- Twelve Days on the Somme: A Memoir of the Trenches, 1916
One showery Sunday afternoon, about five years ago, I wandered into a second hand bookshop at Bourton-on-the-Water, a picturesque village in the English Cotswolds. The booksellers' stock was notably unwarlike, but in a remote corner of the store my eye fell upon a copy of A. W. Pagan's Infantry: An Account of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment during the war, 1914–1918. I sensed a bargain. Affecting an air of boredom, I casually took [End Page 1258] the book from the shelf and opened it. In a neat, pencilled script on the inside front cover was the price—£80! I rapidly returned the book to its place. The later discovery of the bookseller hunched over his networked PC explained all. These days no bookseller, even one in the depths of the English countryside, has the least excuse for not knowing the value of a book. This story, however, has a happy ending. The huge demand for out-of-print accounts of the Great War and the consequent inflation of prices in the second hand market encouraged publishers to consider reprints. In this country the Naval & Military Press led the way with its cheap facsimile editions of out-of-copyright formation and unit histories and (not so cheap) editions of important works of reference. Other "niche" publishers, such as Pen & Sword, have followed with new editions of "classic" memoirs. What the economics of publishing has failed to achieve, the "anniversary industry" is helping to complete. This welcome new edition of Sidney Rogerson's Twelve Days is a product of last year's 90th anniversary of the Somme.
It would be easy to portray Sidney Rogerson in clichéd terms as a "typical" British wartime officer, the son of a clergyman, Cambridge undergraduate, August 1914 volunteer. But the portrait soon dissolves. Rogerson was not sent off to die while still wet behind his military ears. He did not go to France until 20 July 1916. Nor did he join a "doomed" "Pals' battalion," but a Regular one, 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment. There he found himself under the command of a humane, professional, and dedicated Regular with an iron sense of duty, James Lochhead Jack, a man Rogerson deeply admired but never really understood. (Jack was himself to write an important account of the war, also happily reprinted recently.) Nor did Rogerson succumb to disillusionment and despair. Indeed, as Malcolm Brown points out in his incisive Introduction, Rogerson originally wrote Twelve Days as a riposte to accounts of what he called "the war of the Sewers" in which "no one ever laughed [and] those who were not melancholy mad were alcoholically hysterical." Twelve Days is an unflinching account of a rather uneventful but demanding tour of the trenches in woeful conditions at the back end of the Somme campaign. It is sharpened by Rogerson's artistic eye (two of his very fine drawings are reproduced here for the first time) and his memory for dialogue. Rogerson fully understood the realities of modern, industrialised war and its human and moral costs. He was less than starry-eyed about some senior officers and the "ignorant" decisions they took. His account—ninety years on—remains fresh, compelling and, above all, truthful. Rogerson's aim of offering a corrective to the "mud and blood school" of trench writing failed in his own lifetime and things are not much better now. His is one of the real "lost voices of the Great War." Those who wish to understand the true temper of the army in which he served should listen to him now.
Birmingham, United Kingdom