Reviews: campaigns and battles

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The Great War explained
by Philip Stevens
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2012
ISBN 978 1 84884 764 4
cover price - £19.99
Hardback, 141pp plus 74pp of appendices, index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is an ambitious project: to explain the Great War in a work of some 250 pages. It is greatly to the author's credit that he has produced a work that is logically arranged, readable, sensible and for many people unfamiliar with this period of our history, a valuable and interesting explanation. Overall it is good and well worth the money but it does have its flaws and without wishing to downplay the book they need to be pointed out.

The Great War was, for the British, a war of coalition. Its relationship with France in particular was the basis upon which its entry to the war was based and upon which its every military action was either decided or conducted or both. Many British authors in the past have simply not understood this and it is to Philip Stevens' credit that he ensures that France plays a part in his book: yet it remains a rather British-centric explanation of the Great War. For example more space is devoted to the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915 than to the the French attack against the Lorette and Vimy ridges on 9 May 1915. There was simply no comparison, for the British affair was a pinprick in terms of size compared to the French action and the latter achieved very much more. There is no mention of the British attack at Aubers on the same date and that was a truly terrible date for British arms. The British "big push" at Loos in September 1915 was also a minor affair compared with French operations but gets its paragraph where French efforts get but a few words.

The Battle of the Somme receives a good deal of coverage, but only a short paragraph tells us that the French took part, when in fact their effort was on a wider front, tactically more sophisticated and generally much more successful than the British. Indeed, their success played an important part in assisting the British 30th Division, which made the most impressive start to the offensive in capturing the vital ground of Montauban on 1 July 1916. This receives no mention, while the author covers the British disasters at Serre, Beaumont Hamel and La Boisselle in some detail. The book's treatment of the attack on Mametz is also a little puzzling, for it covers the appalling time that two battalions of the Devonshires had, while not mentioning that just on their right the battalions of 91st Brigade attacked with great success and captured the village. It must be hard to avoid sound-bite and cliche in a relatively short war history but in the case of Mametz the concentration on the Devons is simply misleading.

Skipping to 1917 and the battles around Arras, Australian readers might be surprised to find no mention of Bullecourt. That takes me back to the Somme, for their terrible battles at Pozieres also receive little mention and the author seems to have misunderstood the nearby memorial to the missing: it does not relate to this fighting but to Fifth Army area in 1918.

The momentous period, for the British army, of early 1918 is covered by description of the German "Michael" offensive that began on 21 March, but the political manoeuvres around the Supreme War Council, the unwanted lengthening of the British-held front (the author describes it as a compromise, which was not really the case) and the disbanding of one infantry battalion in every brigade are barely mentioned. This is a serious gap, for these things are vital to all that subsequently happened.

There are thus some gaps and flaws in "The Great War explained" that make for misinterpretation or puzzlement, and in a few areas such as Mametz they reinforce stereotype. But overall it is a good introduction for the general reader or one new to the subject. It will perhaps surprise people and will open their eyes to things they had not previously considered, and that is no bad thing.

 

The march on Paris
The memoirs of Alexander von Kluck, 1914

with an introduction by Mark Pottle
published by Frontline Books, 2012
ISBN 978 1 84832 639 2
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 126pp plus introduction, appendix (order of battle), bibliography and maps. No index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

The principal foe of the British Expeditionary Force in the summer and autumn of 1914, von Kluck commanded the German First Army during its advance across Belgium and the great wheel that led to decisive defeat of the German Armies by French and British forces on the Marne in early September. He is often accused of being at the very root of this defeat, having exposed the flank of his army to French counter attack from the direction of Paris. His 1923 book "The march on Paris" is a self-justification.

This is not a book that is easy to read, for it comprises little more than statements of von Kluck's intentions and orders, with relatively few reports as to what was actually happening on the ground, the dialogue with Second Army on his left (indeed if the book teaches us anything it is that communication to General Headquarters or the other Armies was sadly lacking), or the intelligence on which he based his decisions (we presumably have to thank editor Mark Pottle for adding some valuable footnotes that point out how flawed von Kluck's knowledge of the whereabouts and strengths of the BEF was, for example). It is also devoid of anecdote or anything that hints at von Kluck's emotional state or indeed how his army was feeling, the losses it was incurring or the state of its morale. Von Kluck is at pains to point out that his army was assaulted in Belgium by civilians and that "corpses of women with rifles in their hands" were seen: he makes no mention of his army carrying out the "frightfulness" against the civilian population for which his army became renowned. Throughout, Von Kluck refers to himself as the "Army Commander" and there is a curious absence of personality in the writing.

As a technical reference, for example to be read alongside the British or French official histories, "The march on Paris" offers a useful counterpoint. The BEF's battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the retreat in general are of course covered.

The maps that are reproduced are in a single section at the end of the book are frankly useless in the scale in which they have been printed. A number reproduced within the body of text are better. I also deprecate the absence of an index, which surely would not have been difficult to produce from a digitised manuscript.

Mark Pottle's introduction is valuable in setting the work into historical context.

Overall, one for the connoisseur perhaps, rather than the general reader.

 

Retreat and rearguard: the BEF's actions from Mons to the Marne
by Jerry Murland
published by Pen & Sword Military 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 391 2
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 168pp plus notes, appendices, bibliography, references and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

For their comparatively small size, the British Official History of military operations dedicates more space to the battles of 1914 than any other period. It dedicates as much attention to the actions of battalions as it does to entire Divisions in the final Allied offensive of 1918. Yet it also manages to miss, or give short shrift to, several localised and numerically small actions that proved to be of crucial importance in the British withdrawal from Mons and the long slog southward that ended with a crossing of the Marne in September 1914. There is a gap to be filled and Jerry Murland's "Retreat and rearguard" does it well: it comprises a series of vignettes that go a long way to explaining these actions and improving our understanding of the nature of early war experience of the "Old Contemptibles".

Drawing on a wide range of sources - many personal accounts having not hitherto been published - and illustrating them with some clear maps, Murland describes battalion-sized actions at, amongst others, Audregnies, Le Grand Fayt, Etreux and Nery, along with many other instances of small unit rearguards, and setting them in the context of the overall retreat. The description of fighting is down at tactical, individual level although set in context of bigger things. The book illustrates that while it was exhausting and at times perplexing, the retreat did not descend into chaos and at times the BEF gave the advancing Germans a sufficiently bloody nose to hold them off and buy precious time. This was achieved at no little cost, with several units suffering terrible casualties.

A good book, well worth buying especially if you have an interest in the war's early phases.

 

Horsemen in no man's land
by David Kenyon
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 364 6
cover price - £19.99
Hardback, 245pp plus appendices, notes, bibliography and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

The cavalry is one of those features of the Great War that causes many people to question the sanity of those who were in command. The very existence of a mounted arm; the wastefulness of large numbers of men spending months in the rear areas wistfully awaiting the great breakthrough that would send them galloping in action; the thousands of horses and tons of forage taking up ships and manpower that may have been put to better use; all of these things raise the eyebrows. David Kenyon's book, based on a PhD study and drawing upon many primary documents, sets out to put the cavalry and its effectiveness into proper historical context. Or rather, I should say British cavalry in France and Flanders, for this is a study of the Western Front and not the campaigns elsewhere to which the cavalry appear better suited.

The book is, despite much technical content, highly readable and moves at a good pace through the early battles. It is more focused on the true problem for all of the armies on the Western Front: how to break into and through a deep, formidable, continuous and usually entrenched defensive system when the enemy's firepower aimed at stopping such a breakthrough is prodigious. The author describes and discusses each key point at which the cavalry goes into action in its mounted role: the best known (if often misinterpreted or even dismissed) actions at High Wood, Monchy le Preux and Cambrai; lesser known fights at Collezy, Moreuil Wood, Amiens, Honnechy and Reumont. All the issues are covered - command and control, firepower and tactical action, the performance of the leaders and men in battle and their effect on those battles. The cases are well argued and the author draws clear conclusions. It is well illustrated with some good maps and photographs. Personally I found it most interesting and it certainly made me question some of my own beliefs and prejudices, even if at the conclusion I remained unconvinced of the 'payback' from the commitment of huge resources to the cavalry. But do not let my feelings detract from the book: it is excellent.

The book includes a short foreword by the late Richard Holmes.

 

Fromelles 1916 :
No finer courage - the loss of an English village

by Michael Senior
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 537 4
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 215pp plus appendices, notes, bibliography and index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is a welcome republishing of a work that first appeared in 2004 under the title "No finer courage: a village in the Great War". No doubt that its republication has been inspired by the fact that Fromelles has been much in the news in the last year or two. Had anyone new to the subject of the Great War read or watched much of the coverage of the finding, exhumation, identification and reburial of men now in the new Pheasant Wood military cemetery, they could be forgiven for thinking that Fromelles was an exclusively Australian affair. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the battle of 19-20 July 1916 ranks among the worst days losses in Australian history, and those identified in the exhumations have all come from the AIF. Often forgotten (and indeed in some quarters often disparaged) is the involvement of the British Territorials of the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division. "No finer courage" is concerned with men from the village of The Lee, who served (amongst others) with the 2/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Nine men of the village died at Fromelles, within a matter of minutes.

The book takes us through the background of The Lee (which, rather unusually, was owned by Arthur Liberty, founder of the store in London that still goes by his name); enlistment and training; the village itself during war time, and it rounds up with discussion of the legacy of Fromelles and the war in general. The 2004 edition has also been brought up to date with coverage of the Pheasant Wood findings. But of course the core of the book concerns the battle of Fromelles, from the decisions and build up to the attack on the Sugar Loaf salient made by the 61st Division. This will be of interest not only to British readers but Australians, as the 2/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion was on the immediate right of 59th Battalion AIF at the junction of the two Divisions. The telling of the battle includes no surprises but is given specific flavour, benefitting from the fact that the Buckinghamshire unit and the village have more remaining records that most.

The Lee war memorial lists 30 names - a not untypical roster from a village whose pre-war population was about 750 - and of those fewer than a third died at Fromelles, but it is clear that many more were present and that the battle had a serious and lasting effect. I found the discussion of the legacy of the battle and the social history of the village during the war to add greatly to what could otherwise have been in many ways straightforward battle narrative. Well researched and written, "No finer courage" is certainly worth considering.

One point of technical note is that in this edition the text is in quite a large and well spaced typeface, which with plentiful photographs and maps spins it out to 215 pages plus appendices etc.

The 2004 edition was by Sutton Publishing of Stroud, although Abebooks also shows the History Press and indeed a paperback version.

 

Under the Devil's Eye :
The British military experience in Macedonia, 1915-1918

by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 461 2
cover price - £25
hardback, 2366pp plus appendices, notes, sources and index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is a welcome republishing of a similarly-titled work that first appeared in 2004 and largely thanks to scarcity has commanded ridiculously high prices on the use book market. "Under the Devil's Eye" is one of very few works that examine the Salonika campaign through the lens of modern research-based scholarship. Written by two professional historians and campaign enthusiasts (Alan Wakefield being the current Chairman of the Salonika Campaign Society) the book is rightly highly regarded and is a good, absorbing read.

The "Devil's Eye" was a Bulgarian strongpoint, an observation post on rocky heights that glared down on British positions. Not only was this something of baleful note for the men who were under its gaze, but it remains symbolic of a largely static, wasteful, neglected campaign in the most inhospitable of terrain. The despatch of British forces to Salonika, to fight in a campaign that was partly to stop Bulgarian attacks on Serbia but as much to do with persuading Greece to come in on the Allied side, is a terribly neglected story in comparison with, for example, Gallipoli. This is perhaps unsurprising: there is no romance here; no public schoolboy visions of campaigning in the footsteps of the Trojans; no "nearly might haves". Salonika was for the most part tedious drudgery of digging, wiring, repairing roads and swatting away the mosquitoes, enlivened by patrolling and the infrequent flaring up of battles. When fighting did take place it often proved as costly as anything on the Western Front - the mowing down of men struggling across the open of the Jumeau Ravine being one incident that sticks in the mind.

The book takes us swiftly through the tortuous strategic logic that ended with sending the force, and the complex politics not only of the campaign but the relationship with our French allies and the machinations of Greece, to concentrate on the experience of being there. The main battles and raids are covered in detail, but we are also shown the life of men behind the lines, of the hospitals and transport, the medical provision and the work of the air force. As an relatively short overview of a campaign it has few shortcomings. It also benefits from some very good clear maps, a good index, meticulous notes and a Divisional order of battle. For this reviewer - fortunate owner of one of the original 2004 versions - it is a little disappointing that the book does not seem to have inspired much by way of other new works - battalion histories from Salonika, for example, or detailed works on a given battle. Perhaps this is simply down to scarcity and that this reprint will encourage more of this kind of examination of one of the British Army's least-covered stories.

Beware that this is the same book as "Under the Devil's Eye: Britain's Forgotten Army at Salonika 1915-1918" (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004).

 

The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel: Tommies, Diggers and Doughboys on the Hindenburg Line, 1918
by Dale Blair with an introduction by Gary Sheffield
published by Frontline Books
ISBN 978 1 84832 587 6
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 143pp plus Allied order of battle, notes, bibliography and index.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

There is a dearth of good, scholarly work on the operations of the Allied “Hundred days” offensive of 1918. Why this should be I do not understand, for the battles were of critical importance and huge scale and complexity. Perhaps the reading public (and not a few academics and authors) prefer to dwell on the pains of 1915-1917 than understand how it was that the Allies finally overcame a mighty foe. Of all of the fighting in the second half of 1918, none was of greater importance than that of late September, when a number of parallel assaults were made. Among them, the central attack against the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line system was surely the most daunting. Yet with David Lloyd George’s warnings not to incur large numbers of casualties ringing in his ears, Sir Douglas Haig and his armies tackled it and defeated it. It is a key component in possibly the greatest British military victory in history.

“The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel” deals with the combined British, Australian and American operations that tackled the problem – and, as Dale Blair recounts, achieved a victory albeit at very considerable loss and with confusion along the way. The battle is barely touched upon outside the official and regimental histories, making this book especially welcome. The core of the narrative deals with the American 27th and 30th Division’s attack against the land above the tunnel, in the area of the Knoll, Gillemont and Quennemont Farms, which was supported by and carried forward by the 3rd and 5th Australian Divisions. The British 46th (North Midland) Division’s southern flanking attack and extraordinary feat in crossing the deep cutting of the St-Quentin canal is also covered to some extent, as are the northern flanking operations by 18th (Eastern) Division.

We are presented with a concise telling of the operational story, principally at Corps, Division and Brigade level rather in the style of an official history. It is not down at the level of the experience of the fighting soldier: there are few personalities and individual stories. The narrative is essentially one-sided, with little coverage from the German Army’s perspective: we are left largely wondering how they put up as strong a resistance as they did. The author is in turn critical of Haig and Rawlinson (mainly for allowing fresh American units to be committed to preliminary operations when they might have been better advised to hold them for the main stroke), but pinpoints Monash as having been cautious and not integrating the raw American Divisions sufficiently into his command and care. He also highlights the paucity of artillery support as a factor in the continued ability of the Germans to defend and pour fire through the fog into the Allied infantry. But this is where I began to be puzzled and found that “The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel” asked more questions than it answered. Why, for example, (given that we are talking about the most critical attack in the offensive) was the artillery cover so weak? Why did the tank support flounder so badly in the “old British minefield” to which the author refers? Did they not know it was there? Professor Gary Sheffield’s endorsement of the book calls it a distinguished contribution to the military history of the First World War. It is - I welcome this book and enjoyed it – but there is more to be said about this battle and I hope that “The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel” leads to more studies of the action, for I feel there is as yet more to understand.

The book has a small selection of photographs and the text is illustrated by the use of eleven maps from the Australian Official History.

One criticism I must make is of editorship: there are misspellings of place names (examples being Beurevoir, Guillemont Farm, Vendhuilles and Guoy (even the index spells this wrongly)).

 

Gallipoli
by Peter Hart
published by Profile Books, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84668 159 2
cover price - £25
hardback, 462pp plus appendices and index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

I guess I place myself among the so-called revisionist historians of WW1; I cannot abide the simplistic and emotional nonsense that led to the phrase "lions led by donkeys" having entered our consciousness. But there were donkeys - oh, yes - and to find them you have to look no further than the leading politicians of 1914-15. And nowhere will you find a more cogent set of evidence and arguments to support this view than in Peter Hart's "Gallipoli".

The core of this book are the words of men and junior officers who were thrown into Gallipoli. They are the words of British, French, Australians and New Zealanders and of their Turkish enemies. Their personal and collective courage, tenacity and abilities come through this book so strongly that they shout into your head. But the main thrust of the book is the exposure of the crass, shallow political thinking that pitched the British army into this dreadful campaign at all, and the continually flawed decision-making and command failures that deployed the forces in such a way that it is hard to conceive of how a campaign could be run any worse than Gallipoli was. Peter Hart rams home the points that Gallipoli was strategically nonsensical, logistically unsupportable, and doomed to failure. He rejects the idea, often voiced in previous works on the subject, that it was a close-run thing and that with a bit more luck things might have gone differently for the Allies.

In addition to taking this no-nonsense line on the campaign, it is refreshing to see that Peter also corrects previous imbalance in telling the whole story including coverage of the significant French contribution, the role of the small Indian force and that of the real heroes of Gallipoli, the Turks. For heroes they were, defeating a (at least at first) much larger and better equipped enemy and eventually ridding them from home soil. These are aspects of the campaign that have been rarely explored in the past by British authors, let alone those who have focused principally on the Anzac sector.

"Gallipoli" is a great read - pacy, engaging, thorough. It also drives the reader though a set of emotions: anger, bewilderment, sadness and wonder. I certainly emerged with a clearer sense of wondering how on earth the men coped and how they achieved what they did - on both sides - faced with such an appalling set of circumstances. A tremendous book and for anyone interested in this campaign or the political direction of the war in its early days, a genuine must-read.

 

The German Army at Ypres 1914
by Jack Sheldon
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978 1 84884 113 0
cover price - £25
hardback, 364pp plus appendix, bibliography and index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is the latest in a sequence of books by Jack Sheldon, examining the German army and its operations on the Western Front. As a body of work they have established Jack as a reliable authority and have justifiably developed a reputation as absorbing and insightful works, bringing balance and perhaps some surprises to British readers.

"The German Army at Ypres 1914" is in some ways a slightly misleading title, for the scope of this volume covers a good deal more than the intensive conflict between the BEF and the Germans in front of Ypres from 20 October to 22 November 1914. The "advance to contact" and early skirmishes as both sides sought to move around and outflank the other in the series of events that made up the so-called "Race to the Sea" take us from the area of Ploegsteert and the Messines ridge all the way up to the Yser line and Disksmuide. As such, this is as much about the Belgian and French engagement with the enemy as it is about the BEF, presenting us with the single most coherent view of the developing battle in Flanders that I have ever read.

The author draws heavily upon published regimental histories, with a leavening of some first-hand accounts and primary documents. As such there is a danger that the source material is a little varnished and likely to have been presented in an optimistic light, but Jack is wise enough to cut through the regimental bull and bravado, to pull out the key facts and ensure that what we have is a reliable telling of the tale.

First Ypres became the subject of mythology on both sides: of British pride in the expertise of their regular soldiers and of defence against overwhelming odds and a highly trained and professional enemy; for Germany, the abiding memory was of patriotic but untrained students advancing arm in arm to their deaths. All these and more come under scrutiny and the truths begin to emerge. The key fact is that the German assault proved in the end to be a complete failure, for all manner of reasons of training, command deficiencies, tactics and morale. The near-breakthrough and defeat of the BEF was not, perhaps, as close a run thing as the British official historian would have us believe. In the end , the battle fizzled out, both sides exhausted. This view from the other side of the wire makes for a fascinating comparison with British reports and I recommend this work highly to anyone interested in Ypres or this early phase of the war.

I understand it was for reasons of space (and at 364 pages this is already a pretty hefty volume) that there is relatively little coverage of the actions south of the Menin Road after the initial skirmishing (a pity in some ways as the actions of 6-7 November in the Zillebeke area were as critical as any in this battle).

Sorry to say but one aspect of production does, for me at any rate, detract - and that is Pen & Sword's continued use of a very upright and narrow typeface. I can only guess that it is some weird attempt to make this book look and feel more German. Well, it hurts my eyes and is not necessary. But let me not overstate this and end by saying that the "The German Army at Ypres 1914" is a terrific piece of military history.

 

August 1914 : surrender at St Quentin
by John Hutton
published by Pen & Sword Military, September 2010
ISBN 978 1 844884 134 5
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 191pp including appendices plus notes, index, illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is a history of a notorious episode during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons all the way down to the Marne and beyond in late August 1914. It concerns elements of the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers of 10th Infantry Brigade (4th Division), who dragged themselves, bewildered and exhausted, into the town of St Quentin after managing to get away from the battle at Le Cateau on 26 August. Their commanding officers Lieutenant Colonels John Elkington and Arthur Mainwaring, in the belief that the town was now surrounded by Germans, that their men were in no fit state to move any further and wishing to avoid casualties to the civilian population, arranged with the mayor to surrender their force. They were unaware that a British cavalry screen stood between them and the enemy, and the energy and determination for the troops not be given up came from the cavalry in the shape of Major Tom Bridges of 4th Dragoon Guards. The dreadfully weary Warwicks and Dubs were persuaded to resume their retreat: Elkington and Mainwaring were subsequently court-martialed; cleared of cowardice but cashiered out of the service.

The story has often been told, not least in two very good and relatively modern books: Peter Scott's "The Colonel's surrender at St Quentin" and John Ashby's "Seek glory, now keep glory". Both of them and John Hutton's volume suffer from the limited existence of the original sources concerning the incident. The court martial record and the surrender document, both vital pieces of evidence, are absent, forcing all of the authors to rely on the three protagonists own versions and upon secondary sources. John Hutton has made use of the sound recording archive at the Imperial War museum, but none of the clips quoted actually cover the vital moments in St Quentin. As such, the three versions pretty much rely on the same evidence and it is only the author's own interpretation of events that distinguishes them. John Hutton takes an even-handed and sympathetic view, recognising the enormous strains placed upon the officers and the fog of war that both confounded intelligence and prevented communication.

Overall, we are given a good personal background of the main players and an engaging, entertaining telling of the retreat, from the tense and desperate moments as 10th Brigade falls apart during the latter stage at Le Cateau down to the eventual withdrawal from St Quentin. Of great interest too is the description of the contrast in the lives of the two disgraced officers: Elkington went on to join the French Foreign Legion and gave valuable and courageous service; Mainwaring disappeared from public view and died without having much of a chance to address the controversies that continue to surround his role in the affair.

Given that the incident had received a good deal of prior coverage and without new evidence, it is perhaps inevitable that "August 1914" does not mark a vital development in the historiography of the early period of the war. But it is a good read, well observed, and certainly worth a look.

 

Bloody Victory: the sacrifice of the Somme and the making of the Twentieth Century
by William Philpott
published by Little, Brown (July 2009)
ISBN - 978-1-4087-0108-9
Hardback, 629pp plus appendices, notes, bibilography and index.
cover price - £not stated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is the best book on the Great War that I have read in many a year. Well written in an engaging style, it is founded on excellent research and good, common sense. It single-handedly destroys much of the mythology and misunderstanding of the 1916 Battle of the Somme and I applaud the author for that.

The Somme was not about one day, as so many books, TV programmes, press articles and battlefield tours would still have us believe. It was a huge affair of several quite different phases over five months, in which it could be argued that the British army finally came to the big boy's game. "Bloody Victory" puts it into proper context - and that means concentration on French strategy, tactics and fighting, for they dominated the reason why Britain fought this battle and why it fought they way it did, where it did, and when it did. I learned a great deal from this book about the French part of the Somme: the leadership struggles, tactical development and the stages of the fighting. Philpott argues clearly with regard to the Allies attritional strategy, highlights great successes in September 1916 and the over-long plunge into morale-sapping fights in the mud and dark of October and November. Out of it all comes a sense that the British army had come on by leaps and bounds from 1 July to the successful assaults of November, not least in the realisation that man for man, this new army was the equal of the world's best. For Britain, the Somme was not seen at the time as a defeat - far from it - but somehow (not least thanks to the self-interested poison pens of Churchill and Lloyd George) it soon came to feel like it was. The author explores French, British and German operations, effects and legacies in truly masterly fashion.

The ironclads of Cambrai
by Bryan Cooper
originally published by the Souvenir Press, 1967, as 'The Battle of Cambrai'

reprinted by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978-1-844884-176-5
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 255pp plus sources and index, illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker

This is a reprint by Pen & Sword in what appears to be a concerted effort to make freshly available a number of the 'classics' despite the fact that 'The ironclads of Cambrai' is one of those books on the Great War that you still see often in second hand book shops, notably the paperback versions of the 1967 original.

Bryan Cooper's work is fluent and to the point, and remains a good starting point for anyone wishing to learn about Cambrai, increasingly being seen as a turning point in British tactical development during the war. It is a readable account and good value.

'Ironclads' was written at a time when historians and authors did not enjoy the same access to operational records and personal service records that we have today. As such, it draws largely on official and regimental accounts (principally British ones) and is inevitably shaped and limited by what they have to say. Even so, the author makes the account lively if a little impersonal. It also covers well the limited but gallant role of the tanks in stemming the German counter attack of 30 November 1917. As an assessment of the battle it has been overtaken by modern scholarship, perhaps best represented by Bryn Hammond's "Cambrai 1917: the myth of the first great tank battle" and Jack Sheldon's "The German Army at Cambrai". Both offer a more balanced and informed account and in particular do much to add weight to the effect of the new British artillery tactics in assisting the tanks to achieve so much on 20 November 1917. Even so, this is a nicely produced and welcome reprint.

by Simon Jones
published by Pen & Sword Military, February 2010
ISBN 978-1-84415-962-8
cover price - £25.00
paperback, 255pp plus notes, bibliography and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker

Simon Jones' "Underground warfare" is a welcome addition to work covering the mining and sapping operations on the Western Front. The subject has received little (but generally high quality) coverage in the past but attention has been raised in recent years by TV documentaries and the novel "Birdsong". Certainly more people are now aware that there were teams of engineers and navvies at work, fighting a claustrophobic and deadly war below the trenches.

This book takes us through the evolution of underground warfare, beginning with a brief history of military mining since the 1700's, through the tentative work in France in 1914 and 1915, to the spectacular tactical effects of mine and tunnel works in 1916 and 1917. I was particularly glad to see that it spans German and French efforts, as well as the British, and provides perhaps the best overview to date. The subject is necessarily technical, but Jones manages very well the difficult balance between providing enough coverage of the engineering and munitions aspects and making the book a readable work that will appeal to many. It should not be regarded as a reference work for military mining, but as an excellent overview of how it came about, why it was considered important, what took place and the effects it had. Similarly it is not a history of the Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies, although their formation, organisation and command are covered and indeed British organisation of its underground work is considered by the author to be superior to the German. It is illustrated with plenty of useful diagrams, maps, technical drawings and photographs.

I certainly enjoyed reading it, learned a few things and can recommend it to anyone interested in trench warfare. The Great War was not just about infantry going "over the top" and "Underground warfare" adds to our understanding of a key aspect of the fighting.

Mons: the retreat to victory
by John Terraine
republished by Pen & Sword Military, February 2010
ISBN 978 1 84884 170 3
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 217pp plus British order of battle and index, illustrated
a reprint of a 1960 B. T. Batsford original

reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

I have a confession to make. I knew the late John Terraine and to this day regard him as one of our finest historians. His turn of phrase is powerful and his insight quite remarkable. It's hard to believe that he published "Mons" fifty years ago; nearer to the battle in years than to our present day and at a time when Great War veterans were plentiful and in the prime of their lives. His masterly work in researching and writing for the BBC's famous series "The Great War" was still three years into his future.

At the time he wrote "Mons", there was no access to the unit war diaries and many of the other primary documents that today's historians regard as the essential planks of their tools. His written sources were the Official History and published memoirs, but John also had access to the personal (and comparatively fresh) memories of soldiers. He also wrote at a time when the Great War was slipping from public consciousness, overwhelmed by the more recent events of WW2 and against a rising tide of anti-war, anti-authority, anti-class sentiment. John would later find all barrels turned against him for his defence of Douglas Haig, when he became a very lone voice in a world full of 'lions led by donkeys' mythologies. But "Mons" pre-dated his work on Haig and John was in 1960 pretty well unknown in the world of Great War literature.

As a study of the battle, "Mons" stands the test of time remarkably well. The title is if anything a little misleading for the scope of the book is not just the stand of a few hours on the canal bank at Mons on 23 August 1914 but the searing experience of the retreat that followed and the strategic defeat of the enemy on the Marne. This is not a book for anyone wishing to find the pinpoint detail of where the 2nd Umpshires were at 3pm on 27 August or how Lance Corporal X won his DCM. But for those wishing to understand battle, confusion and the problems of working in a coalition of allies, it is deservedly a classic. John dedicated "Mons" to the Old Contemptibles; more than anything he is utterly sympathetic to their plight and the efforts they made.

No question. If you have not read "Mons", do so.

PS. As a matter of interest I once asked John which of his works he rated as the finest. Knowing him primarily as a Great War historian, his answer surprised me but on recently re-reading it I think I understand why. "The right of the line", his superb work on the Royal Air Force in WW2, was his selection.


The riddles of Wipers: an appreciation of the trench journal, The Wipers Times
by John Ivelaw-Chapman
published by Pen & Sword Military, January 2010
ISBN 978 1 84884 191 8
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 204pp, illustrated
a reprint of a 1997 Leo Cooper original

reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

On receiving this book I idly opened it at a random page and found that it was discussing Frederick John Roberts, an officer of the 12th Sherwood Foresters who played a large part in editing and producing the trench journal, the "Wipers Times". My eyebrows were raised when I read that he did not appear in the Army List and that his Military Cross has no citation, as though he was some kind of neglected or shunned figure. (He does, and MC's awarded as part of the New Year's Honours never had citations). I flicked around, finding that that Ypres was being shelled on Armistice Day (really?). A start to finish read revealed more curious misunderstandings, misinformation or lack of research.

Possibly the greatest example in a book examining the war at Ypres is when the author questions why the paper made no mention of the Battle of the Somme in early July 1916, yet raised its hat to the Canadians. "There is no report of a recent skirmish" that would led to such a thing. That is, aside from the largest battle to have taken place in the Salient since May 1915: the Canadian recapture of Mount Sorrel on 13 June 1916 [details]! Then to wonder why, on 3 July 1916, no mention is made of a battle many miles away and just two days before reveals an absence of understanding of how the "Wipers Times" was actually produced. It probably took more than two days to typeset!

A whole chapter is made of the author's quest to solve the 'riddle' of the Wipers Times correspondent, "Teech Bomas". A bit of logic on the author's part thinks it might be Beech Thomas, then trip to the newspaper archive at Colindale and a chance reading of the "Daily Mail" revealed it to be one William Beach Thomas. The unititiated might be led to believe that this was a brilliant piece of detective work: far from it. It was fully explained in Patrick Beaver's excellent 1973/1988 "The Wipers Times: a complete facsimile" - which this author quotes in "The riddles of Wipers"!

If you can put aside these things, there is some interesting content. The poetry, funny stories, pet placenames and jargon used in the "Wipers Times" is placed in context of the terrible fighting that went on at Ypres from October 1914 to the same month four years on. The author does this not by chronology but by theme, looking in turn at the conditions in which the men found themselves and the nature of trench warfare, then at the men themselves and the social and morale contexts behind the words. Especially for anyone who has walked those fields and visited the places, it is evocative indeed. But I am afraid that on the whole it is not a work I shall rush to look at again.

I see that there is also another book on this subject, "Suffering from cheerfulness: poems and parodies from the 'Wipers Times'" (by Malcolm Brown, Little Books, 2007). Malcolm's previous works have been models of research. Having not seen it I can not be certain but I am willing to bet that his examination of the "Wipers Times" is worth seeing.

Better yet, seek out a copy of Patrick Beaver's book. It has been reprinted on a number of occasions and is usually freely available. Not only is a complete run of "Wipers Times" included but his end notes are excellent and you will solve far more of the 'riddles' by reading them.


The flatpack bombers : the Royal Navy and the Zeppelin menace
by Ian Gardiner
published by Pen & Sword Aviation, May 2009
ISBN 978 1 84884 071 3
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 144pp plus bibliography and index, illustrated
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

They still make Zeppelins in Friedrichshafen. Small ones. You can even take a ride in one over the Bodensee towards the mountains of Switzerland if you are lucky enough. I was certainly lucky to be sent to do some work there a few years ago, to ZF, the modern form of its original name Zeppelin Friedrichshafen. ZF do not make the modern flying machines, but turn out thousands of gearboxes for cars, still at the forefront of technology. Strolling one day along the town's lake front I was delighted to visit the Zeppelin museum - all fascinating stuff and some excellent exhibits of their global flights in the 1930s, but little mention of their early warlike use. That is a great pity, for in 1914-1918 the Zepps were among the most feared of weapons. Once their great menace had been identified, the British attempted something never done before - to fly over great distances in aircraft that were puny in comparison with the Zepps, to bomb the factories and sheds not only at Friedrichshafen but also at Dusseldorf and Cuxhaven.

The Flatpack bombers (which I think is a truly awful title) offers a history of the background, execution and effect of these raids. The title itself comes from the fact that a small number of Avro 504s were dismantled, shipped in kit form to the French aerodrome at Belfort, reassembled and tested, all in the greatest of secrecy, before going on the Friedrichshafen mission. The crews and mechanics were destined to remain in the Belfort hangars, sleeping next to the machines in freezing weather, until the opportunity came to mount the raid. The stories of the three quite different targets are told clearly and well, drawing upon German as well as British official and secondary sources. The reader can only gasp at the sheer bravery and skill of the pilots, and wonder at the pinprick scale of the raids. The fact that navigation was largely by the senses and that no maps of France could be carried adds to the intrigue. Almost inevitably little damage was done, but the Germans were caused to increase their anti aircraft defences. Certainly the raids had next to no effect on the ability of Germany to use its Zeppelins against Britain and its Royal Navy.

Despite not knowing much about the war either in the air or on the sea, I enjoyed Flatpack bombers. Ian Gardiner brings the characters of the men and the derring-do, early war, feel of their exploits to life and leaves us with a valuable record of their story.

A good buy.


Eden to Armageddon: World War 1 in the Middle East
by Roger Ford
published Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009
ISBN 9780297844815
cover price - £30
hardback, 419pp plus notes and index. Illustrated
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker

Eden to Armageddon pulls together in a single volume the story of the fighting in Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Hejaz, the Caucasus and Persia in the Great War: quite a challenge when it is considered that the British Official History covering these campaigns amounts to nine volumes, and that covers little of the Russian/Turkish operations in the Caucasus. The causes, campaigns, politics and outcomes are complex and have left a legacy that continues to trouble the world today. The campaigns in the Middle East are a key part of our history and it is surprising that they have received relatively little coverage in recent years - certainly in comparison with the inch by inch analysis of the first day on the Somme, for example. Eden certainly helps to put the various fragmented campaigns into context and to illustrate how they were linked and influenced each other, particularly of course as the Turkish Empire was the common enemy.

The book is well written and makes for easy reading despite the complexities of the subject. It is more about political and theatre strategy, tactics and operations that it is about men, for few individuals figure and there are no personal stories or anecdotes. It does make Eden a little dry but it is hard to see how much of the minutiae could have been included without the book becoming unwieldy.

Research seems thorough but as there are no references or bibiliography it is hard to see what has been included and discarded. This is my most serious criticism. Eden is fine to read but of little value as reference, simply because we do not know the source of the facts and arguments presented. Acknowledgements are also omitted and we get no feel for the author's motivations for writing it.

There is a good selection of black and white photographs and some clear maps, although they show the geographies rather than the campaigns. Some extensive end notes complete the book

As a starter for understanding the campaigns, it provides a good overview and goes into enough detail without the reader feeling to swamped or lost.

The forgotten front: the East African campaign
by Ross Anderson
published Tempus Publishing, 2004
ISBN 9780752423449
cover price - £25
hardback, 299pp plus abbreviations, extensive bibliography, endnotes and index, illustrated
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

This book is the result of PhD study on a military aspect of the First World War that has received relatively little coverage in terms of published history. There is a good Official History and Edward Paice's "Tip and run" but little else. The campaign was complex, drawn out over a long period of time and stretched over vast geographical distances. It does not make an easy description. Ross Anderson has clearly done a good job of academic research and study, and covers the fighting and politics in considerable detail. The list of references to operational records, war diaries and official papers is impressive, and the narrative can be considered authoritative. There are few personal records or anecdotes.

I am largely unfamiliar with the terrain and placenames of East Africa. In consequence I found myself constantly having to refer to the maps that are dotted throughout. Unfortunately it is not always clear which placename appears on which map, so this was a little frustration. The maps themselves are adequate if not of particularly high quality. A section of 37 black and white photographs, not referenced but I imagine from the IWM collection, served to underscore just how different this campaign is from the more familiar story of the Western Front.

A good work of reference, which has now been reprinted in paperback.


Ghosts on the Somme: filming the battle, June-July 1916
by Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts
published Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781844158362
cover price - £25.00
hardback, 174pp plus tables, notes, bibliography and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

The film "The Battle of the Somme" remains of great interest today as an icon and documentary of the period. Officially produced for propaganda purposes, it was a huge box office attraction in 1916, seen by millions at home as the battle continued to rage in France. It was even watched by the troops, in the safety of the rear areas. Certain clips from the film will be all too familiar to anyone who watches modern TV coverage of the war, for they are seen over and over again. The enormous fountain of earth exploding into the sky above the Hawthorn ridge, and advancing infantry going "over the top", with men tripping and apparently dying in their own wire, feature in virtually every production. But in the latter instance it is only "apparently", for parts of the film were faked.

Drawing on the film, photographs taken at the same times and places, and the cameramen's notes (including the memoir of the film maker Geoffrey Malins), "Ghosts on the Somme" is a painstaking detailed analysis of every second of the film. The authors have attempted to identify the places, dates and times, units involved and individuals. The shots that are faked - in some cases many miles behind the lines - are identified, too. It makes for fascinating reading. The book could be quite hard going without the dozens of photographs, film stills and "then and now" photos that it serve to illustrate the points; they are carefully chosen and make the book stand out.

Overall it is an admirable piece of work and a very good book. It is perhaps, given the level of detail, one for Great War or film buffs rather than the general reader or WW1 beginner, but most would find it enjoyable and thought-provoking reading. It certainly adds something new to the plethora of analysis and publications covering 1 July 1916. Surely no other day in military history has received and continues to receive such depth of research.


The Battle of Loos
by Philip Warner
published Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781848840768
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 223pp plus appendices and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

This is another in a recent run of reprints of well-known works on the Great War, published by Pen & Sword. As a study of the battle it pales in comparison with at least two more recent works ("Most unfavourable ground" by Niall Cherry and "Loos 1915" by Nicholas Lloyd), and is not up to the high standard of academic rigour we have now come to expect from such works.

Warner's treatment relies heavily on personal accounts and letters by men who were there, and these are undoubtedly the strongest and most interesting aspect of the book. These include extracts from the diary of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French. Unusually, the personal accounts are not organised by timeline but into chapters, one for each British Division that was in action. This tends to make it difficult to follow the battle as it unfolds, and Warner's opening description of the conception and execution of the battle is at too high a level for the uninformed reader to position the individual that is speaking. Read in conjunction with, or possibly after, one of the two books named above, the accounts make much more sense and do add to our understanding. There is also a clear one-page sketch map.

I would not recommend rushing out to buy "The Battle of Loos" and certainly not for anyone wishing to study the battle for the first time, but the personal content is certainly of interest and worth buying for that alone.

The road to Verdun: France, Nationalism and the First World War
by Ian Ousby
published by Pimlico, 2003
ISBN 0712664300
cover price - £8.99
paperback, 269pp plus sources, endnotes and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

If you are looking for a history or analysis of the epic battle of Verdun from a military or fighting standpoint, this is not the work for you. You will be better informed by Alistair Horne's classic "The price of glory" or Malcolm Brown's "Verdun 1916".

Ian Ousby takes a look at Verdun through a rather different lens. He concentrates on the rhetoric and symbolism of France and its relations with Prussia/Germany, and concludes that these things had an enormous bearing on the path that led to and sustained such an awful battle. The very experiences and emotions of men who were there were shaped not only by their physical experience of battle, but by their attitudes and limitations of expression that were influenced by such rhetoric.

The history of the battle itself is given only in outline, although the opening bombardment and attack and the surprisingly easy capture by the Germans of Fort Douaumont are give some deeper attention. The entirety of the battle and its phases are subsumed into one, endless, merged mass of unspeakable horror, fuelled by the many personal memoirs, letters and notes that appear to form the bulk of the author's research.

The enduring symbols of the battle, from Petain's "On les aura" to Nivelle's "Ils ne passeront pas", to the Tranchee des Baionettes, the crushed concrete of the forts and the nine villages that were never rebuilt, are all analysed and take their place in the new set of legends and myths that Verdun created for itself. Ousby does not go on to comment on how those myths formed the basis for new and inappropriate conclusions that led directly to ignominy and feat in 1940, but the reader can easily pick out the strands.

The major failings for me are the almost total absence of the German viewpoint and experience, and the reduction of Joffre to a rather boneheaded individual merely bleating for resources for his Somme offensive.

Having said that, I found this a useful work and for the most part a fascinating read. There are some central passages on long-past French history, nationalism and racism that I found slow and at one point almost made me give up, but the pace and focus on the battle itself picks up again and by the conclusion I was glad that I persisted with it.

If I was asked for advice about what to read in order to develop some understanding of French attitudes and politics at Verdun, I would place this second to Horne's "The Fall of Paris: the siege and the Commune, 1870-71 ".

Magnificent but not war: the Second Battle of Ypres 1915
by John Dixon
republished by Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781844158904
cover price £15.99
paperback, 298pp plus 58pp of appendices plus bibliography and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

A welcome reprint of a solid account of one of the worst times of the British army's experience in holding the Ypres salient.

The surprise use by the German army of poisonous chlorine gas in the afternoon of 22 April 1915 still has the power to shock and revolt us all. The release of the deadly weapon against men with no power to defend themselves against it led to a large break into the Allied line, with only acts of immense personal courage and determination managing to fight back and hold on. Foremost among these was the counter attack by the Canadians at Kitchener's Wood. This terrible day was only a harbinger of horrors to come as both sides drew in reserves and some of the most costly, horrific and at times chaotic fighting took place.

John Dixon draws on official and regimental accounts, as well as memoirs and some secondary sources. There is a number of sketch maps, which provide a reasonable overview but could perhaps be updated and improved in the event of a future republication. Naturally he covers the opening attack and piecemeal counterattacks in detail, but perhaps more importantly he also positions the battle as taking place while fighting of the fiercest and most violent nature was already taking place at Hill 60, and goes on to describe the broader fighting that only died down in mid May. By that time, the depleted British force had been pushed back much closer to Ypres - effectively onto the start point it would have for the Third Battle which opened on 31 July 1917.

It must be said that John's book presents a very British-sided view. There is little coverage of the vital role played by the French and Belgians and we also get little feel, other than of the launch of the gas, as to German thinking and tactics.

In some ways, novelty of the gas attack aside, Second Ypres has been something of a neglected period. Few Kitchener's men here, no pals battalions being slaughtered as they walked to their doom. No. This was the remnant of the regular army (notably including those 27th and 28th Divisions that were inevitably late to the fray as they were recalled from the furthest outposts of Empire), Cavalry Divisions fighting dismounted, the Indian Corps, gallant Canadians, French and Belgians. The force also included the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, a Territorial formation committed to the battle so soon after they had arrived in France that the men had not seen a trench. The Germans lost 6000 dead in this battle, the British 14000. It should not be forgotten and John's book sets the record straight.

Finally, how good it is to find a book with a good index, excellent bibliography, order of battle and other useful supporting details. In this regard, "Magnificent but not war" is a model of its type.

Cambrai 1917: the myth of the first great tank battle
by Bryn Hammond
published Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008
ISBN 9780297845539
cover price - 25
hardback, 459pp plus notes and index; illustrated
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

This is a terrific book: well written, engaging and thorough. Bryn Hammond's entry onto the stage of Great war authorship marks him out as another fine historian to emerge from the University of Birmingham / Imperial War Museum stable.

Cambrai is an enigmatic battle. It is recognised that many of the operational approaches that had such a bearing on the fighting of 1918 made a debut on 20 November 1917 and the days that followed. The battle began so brightly for the British, with a combination of massed tanks and a surprise artillery bombardment breaking with seeming ease into the enemy's formidable and deep defences. So encouraging, such a relief was this after the heartbreaking slog through the mud at Passchendaele that bells were rung at home. Yet within a matter of days it had all gone horribly wrong. The Germans managed to array concentrate reserves and strike back with novel - unmechanised - tactics of their own and by the time the dust had settled both sides had broadly equivalent losses and there had been no strategically important gain of ground. It was another proof that it was possible to break in to an enemy's position, but damnably difficult to break out of it and beyond.

The myth to which the author refers is the characterisation of Cambrai as primarily a tank battle. The early mechanised success of the battle was seized upon in post war years by those in positions of military and political influence who had a tank agenda (Fuller and Liddell Hart predominantly); Cambrai is still the regimental day of the Royal Tank Regiment. Yet as Hammond so ably demonstrates, success at Cambrai was more to do with the effect of the hugely heavy, surprise bombardment and jumping barrage than any other factor. As would be the case in August 1918 - the next occasion on which massed tanks would lead an assault - the effect of tanks soon dwindled as they remained mechanically unreliable and were all too often easy meat for determined enemy artillery. Cambrai was not primarily a tank battle; this is to misinterpret things badly and in so doing miss the point that it was possibly the first time that artillery, tanks, infantry and aircraft combined to such great all-arms effect. The fact that tanks played barely a part in the desperate defensive fight when the Germans struck back should also indicate to the wise that Cambrai means more than tanks.

In some ways, the myth / countermyth aspect of this book is overplayed by the title. Putting it aside, "Cambrai 1917" is an excellent account of the battle. Drawing deeply upon the memories of individuals who were there, left in the form of various artefacts at the Imperial War Museum, and upon much primary documentary evidence, Hammond tells the story as well as it can be told. All the fears, doubts, confusion, elation and weariness of battle are there, as well as the plans, maps, orders and reports. It makes for a very human telling of the story and lifts this book from being a replay of the volume on this battle in the British Official History.

The book includes some good, clear, maps and a selection of photographs. Highly recommended.

Haig: a reappraisal 80 years on
edited by Brian Bond and Nigel Cave
republished by Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781844158874
cover price £14.99
paperback, 260pp plus index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Not exactly a book on a battle or campaign, but ket to understanding them.

If you have any interest in the British conduct of the war, this is a vital book for your collection. First published ten years ago and now in a welcome paperback reprint, it is an anthology of scholarly research and fine writing from some of the world's leading historians of the Great War.

As the title suggests, the fourteen papers that make up the book are centred on that most enigmatic and frustrating of soldiers, Sir Douglas Haig. The general stance is unambigious and clearly stated: the authors set out to refute the many myths, untruths and misunderstandings about Haig that for many make him the Devil Incarnate. And they do so with masterly skill, drawing upon a broad range of primary sources and making objective, balanced judgements.

The opening paper, by Dr John Bourne of the University of Birmingham, expresses his depression that arises from the apparent failure of such scholarly work to dislodge the popular view of Haig as a dull, remote, unfeeling butcher of men. The mythology, founded on press disenchantment late in the war, David Lloyd George's scurrilous "War memoirs", the 1960's class-war pacificism of the musical "Oh what a lovely war" and countless "sound bite" repetitions in books and TV since then, now has deep roots. If John was depressed in 1999, he surely will be today, for despite another decade of excellent research and characterisation of Haig, the man-on-the-street view seems unchanged.

You would be hard pressed to find as strong and engaging a collection of work as this in any historical field - and for the price of the paperback it is a steal. The papers by John Hussey, Ian Beckett, David Woodward, Keith Grieves and Stephen Badsey are, in my opinion, particularly strong and cover Haig as a man, his relationships with his predecessor Sir John French, the CIGS Sir William Roberston, the Asquith and Lloyd George Governments and the press. Haig is shown throughout to be a strong, steady, rational leader but his weaknesses and foibles are also ruthlessly exposed. Nigel Cave's work on Haig, his religion and and his lionisation by the British Legion is also novel and offers another insight into how the Haig myths developed. The writing remains fresh and relevant; John Peaty's paper on Haig and military discipline has been to a large extent been overtaken by events (the pardons of those men executed under military law), but even that is a weighty statement as to Haig's position on this and the arguments against pardons.

This is a first class work and strongly recommended.

The day we won the war: turning point at Amiens 8 August 1918
by Charles Messenger
published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008
ISBN 9780297852810
cover price - £20.00
hardback, 239pp plus orders of battle, selected bibliography, notes and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

At last, in the anniversary year of victory, a book that covers a British success. In the welter of work produced in recent years there is still precious little about what I believe to be the most fascinating and "modern" year, 1918, and even less about the fighting that defeated the German army. Peter Hart's "1918" is a splendid example of this year's writing on Haig's victory of the Hundred Days whereas Charles Messenger's book concentrates on the opening action. It is not a huge work or particularly deep in detail, but it covers the ground well and will be useful acquisition for anyone interested in this part of the war.

It is difficult to believe that there is so little written coverage of the Battle of Amiens. It was a short but highly effective action by Fourth Army that built upon French successes of a few days before, and succeeded in punching a hole into the German defences. The attack was spearheaded by the fresh Canadian Corps and relatively fresh Australian Corps, with only III Corps representing the Brits in the mix. Messenger also deals with the often neglected French involvement. Haig's ability to to build on Amiens and develeop a high tempo of operations to maintain offensive action on a number of sectors in France and Flanders was among the key factors that led to the Armistice in November 1918.

Charles Messenger is an accomplished military historian whose previous works will be familiar to many. This book can only add to his reputation. It refers to official histories, unit war diaries and personal accounts to present a readable and thorough account of the action. Amiens is often thought of as a great tank battle, and indeed it was, but he quite rightly examines the effective role of the artillery and the air as decisive factors. Part of the mythology of tanks in the war, so exposed by Bryn Hammond's recent work on Cambrai, is also examined here, in that while Amiens opened with a concentrated force of massed tanks there were few available for a second phase, such were losses to fighting and mechanical failure.

Given the choice of sources, the German side is not covered in great depth: it will be most interesting to see if Jack Sheldon (recent one man English language historian of the German Armies on the Western Front) ever provides us with the opposing view.