Reviews: battlefield and research guides

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The Battle of the Lys 1918 :
Givenchy and the River Lawe

by Phil Tomaselli
published by Pen & Sword Military in the Battleground Europe series, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 159 116
cover price - £12.99
softback, 166pp plus appendix and index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

There can be few readers of this website who will be unfamiliar with the Battleground Europe format of this book: a hand-sized paperback, giving a summary history of a battle, well illustrated with maps and photographs and with guidance for travelling the area today. "The Battle of the Lys 1918: Givenchy and the River Lawe" covers an important action that has received puzzlingly little coverage over the years. Given that my own "The Battle for Flanders: German defeat on the Lys 1918" was published shortly after this book, I read it with great enthusiam and (for once) detailed knowledge.

The actions covered by this volume concern in the main the defence of Givenchy by the 55th (West Lancashire) Division and the breaking of the 2nd Portuguese Division in the Neuve Chapelle area in the face of huge German assault on 9 April 1918. "Operation Georgette" was the second German attack of their spring 1918 offensive, and after a promising start it finally ground to a halt in the face of stiffening Allied opposition. In this instance it became a near-run thing with German troops reaching positions very close to the vital Hazebrouck railways and the main supply road to Ypres.

The stories of the two front line Allied Divisions could not be more different: one was well trained, had a solid defensive doctrine and did magnificently well; the other was over stretched, holding poor defences and with morale that could scarcely have been lower. It was against the poor Portuguese that the Germans assembled their main weight and it was in breaking through on that front (and that of 40th Division on the Portuguese left, which gets some but relatively little coverage due to the scope of this book) that the Lys was soon crossed and a most difficult situation arose for the British First and Second Armies. "The Battle of the Lys" covers the first three days of the battle in the area described very well, not only of the two Divisions but the units that moved up in support. It is a tale worth reading, and is well illustrated.

The battlefield touring section of the book is a brave effort for there is relatively little to see in terms of artefacts. The Lys is no Somme when it comes to memorials and cemeteries, and the landscape is uniformly flat. Nonetheless Phil Tomaselli picks out many of the sites worth seeing, explaining walks around Givenchy and the bridgeheads across the tiny River Lawe, and a driving tour of the 55th Divisional and some rear areas. For battlefield tourists looking for something else beyond the Somme and Ypres, the Lys offers opportunities and this book would not be a bad companion en route.

 

Boesinghe
by Stephen McGreal
published in the Battleground Europe series by Pen & Sword Books, 2010
ISBN 978 1 84884 046 1
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 232pp plus British order of battle, bibliography and index, illustrated
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Many readers of these reviews will be familiar with the "Battleground Europe" series of battlefield tour guides. Handy-sized paperbacks, packed with history, anecdotes, photographs and maps, they make for good armchair reading every bit as much as being useful for taking with you on a battlefield visit. Over the years the series has built up into a very considerable collection, with the Somme and Ypres battlefields in particular being covered by numerous localised studies. This is where "Boesinghe" comes in, for it concentrates on the area of the Ypres canal, taking in the villages of Boesinghe, Pilckem and Elverdinghe. (Note that Boesinghe is the contemporary spelling as used during the war; Boezinge is the way it is today).

Boesinghe itself was never out of Allied hands during the war so is not the location of a battlefield in the traditional sense, but was for much of 1914-1918 immediately behind the front line north of Ypres. It was shelled to dust, and was the centre for many medical units and a last staging post for units crossing the canal to go up to the front at Pilckem. The last third or so of the book comprises six excellent tours of this sector of the battlefield, explained with good maps and descriptions. The first two-thirds takes us through the story of how the fighting came to Boesinghe; the German gas attack in the area in April 1915; the long occupation by the Territorials of the 49th (West Riding) Division and finally the assault from this front on 31 July 1917. As virtually every book on the Ypres salient, 1918 gets very short shrift.

If you plan a visit to this part of the world do it quickly, for industrial development along the canal has utterly changed the landscape in the last few years and this part of the salient bears scant resemblance to the ground that was so important in 1914-1918. This trend looks set to continue, with a threatened extension to the nearby motorway, further expansion of the canalside industrial zone and relentless housebuilding gradually wiping out the old scenes.

Stephen McGreal has done a fine job of compilation of the stories, maps and images that make the "Battleground Europe" series what they are, and "Boesinghe" would be a fine buy for anyone wishing to understand more about and visit this part of the Western Front.


Walking Verdun
by Christina Holstein
published Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781844158676
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 173pp plus appendices and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

No one knows the Verdun battlefield better than Christina Holstein. This addition to the popular "Battleground Europe" series adds to Christina's previous work on Fort Douaumont, the key and central feature to the 1916 battlefield. "Walking Verdun" takes the reader through ten routes through the area, on both sides of the Meuse and the city of Verdun itself. Each is carefully described, giving points of navigation for the walker as well as historical descriptions and anecdotes. Beginning in the north of the battlefield and the opening of the German offensive in February 1916, Christina's selection then takes us down to the capture of Douaumont, the defence of Souville, the fighting on the Mort-Homme and the French counter attack of October 1916.

Verdun is a rewarding battlefield to visit - certainly in terms of the monuments and memorials scattered throughout. But is now thickly wooded, giving it a feeling of remoteness. In most places one does not get the great vistas of the Somme, for example, that allow the visitor to visualise the battle and the various ridges and valleys that were of such immense tactical importance. By following "Walking Verdun", the reader will learn a great deal about the battle, which became of such legend to the French nation.

Well worth buying.

Digging the trenches: the archaeology of the Western Front
by Andrew Robertshaw and David Kenyon
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2008
ISBN 9781844156719
cover price £25.00
hardback, 199pp plus notes
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

I must admit that before I read this book I felt a little unsure. Despite being an avid amateur historian, I am afraid that TV exposure to archaeology has left me completely cold. Rather odd teams of people, exploring Roman cess pits with a spoon and in breathless voices that suggest they only have twelve minutes left in which to do it before the site is concreted over for the third London airport? No thanks. The few programmes on battlefield archaeology I have found more interesting simply because of the content, although I still rather shy away from the stage-managed presentation.

The second cause of potential discomfort is my own rather mixed feelings about the way that humain remains discovered on the battlefield should be treated. I am not one who believes that every bone discovered on the Somme has to be identified to an individual and given a burial with full military honours. I can understand the motivations, of some kind of closure, of filling in a gap. Perhaps if a certain field at Bellewaarde was being dug and there was a chance my own relative could be identified, I would be there like a shot and willing the "Trench team" on. I don't know. But in general "The boys did enough; let them rest in peace", say I. So on opening "Digging the trenches", I went in not so much sceptical as perhaps rather wary.

I am pleased to report that my trepidation was unnecessary and unjustified. This is a terrific book that not only gives insight into the motivations and ways of the battlefield archaeologist but provides a great deal of information about the war, the battles and the soldiers and their equipment. It is possibly of greater value as a reference to the WW1 soldier's life than it is to the archaeology itself, and I guess that is the way it should be. The material is presented clearly and at a good pace, peppered with some very good photographs.

The book is structured into a logical pattern: what were trenches and why were they there; the digging and construction of trenches; life in the trenches, and inevitably death there too. The explanations are informed by archaeological findings, including some which will be familiar to battlefield buffs such as Yorkshire Trench near Ypres and the findings at Loos.

This book is produced to a higher standard than most, being printed on weighty glossy paper. There are many phorographs, both B&W and colour, and all round it has a nice feel of durability and quality.

Has the book changed my views about battlefield archaeology? I am not sure. Perhaps. Did it bring me pleasure and did I derive value from reading it? Certainly.

Dover & Folkestone during the Great War
by Michael and Christine George
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2008
ISBN 9781844158423
cover price - 10.99
softback, 160pp plus selected bibliography
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Not many places in Britain compare with that part of the Kent coast that includes Dover and Folkestone, when it comes to direct involvement in war. In 1914-1918, the two ports and their hinterland teemed with troops, military and naval facilities. They were an inevitable target for enemy attack by sea and air and as such provide the basis for this fascinating history.  

The authors have delved into local archives, newspaper and journal collections and modern research presented on websites to pull together a rich and detailed view of the area during the Great War. The effect on the local population when the army mobilised; when the Canadian forces established a base; when Folkestone became the point of departure for hundreds of thousands of men going to France, and Dover became the receiving port for casaulties; when naval activities extended to the critical Dover Patrol and when the towns came under fire are all covered in considerable detail.

Blending narrative with quotes and a good collection of postcards and photographs (some of which might have benefitted from being larger), this is a good and readable history. I suspect that I would value an index should I ever need to look something up, but the book is well structured into places and periods.

For me, there was new information about air raids and shipping incidents that really gave a sense of "front line". The graves of civilians, soldiers and sailors in the area are testament to that and next time I am passing on my way to Wipers or the Somme, I shall take time out to look around the ports with new eyes. Dover is a fascinating place and has been for centuries; in recent years I always found Folkestone a little tatty - but armed with this history I am sure both with repay a visit.

I should also add that at a cover price of £10.99 this book is terrific value.

A guide to military history on the Internet
A comprehensive introduction for genealogists and military historians
written by Simon Fowler
published by Pen & Sword Family History, 2007
ISBN 184415606-0
cover price £9.99
review copy in softback, 211pp no index
reviewed by the author of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Simon Fowler is editor of the excellent National Archives magazine, "Ancestors" and among other works is author of "Tracing your army ancestors"

Writing a guide to content on the Internet is a thankless task and I am not sure why anyone would bother. I can only imagine that book publishers find it a profitable genre. When the average life of a website is figured in days, when content comes and goes or is moved, a directory of websites is inevitably obsolete before the last full stop is typed. The major search engine businesses invest huge sums of money in the technology to keep up with it all. What chance does a book have?

The better sites tend to remain longer. For example, the Long, Long Trail and Tom Morgan's "Hellfire Corner" have been around for more than a decade. It is this more enduring, quality content that the author of "A guide to military history on the Internet" sought to present.

The scope of coverage is enormous, taking in all wars and military activity from 1066 to around 1998. There is a decidedly British and English language slant to the selection, although many sites authored elsewhere are mentioned. Not surprisingly, there is a considerable focus on the two World Wars. There is no doubt that the author had searched many nooks and crannies of the world wide web and certainly there are dozens, hundreds perhaps, of websites mentioned that I had never heard of. Then again, I tend not to spend much time searching outside WW1. If I really did need information on the Wars of the Roses or the English Civil War or what happened to the Zulus in 1879, five minutes Googling would have found it. Fifteen seconds on a site gives me enough to tell me whether there is content worth believing and using. I simply cannot imagine I would have looked the sites up in a printed directory. Perhaps those new to the Internet would have - but it must be a very untutored web user who needs to be shown the way to Google, MSN and some of the general search engines and encyclopedias that are listed. I must say that I found this, plus the tips on how to start your own website and how to buy books over the Internet, to deflect from the stated intention of the work and reduce its overall value.

Taking WW1 as an area of focus, relevant websites appear in a number of sections: researching individuals, war memorials and rolls of honour, military museums and a 16-page section on the war itself. None of the sites I use frequently were missing and to a large extent I agree with the author's often candid views on their design or content.

The author selects a personal "Top Ten" in a closing chapter. The list is led by Wikipedia, which I find completely unreliable as a source of information and doubt it would figure in my top 100. It just goes to show how personal taste and the purposes for which an individual uses the Internet can affect views about the beauty and utility of any given site. Summing up, this is as thorough and up to date a work as you are likely to find. Considering the scope of coverage, it does a fine job of uncovering the key websites. It is very nicely and professionally produced and even at an undiscounted cover price of £9.99 is good value. I just don't see that I would find much use for it myself.


Walking Arras
by Paul Reed
published by Battleground Europe, Pen & Sword Military, 2007
ISBN 1844156192
cover price - £12.99
softback, 234pp
reviewed by the author of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Paul Reed is also author of "Walking the Somme".

Arras is a curiously neglected battle in many ways, not least its coverage as a battlefield to visit. It is not unlike Ypres in that it has a charming and historic town, behind British lines, with plenty of museums, things to see and places to eat and stay. There are dozens of cemeteries, memorials and places of interest on the battlefield too. Arras sits midway between the vitally important location of Vimy Ridge and the Somme battlefield yet somehow does not grab the imagination in quite the same way as either of those areas.

This may be because the battlefield area is not as pretty and uplifting as the Somme, not as packed with "something historic at every bend in the road" as Ypres. Indeed, the outskirts of Arras town include some of what might be classed as the ugliest housing in Europe and a great part of the front line of April 1917 now lies below the tons of concrete forming the industrial estates built around the town. Some important WW1 craters are used as a rubbish dump by the local people. The Paris motorway and the TGV du Nord track cut right through the Arras battlefield too.

But for all that there are areas that are good walking country, with sweeping views across the valley of the River Scarpe and across the undulating ridges that were the epicentres of fighting in the spring of 1917.

Paul Reed's "Walking the Somme" is quite rightly a best seller in its class, opening up a new way of looking at that battlefield and exposing many new sites to the casual visitor. He had a much tougher job in tackling Arras and I am glad to say does not let us down.The Battleground Europe format will be familiar to many. A pocket sized softback, containing a number of guided walks that take in WW1 sites and provide some historical background to what can be seen.

Paul's walks take us first to Vimy Ridge (which is also covered in at least two other Battleground Europe guides), then cover in detail the area covered by the attack of 9 April 1917 . We are then taken to walks around Roeux and Bullecourt. The walks are well planned and the supporting information excellent.It is notable that the key points along the walks are the military cemeteries. There appears to be much more of this book devoted to descriptions of the cemeteries than I remember from similar works. I can understand this. Arras was a murderous battle with very heavy casualty rates and in general the area has many more smaller, battlefield, cemeteries than large post-war concentration plots. It is something that makes this battlefield distinctive, if the countryside and general atmosphere of the area is not perhaps one that would attract any but the most ardent battlefield visitor.All in all this is a good, reliable guide to the area and if it helps a few more stop and look around instead of whizzing past on their way between Ypres and the Somme, then a good job done.


Zeebrugge & Ostend raids
by Stephen McGreal
published by Pen & Sword in the Battleground Europe series, 2008
ISBN 184415608-7
cover price - £12.99
softback, 172pp plus index. Profusely illustrated.
reviewed by the author of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker

Stephen McGreal's task in compiling a battlefield tour guide to the sites of the famous amphibious raids at Zeebrugge and Ostend is made no easier by the fact that very little now exists of the port facilities that were under German occupation in 1918. Zeebrugge has expanded into one of the busiest container ports of northern Europe, while Ostend is a bustling commercial and tourist resort. Both seem at times to be constant building sites. It is much to the author's credit that he has managed to produce an entertaining and worthwhile book that will have many a battlefield tourist walking the concrete wharfs and paths, trying in their imagination to piece together two stirring events. It was perhaps after the U-boat threat - having come so close to crippling British supply lines in the Atlantic - had already been overcome that it was decided to block the submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend.

McGreal's work tells the story in great detail, drawing upon contemporary sources and published histories in order to do so. We meet many of the officers and men who undertook these hazardous operations and get a good feeling for what happened, placed into context on the ground by some good descriptions and maps. This is not like walking the battlefields of the Somme or Ypres. You are not in fields and woods, with cemeteries and memorials at every turn: the places of memory here are relatively few and surrounded by modern industrial and commercial development. Nonetheless, the depiction of the strength of the German batteries and defence works, and the shot and shell as the naval raids went in, helps the visitor to see past the seafront hotels and supermarkets. The author brings us the many stories of the Victoria Crosses and fates of men and ships, and a good read it is too.

As a handy starter to these actions, it can hardly be faulted. For the regular battlefield tourist looking for something new on the way to or back from the Western Front, "Zeebrugge & Ostend raids" is an excellent addition to the itinerary.