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.
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 http://www.zerohourzday.com 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
At last: a work of pure research and careful analysis that makes us think, helps us understand, changes our perceptions, and pushes us many steps along the road towards much-needed better truths. Jonathan Porter's Zero Hour Z Day is a splendid example of what can be done when an author is fed up of the jingoistic, propagandised, unbalanced and truncated diet that First World War enthusiasts have for so long been fed. There is a long way still to go, but make no mistake - this volume is a breakthrough. Let others take note.
The first day of the Somme is surely the most written-about action conducted by the British Army in the Great War. There is scarcely a blade of grass along the miles of German front line assaulted in that day that has not been described in detail. I can only speculate as to why the advance made by XIII Corps at the southern end of that line, alongside the French Sixth Army, appears to have attracted the least attention: perhaps it was not tragic or bloody enough; generated no poems; has fewest battlefield memorials. The attack in this area was a success, with tough objectives achieved at considerable human cost to both sides. As we have recently learned from Jack Sheldon’s masterly Fighting the Somme, the Germans had reduced their defensive resources in this area and were greatly concerned that once Montauban fell it might lead to the British gaining important ground for capture of their selected schwerpunkt, the Thiepval ridge. The advance made on 1 July 1916 in the area of Montauban and Mametz, coupled with almost total failure elsewhere, ultimately led to Haig’s geographic reorientation of the offensive and deserves analysis and more consideration than it is usually given. “Zero Hour Z Day” provides a solid basis for doing so.
In his introduction, the author tells us that the book is the result of years of research: I can believe it. We are taken, in detail, through the background to the assault; the months of raiding and trench warfare that precede the battle; the plans, objectives and preparations; the execution of the attack (in which the book concentrates on the 30th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions); and the aftermath of battle. The presentation of it all is excellent, covering thoughts and deeds from corps level down to the battalions and companies. The book is well laid out, with dozens of splendid coloured maps, annotated aerial views, and “then and now” photographs. For anyone who already knows the area it is a treat. For readers new to this ground and battle, it could not be made clearer. The text is well written and referenced to sources, and as such will make a reference work of lasting value.
“Zero Hour Z Day” is testament to the possibilities through self publishing and short-run printing these days. It is a physical product of high quality. It has to be said though, that it is not the most easy book to handle. The book is large (almost 30cm by 21cm) and very heavy at over six pounds in weight. I wouldn’t fancy carrying it anywhere; I couldn’t read it on a train or plane; and I’m not sure my knees would stand propping it up for bedtime reading! It’s not even a good fit for my bookshelves. I understand that the author is offering a subsidised postage rate for buyers: an important factor for something of this scale. Maybe the paperback would be a more practical proposition for most readers.
Overall: a terrific addition to the British historiography of the Somme.
‘I must congratulate you for its excellence and quite superb depth of information. What a great change to the vast majority of run-of-the-mill books foisted on us!’?
‘What a superb book! I am blown away by the quality and detail! Many congratulations it is a fine piece of work, well done again.’
‘What a fantastic labour of love. I reckon without doubt it is probably one of the best books if not the best book on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.’
‘Thanks for the book - arrived today. Frankly I'm speechless. The book is visually stunning, the scope and scale of the research is breath-taking. I am particularly drawn to the maps - which in my experience is often the weakest part of otherwise excellent books.’
‘I think on early inspection 'something special' only starts to describe this book. It offers a superbly cogent analysis of XIII Corps leadership, planning, all round expertise and achievement. Whatever happened elsewhere on July 1st, In essence the XIII corps performance that day, and during the planning phase, offers clear evidence of the start of genuine improvement in the BEF capability and performance - perhaps even the first real indication of a wavering learning curve.’
‘Thank you for my copy of your book purchased through eBay. I just wanted to tell you that I’ve been a keen military historian most of my life (50 this year!) and I’ve never come across a better presented better illustrated account of a battle. Please don’t tell me it will be your last. I’ve been researching men from my home village who died on the 1st day of the Somme and Thomas Harland fell that day with 2 York’s. I can pay you no higher compliment than to say that the men who didn’t make it home have found their voice in you.’
‘We received your book and Frank was over the moon with it! He has read probably close to 100 books on WW1 and yours is the best he has read!’
‘About a hundred pages into this superb book. The level of research is staggering but despite the detail it is an easy read. Definitely one for the collection. Just as I thought I had 'done' the Somme I now find I have lots of reasons to return with renewed enthusiasm.’
‘I have been engrossed in your book since we came home - it is excellent! I had a very quick skim through before starting to read thoroughly and you've done something that I think hasn't really ever been done properly before.’
‘A quick skip through reveals some remarkable annotated maps, diagrams and aerial photographs. Jonathan's experience as a Royal Marine permeates everything I've read so far. His section on the topography of this part of the front stands out for me. He sees the area with a soldier's eye, which few so-called academic historians can manage. His explanation of how the Germans exploited the landscape is very clear. And, I hadn't realised before how the local geology affected the way trenches and dug outs were constructed. I'm learning such a lot.’