. D. Gristwood, a reluctant accountant turned even more reluctant infantryman in the London Rifle Brigade who later fell under the tutelage of master storyteller H. G. Wells.
Heavily autobiographical and much influenced by Wells's guidance, Gristwood's tales of World War I combat are rife with acts of unheroic self-preservation and colored with the fear, bitterness, and hopelessness that defined the author's wartime experience. The central characters of these accounts are clever outsiders—disillusioned and grim foot soldiers amid foolishly dutiful comrades—who are placed in dire circumstances where survival mandates acts of horrific selfishness in lieu of valor.
The Somme centers on a futile attack in 1916 during the Somme campaign on the western front. The uncourageous behavior of wounded protagonist Tom Everitt both in and out of combat reflects Gristwood's assessment of the weak mettle of British forces at this stage of the war and also recalls his own actions in the service. In The Coward a soldier commits an act of self-mutilation to escape combat duty, an offense punishable by death, and is haunted first by fear of discovery and later by self-loathing. This is the war as Gristwood experienced it—a dark and desperate theater of pain where only base instincts could get a man out alive.
This first reissue of The Somme, Including Also The Coward marks the only edition available outside of the United Kingdom and includes a new introduction by Hugh Cecil detailing the author's biography and putting his work into a broader historical and literary context.
A. D. Gristwood (1893–1933) was wounded in the Battle of the Somme in October 1916. He suffered a nervous breakdown after the war and withdrew from commerce to pursue writing. In 1926 he began the correspondence with H. G. Wells that would lead to the completion of the tales in this volume. Unable to find a publisher for later volumes, Gristwood took his own life at the age of thirty-nine.
Hugh Cecil is an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Leeds and trustee and cofounder of the Second World War Experience Centre in Leeds, United Kingdom. His numerous publications include The Flower of Battle: How Britain Wrote the Great War, At the Eleventh Hour, and Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced.
"The merit [of these stories] lies in their unheroic truthfulness and their accurate memory of detail; they are less a contribution to letters than an addition to the composite testimony against war as it really is."—Time and Tide