Reviews

This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the books, DVDs and other products being produced on the subject of the Great War. I am grateful to those publishers and authors who are kind enough to send me their publications for review.

My latest three reviews

My latest review is a double one. The increasingly ready availability of information about the units and men who fought in the Great War has spawned two successful genres over the last decade or so - the detailed history of a particular unit, and the directory-style study of men listed on a particular war memorial. Here are two examples of works in these genres, both at the top of their game.

Dorchester remembers the Great War
by Brian Bates
published by Roving Press, 2012
ISBN 978 1 906651 16 9
cover price - £12.99
Paperback, 251pp plus appendices, bibliography, about the author index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is a super book that for the most part is a roll of honour of the men who lived in or died in Dorchester, with good introductory chapters on the town and events during the war and the legacy in terms of memorials and cemeteries there. Being a county town and a military garrison before the war, it has perhaps more of interest than many places. Notable was the development of a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers at nearby Poundbury: by 1919 this could accommodate 4000 men, which equates to some 40% of Dorchester's own civilian population.

The roll of honour is presented in chronological order of the men's deaths. Each year begins with a summary of military and political events of the period, giving a good backdrop to the detailed biographical paragraphs. The author has evidently drawn upon military service records, regimental histories and war diaries, local newspapers and other sources to provide a clear and at times touching account. Many of the biographies are accompanied by portrait photographs and on occasion we also see where the man lived. The author has chosen not to include photographs of their war grave headstones or commemorations on memorials to the missing.

For anyone from or interested in the town; for anyone interested particularly in the Dorsetshire Regiment; or for any budding researcher-author wishing to see an excellent example of the art, this is well worth seeing.

 

The "Journey's End" Battalion: the 9th East Surrey in the Great War
by Michael Lucas
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2012
ISBN 978 1 84884 503 9
cover price - £19.99
Hardback, 189pp plus roll of honour, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Another well-researched and presented history of an infantry battalion of Lord Kitchener's New Armies, with a twist in that the 9th East Surrey was the unit with which R. C. Sherriff served. He authored the famous WW1 play "Journey's End", concerning the few days prior to the explosive opening of the German offensive on 21 March 1918.

MIchael Lucas take us through the raising of the battalion, the early months in training at home, the move to France, the horrifying first action at Loos in september 1915 and the remainder of the battalion's war. As we have come to expect with this genre, we are treated to a detailed narrative, laced with maps (in this instance all copies drawn from other works) and some good photographs.

It is of interest that this is not a "pals" battalion, although it drew mainly upon Surrey and surrounding districts for its original recruits. The battalion's commanding officer was sacked after Loos, with his superior noting that it had fallen behind the others within its brigade in terms of training and morale. Michael Lucas's fine history shows that the battalion, and indeed the whole 24th Division of which it was a part, recovered strongly after the appalling Loos action and went on to be a steady, reliable unit. The division is remembered today by being mentioned on the village war memorial at Le Verguier, not far from Maissemy where the 9th East Surreys came into action at "Journey's End". We can now add this book as a fitting addition to their memory.

 

DVD
Walking the Western Front
Ypres: Slaughter of the innocents, 1914-1915

presented by Ed Skelding with guest historian Nigel Cave
published by Pen & Sword Digital, 2012
cover price - not given
content - main feature 70 minutes, plus trailers for other products
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Billed as the "first in a compelling new series to explore the battlefields of the Western Front", this DVD covers the key points of the fighting at and around Ypres in the early part of the war. Quite why is it titled "Walking the Western Front" I am not sure, for other than suggesting people do walk and take maps, it makes no reference to walking the battlefields. Similarly I am not sure why it is "1914-1915" as it covers the fighting of June 1916 and "slaughter of the innocents" is perhaps a questionable subtitle - I see that Amazon has it as "Ypres: the immortal salient Volume 1", which more closely reflects the content.

Producer and director Ed Skelding also stars in the DVD alongside noted historian and editor of the "Battleground Europe" series of guide books, Nigel Cave. By visits to Messines, Gheluvelt, Ploegsteert, Langemarck, Hooge, Hills 60 and 62 and Poperinge, the pair discuss the main battles of the period. The photography is appealing, with many minutes of the fields and woods of modern day Ypres, cut with contemporary images (few of which will be unfamiliar to anyone who has read on the subject) and reasonably clear maps. The story takes us through the clash that became the First Battle of Ypres (with a faint nod to the concurrent Battle of the Yser), the Christmas Truce, the Second Battle, the awful fighting at Hill 60 and Hooge in 1915 and the Canadian struggle at Mount Sorrel in June 1916. Nigel Cave's explanations are clear, although again anyone who has read about this period will find little that is new. An interview with the Chief Executive of Talbot House is included, giving some - if unusual - insight into life and activity behind the lines. The presentation is principally from an infantry perspective, with the artillery and other services rarely mentioned.*

Overall it is worth watching particularly if you are interested in Ypres or this early part of the war, or if you are new to the subject. I look forward to the next release in the series.

*Amazon's notes refer to the DVD containing footage about the Royal Army Medical Corps, taken at Essex Farm. It does not: perhaps it was a victim of late editing.

 

 

Joffrey's war : a Sherwood Forester in the Great War
by Geoffrey Ratcliff Husbands
edited and introduced by J. M. Bourne and Bob Bushaway
published by Salient Books, 2012
ISBN 978 0 9564439 8 4
cover price - not stated but £25 at www.salientbooks.co.uk
hardback, 576pp plus personalia and bibliography, not indexed
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Stand on a sunny day at the base of the memorial to the 18th (Eastern) Division at Thiepval and look across to the site of the Schwaben Redoubt, just to the right of the Ulster Memorial Tower. See the broad swathe of peaceful farmland, the dense green of Thiepval Wood and the white glint of the tower and the two cemeteries nearby; behind you the clipped lawns of the Thiepval Memorial and the few houses of this rebuilt Somme village. Listen to the skylarks and the sound of school parties on their way from bus to memorial to visitor centre. Then read aloud, while you are there, the chapter from "Joffrey's war" on the period which his unit, the Chatsworth Rifles, spent in this very landscape and mounted an attack against the redoubt in October 1916. It is simply horrifying: a dark and shattered place where even the usually chirpy Sherwood Foresters felt death at every turn, where the remains of men killed in previous months lay all about, and where in their attack many of Joffrey's pals met their end. The contrast between then and now could not be more stark, and I defy anyone to find a more graphic and honest description of the period and not to take a deep breath.

"Joffrey" was the nickname given to Geoffrey Husbands, a Derby lad who spoke with a marginally more polished accent than his battalion comrades who in the main came from the North Nottinghamshire coalfield and the industrial towns of Derbyshire. They had joined the "Chatties" - the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters - as volunteers. This is his memoir, taking us every step from his enlistment in May 1915 to his discharge after the war. He is "every man", a typical young citizen infantry soldier who was willing to do his bit. He is also typical in being in serious action only on two occasions, but spent many months in trench occupation, in patrols and under fire. His accounts of experiencing heavy and sustained bombardment are truly memorable and do much to explain how so many men died, and how many were never found again.

It is perhaps in his descriptions of the ordinary, day to day affairs of a battalion that are of most enduring interest: of endless marching, guard duties, minor matters of administration, inspections, and happy times in billets. As a junior NCO "Joffrey" also explains his duties as an orderly and having responsibility for a section of his beloved 11 Platoon. These matters are of genuine, invaluable historical interest as the memoir is among the very few published works that touch upon these mundane but vital matters and explain how the army actually worked.

But "Joffrey's war" is much more than a simple telling of a soldier's tale. It is a story of relationships, of friends being made and lost, of good and poor officers, of how a single NCO could make a soldier's life tolerable or a torture. Many dozens of individuals are named, and (thanks especially to the editor's notes) shown to be real people: this is no fiction. I found the passages describing action to be surprisingly unemotional, for even as good friends die Husbands expresses his horror and regret in quite measured terms. His writing is nonetheless wholly engaging and the reader almost feels he knows these people and is part of the platoon. Much of the book concerns his time with the "Chatties" until he was wounded at Thiepval, but Joffrey goes on to record his time recovering and being with the Training Reserve at home, then to the sister battalion the Welbeck Rangers and finally the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters in France and Flanders.

This is an extraordinary book and one that anyone with an interest in the soldier's experience on the Western Front should read. It goes a long way to explaining what they did, why they did it and how they saw it through despite everything that was thrown at them. I cannot rate it highly enough.

The book also includes a valuable introduction by Professor peter Simkins MBE and an excellent "personalia", a series of one paragraph biographies of many of the men who are named in the text.

The publisher's website says that "Joffrey's war" is not available on the High Street: they sell direct at their website www.salientbooks.co.uk