“Look to your left or right and see the Accrington Pals walking past you, or the Yorkshires running by in a hail of machinegun fire. It takes you back to as it was and where it happened with you standing there – book in hand – surrounded by the battle!”
That’s the tantalising vow Steven Heys, co-author of Understanding the Somme. An Illuminating Battlefield Guide, makes as he introduces his latest work with fellow surgeon, Thomas Scotland.
How did you and Tom first meet and how on a practical level does your successful writing partnership work?
“Tom was one of my surgical teachers – and then I became a colleague of his at senior consultant level working in Aberdeen. He is a retired orthopaedic surgeon and I am a cancer surgeon. We got together over a shared interest in medicine, history and military history, which we have both had for many years.
‘We decide on our subject matter with brainstorming sessions, and then work from that to produce an outline of each book – deciding who will take the lead in each area that we are writing about. It may be a special interest of either of us, but it is a discussion as to who is the lead for each area. It may involve producing one or several chapters.
‘That initial draft is sent to the other for checking for accuracy, readability and how it will fit in with the other chapters. Style has to be consistent and it has to be factually correct, but written in an interesting way for the man in the street!”
“We are both surgeons and the Great War was the start of modern
surgery as we know it – as well as the development of surgical specialties. The advances in surgery, anaesthesia, understanding of shock and what happens during trauma were fantastic – laying down the principles Tom and I still use in our surgical practice today. There was no book which had laid this out ina way which is understandable not only to doctors but to everyone with the surgery explained very clearly.
‘Given the public interest in medicine (you only have to look at the popularity of ‘ER’, ‘Casualty’ etc. on TV!), we felt the time was right to acknowledge and pay tribute to what our colleagues did on the Western Front. Of course, as surgeons, Tom and I were the men to do it!”
What are the origins of Understanding the Somme?
“Tom has had an interest for a long time in the Great War, which is understandable due to his advanced age compared to mine! I have had an interest since being a child; growing up in Accrington, tales of the Accrington Pals were often talked about.
‘My great-uncle was in the 10th Battalion Scottish Rifles and fought at Loos and at Martinpuich on the Somme before dying on 26 October 1918 in France. My grandfather was gassed with the 2nd Manchesters and also fought on the Somme. I had another great-uncle killed on the Western Front whilst fighting with the 7th East Lancashires.
‘Being a Captain Medical Officer in the Territorial Army (TA) in the 51st Highland Brigade – surrounded by the history and atmosphere of the Gordon Highlanders and pipers at regimental dinners – cemented my interest!”
Aside from the family connection, what is it about the Somme in particular that interests you?
“The Somme is very much untouched, not yet spoiled by too many tourists like Ypres. There is a solitude and atmosphere when you are there which takes you back 100 years.
‘Of course, we stay in Bernafay Wood – the site of major battle and taken by the 9th Scottish Division on 3 July. As a keen piper, playing my pipes there surrounded by that history is just an unbelievable experience, which takes you back into the middle of it all! Regimental pipers would have played men into action very close to where I now play!”
How does the book differ from other Somme titles in the marketplace?
“This book is different because it is not just a guide about monuments and cemeteries. It’s about the real facts that enables the man in the street to understand what happened and why. It takes you around the battlefield in an armchair or a car, or a bicycle or on foot. The maps are redrawn clearly and can be easily understood, as they are linked to annotated photos of what is there now as a practical reference point.”
Was it a challenge to add photography to your ‘to do’ list for this title?
“Tom and I have both been many, many times to the Somme (Tom more than I have!) We always knew that one day we would do this, and so we amassed a huge collection of photos in readiness. We then did a special trip to be sure that we had enough and to illustrate special views.”
What other writing plans do you and Tom have for the future?
“We have so many ideas, but a whole series of Understanding… books would be terrific! The first two we would develop would be the Ypres Salient and the last 100 days of the War!”
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