Book Reviews

Martin Middlebrook (Military Historian and bestselling Author. His books include ‘The First Day on the Somme.’)

I find that I made little of this success by XIII Corps in any of my own ‘Somme’ books, The First Day on the Somme and The Somme Battlefield Guide, nor I am aware that anyone else has seriously researched and written about it.

But that omission has now been filled by an amazingly extensive researched and detailed description in this new book written by Jonathan (‘Jon’ to his friends’) Porter.

Among several rules that I have is not to write Book Reviews or to write Prefaces or Introductions for other authors. I have never asked anyone to do so for me and do not normally feel that I should do so for others than exceptionally close friends or relatives.

I have not been asked to write this for Jon Porter’s book. I offered to do so because I felt it was worthy.

When this 500-page book, written by a man I had never met, was delivered to my home, I was more than impressed; I was staggered.

He covers, in detail, using prime sources everything that should be covered from the first mooting of a joint offensive with the French at the Chantilly Conference in late 1915 – a blueprint for what was thought to be the best policy for 1916. Then, onward, all the moves of the political and military notables right up to the opening of the British offensive – the Zero Hour, Z Day of his book’s title.

Thereafter, he gives full description of how XIII Corps and its two divisions trained for and prepared for in the coming offensive, and then carried out their successful attack.

In addition, there is a wealth of photographs, diagrams, maps and numerous other illustrations. A rough count took me to the figure of 541, varying from individual photographs of every man who died either in the trench raids before the battle to the many more who were killed on the day, on to diagrams of weapons, orders of battle and everything that his fertile mind could think of.

But the cream of that total are the meticulously detailed maps and notations, showing small scale raids, then up to brigade, battalion, company and platoon actions. I counted fifty-three of these before reaching his ‘Zero Hour, Z Day’. I then counted fifty-seven more during the hours of action during the daylight hours of the day of the attack.

Most of these last are the cream of the cream – based on adaptions of coloured aerial photographs and annotated with the exact plans and moves of those different levels of units.

I have never seen such carefully, painstakingly, presented illustrations in book form.

I can say no more than that the whole book is a remarkably, superb, informative product created by an enthusiast who left school at the age of sixteen ‘with a handful of qualifications and with no fancy letters after my name’ and then served twenty years as a Royal Marine before commencing what he describes as ‘a labour of love over almost half my life’ culminating in four years spent exclusively devoted to the actual writing of this amazing book.

Martin Middlebrook

The Western Front Association (David Filsell)

Starting a book review with superlatives is bad practice, it indicates the work of an, over impressed reviewer or, perhaps, one on a promotional mission for the author. That said, it is impossible to write anything other than outstanding in commenting on Jonathan Porter’s unique 512 page long Zero Hour Z Day, a singular analysis of Congreve’s XIII Corps (18th and 30th Divisions) on the first day of the Somme. (To balance my hyperbole I can add little other than that this is not a book sufficiently manageable to read in bed without assistance. (It weighs in at six and a half pounds and measures twelve-inch- long, eight inches wide and one and three quarter inches thick)

Author and publisher Jonathan Porter brings a clear soldier’s eye, perceptions and long study of the battle and the ground of the Somme. He served for 20 years with the Royal Marines, first with 42 and 45 Commando and then with the SBS. Since leaving the military in 2006 he has co-owned a business on the Somme, enabling him the opportunity to spend long periods studying the battle and those who served there. His authorial approach is comprehensive, thorough, clear and logical. In seven discrete sections he analyses the formulation of the XIII Corps offensive plan and the ground from Maricourt to Mametz. He evaluates the opposing forces, offers a highly-detailed analysis of the preparation and build up to July 1st and evaluates the actions of 30th and 18th Divisions and the days-end effort to consolidate. He concludes with the butcher’s bill - removing the wounded, clearing the dead, and closes with a sound and sharp analysis of XXII corps performance.

Like the late Trevor Pigeon, author of the renowned Tanks at Flers, Jonathan Porter decided on self-publishing to avoid the dictates and the inevitable penny pinching profit imperative of most publishers. His personal approach also allows the author space to analyse and judge people, places and events the detail others writing on the Somme are generally denied by publishing costs and constraints. His freedom enabled the deployment of many colour illustrations - photographs, contemporary and modern maps and line drawings – and many monochrome illustrations. It must be added that printing, design, typography and paper of Zero Hour Z Day 1st July are of an uncommonly high quality. It is a serious bibliophile’s delight

The book’s final analysis is outstanding. It briskly underlines and defines the success of Congreve’s XIII Corps and the contribution of his divisional commanders, Maxse, 18th Division, and Shea, 30th Division, and notes:

Their achievements were at the polar opposite of what British folklore would have us believe regarding the supposedly futile and blundering events of 1 July."

Why? Because, of a highly complex combination of sound command, planning, training, and rehearsals, through effective preparation, artillery superiority, special weapons, mines, and because of exceptional battle leadership.

Zero Hour Z day is not simply a cogent analysis of XIII Corps leadership, planning, all round expertise and achievement. Whatever happened elsewhere on July 1st, it seems clear that XIII Corps’ performance that day, and in the planning, there is clear evidence of the birth of genuine improvement in the BEF capability and performance - perhaps the first real indication of the fuzzy and a wavering learning curve to come.

The book is available from Porter’s own website courier delivery, £4,50, is subsidised by the author. Take note: By the hardback for like Tanks at Flers Porter’s book will become a jealously collected work judged essential by anyone with a serious interest in the Battle of the Somme. It is also the first in Jonathan Porters projected series of works on BEF Army Corps on the Somme on July 1st 1916.

David Filsell WFA