Reviews: regimental, unit and formation histories

Recent years have seen an explosion of new histories and reprints of those produced soon after the Great War.

If you would like to review a book and publish your views here, I would be happy to include it. Just contact me via "About the author".

The diary of an Artillery Officer: the 1st Canadian Divisional Artillery on the Western Front
by Major Arthur Hardie Bick DSO edited by Peter Hardie Bick
published by Amberley Publishing
ISBN 978 1 4456 0270 7
cover price - £16.99
softback, 205pp plus glossary, bibliography and index.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This book is based on the official war diary of the 1st Canadian Divisional Artillery, which was written by its Brigade Major, Arthur Hardie Bick. Unlike many such diaries, it was written in a lucid, candid and informative style and makes for not only a useful work of reference but something that can be read and enjoyed.

The diary, which covers the period from December 1917 until February 1919, has been enhanced by the addition of a running commentary explaining the context written by Bick's son Peter, and is of especial interest in the period from late July 1918 when the Canadian Corps went into action at Amiens and played a lead role in the "hundred days" offensive thereafter. This was a time when the learning, technique, tactical and armaments developments came together as a formidable weapon of war: the diary and commentary talk of creeping barrages, counter-battery, neutralising and counter-preparation bombardments and all the panoply of field artillery methods through which the Allied armies finally overcame the foe.

With a good selection of personal and Canadian official photographs and a small number of rough but adequate maps, this is a book worth considering by anyone interested in the way the war was won and in the role of the Canadian artillery in particular.

Only available in softback, it is very nicely produced and at a sensible cover price.

 

The Kensington Battalion: "never lost a yard of trench"
by G. I. S Inglis
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978-1-84884-247-2
cover price - £25
hardback, 264pp plus appendices including a roll of honour and index, illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker

Can there be any more Kitchener infantry battalions, especially the locally raised "pals", waiting to have a history written? Surely there can not be many. This one, the 22nd (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers - raised, as the title suggests, in Kensington in London - already has a good if rather short published history in Christopher Stone's "Short history of 22nd Royal Fusiliers in the Great War". So was Geoff Inglis' work necessary and is it a worthwhile purchase? In my view, a resounding yes on both counts.

This battalion benefits from having an unusually extensive archive and a good deal of published work covering its activities. This provides an excellent background for compilation of a detailed history. But "Never lost a yard of trench " goes further, not least due to the fact that the author met several battalion veterans, as the work on the book began many years ago and was interrupted for a long spell. The personal touch, as well as the author's evident expertise and enthusiasm, makes this one of the best of the modern pals histories - and that is going some, as there have been many fine examples of the art. The narrative is rich, detailed and the story well told, profusely illustrated with photographs and some good sketch maps.

The Kensingtons came under command of 99th Infantry Brigade, originally of 33rd Division, but transferred after arrival in France to the regular 2nd Division. It saw much action during the war, notably on the Somme, at Oppy (Arras) and Cambrai, before falling victim of reorganisation in early 1918 when the battalion was disbanded. "Never lost a yard of trench " is an excellent example of modern scholarship and writing, and a fine epitaph to an interesting unit.


Tyneside Irish : 24th, 25th, 26th & 27th (Service) Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers
by John Sheen
republished Pen & Sword Military, January 2010
ISBN - 1-848-84093-4
cover price - £25.00
Hardback, 207pp plus appendices (gallantry awards, nominal rolls); no index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

John Sheen's work on the regiments of the North East of England will be familiar to many (see below, for example). Characterised by painstaking research, the writing is eminently readable and the books packed with facts, photographs and useful nominal rolls and listings. "Tyneside Irish" is no different and among John's best. This is a welcome and updated reprint from a 1998 Leo Cooper original.

Thousands of Irish people, forced into quitting their homeland in the shameful potato famine of the 1800's, moved to the north of England and many found work in the shipyards, factories and coal mines of Northumberland and Durham. Their traditions and comradeship held firm and were major factors in the raising of no fewer than four volunteer battalions for the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1914. As Sheen notes, many of Irish descent also joined the Green Howards (Yorkshire Regiment); he wonders what they would have done had it been the Orange Howards! Forming up into the 103rd Brigade of 34th Division, they were destined for disaster. More than half of the text of the book is concerned with the establishment, training, early service in France and destruction of the Tyneside Irish on 1 July 1916. This is to be expected, as that terrible advance near La Boisselle is their prime moment in the war. Name after endless name fell dead or wounded to unsuppressed German machine guns. The impact on the Irish community in the North East was appalling. John does, of course, cover the rebuilding of the battalions and their subsequent actions at Arras and Ypres. Three of the battalions were disbanded in Fabruary 1918; the 25th Battalion fought on against the 1918 German offensives before being reduced to a training cadre. The book includes interesting work on the reserve units and on the pipe band, too.

Every gallantry award made to the Tyenside Irish is covered, and there are (extensive) nominal rolls of the original 1914 volunteers, together with their fates. An excellent narrative, an excellent work of reference, a splendid collection of photographs: if I had one gripe it would be the absence of an index.

For anyone interested in the Tyneside Irish, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the first day on the Somme or Kitchener's Army in general, this is a compulsory buy.

The steel of the DLI : the 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry at war 1914-1918
by John Sheen
published Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781848841437
cover price - £25
hardback, 276pp plus honours and awards, nominal roll of officers and roll of 1914 Star, no index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker

As Lieutenant George might have said to Blackadder, "Well, hurray and hurrah!". A published history of a regular army unit, that most neglected of species, long overdue and thanks to John Sheen, past author of a number of splendid works on units raised in the North east of England.

2nd DLI was a typical pre-war infantry battalion of the British Army, although it had not seen service in the South African War and had returned home from India as long ago as 1902. It was placed under orders of 18th Infantry Brigade of 6th Division and remained in that formation throughout the war.

Sheen's history has all of the insight and detail we have come to expect of modern scholarship, drawing deeply on official, regimental and private records. With many excellent photographs, most of which will not have been seen before, and lacing the battalion's history with the stories of individual officers and men, he takes us through the whole war from the battalion's first searing experiences on the Aisne, right through to the honour of advancing into Germany as part of the army of occupation. In between, the 1915 nightmares of Hooge, the latter stages of the Somme, Hill 70, Cambrai and ceaseless engagement in 1918. The story also brings out how the nature of the battalion inevitably changed, from wholly regular through mostly volunteer to conscript, yet managed to maintain an ethos and professional air throughout. The battalion also coped with the rapid and manifold developments in armaments, tactical doctrines and training - a testament to the efforts of officers, NCOs and men alike.

As battalion histories go this would be hard to better; the fact that it records the endeavours of an unglamorous and unsung yet vital component of the army makes it very special.

No labour, no battle : military labour during the First World War
by John Starling and Ivor Lee
published Spellmount, September 2009
ISBN - 9780752449753
cover price - £30
Hardback, 372pp plus bibliography and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Once you step back from the trenches and the exploits of the infantry which are in many places covered in minute detail, large parts of the British Army remain unresearched and unexplained. It is perhaps not surprising. The work of the Army Service Corps, for example, was vital but not likely to set the pulses racing as far as written work is concerned. The Ordnance Services, Veterinary Corps, Medical Corps and even the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery have pretty thin coverage considering their vital roles. One area that has remained resolutely vague is that of the Labour Corps and the various other units and functions that provided manual labour. Until No labour, no battle, which I consider to be a fine piece of military history and a significant addition to our understanding of the army and the war.

My appreciation for John Starling and Ivor Lee's achievement is underpinned by my own knowledge of Labour Corps official records, which are patchy in existence and often uninformative when they can be found. To compile this detailed analysis of how the labour units formed, where they went and what they did is clearly a work of considerable effort. The book's title reminds us that no war - but WW1 in particular - can be fought without a tremendous amount of unglamorous 'behind the scenes' work. Endless digging, road mending, carrying, construction works and so on can be guessed at; it is not so easy to recall the salvage work, battlefield clearance, burial of the dead and reconstruction work in which the Labour Corps was involved.

No labour, no battle is unlikely to be bedtime reading (although the opening chapters on the development and work of the labour element are very readable) but a work of reference that will take an important place on many a military bookshelf.

Carmarthen Pals: a history of the 15th (Service) Battalion, the Welsh Regiment, 1914-1919
by Steven John
published by Pen & Sword Military, September 2009
ISBN 184884077-2
cover price - £25
hardback, 272pp, illustrated, no index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Steven John's book joins the long line of fine works examining the war of those locally-raised units of Kitchener's Army known as "pals", that helped build the volunteer army of 1914 and its esprit de corps. We have here another dedicated if not fanatic researcher-author, who has tracked down the fine details of the raising, training, fighting and fate of a pals infantry battalion, in this case the 15th Welsh. The "Carmarthen Pals" certainly came in part from the town, but also from across the smaller towns, villages and farms of that rural county in West Wales. Strangely, as the author explains, it also went on a recruiting jaunt to industrial Bolton in Lancashire.

We have grown used to the high standard of research behind these books, and "Carmarthen Pals" is no exception. The book mentions many individuals by name and is full of photographs, having pulled on official and regimental sources as well as the local press and the memoirs of individuals. A selection of maps helps the reader understand the battalion's role and location when it went into action, and the book concludes with a useful roll of honour, short bibliographies of battalion officers, and list of awards and decorations. The only black mark is the absence of an index.

A good read and valuable work of reference, that might be seen as a companion volume to Bernard Lewis' earlier "Swansea Pals" as the two units were under command of the same infantry brigade.


Regiments of the British Army: a handbook with book lists
by Victor Sutcliffe
published Mulberry Coach House Books, Volume 1 (Infantry) 2007 and Volume 2 (Cavalry and Armour) 2008
ISBN - 9780955636400
cover price - not stated
Hardback, Vol 1 472pp Vol 2 254pp plus indexex
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

An extraordinary, detailed and reliable work of reference, Regiments of the British Army delivers up to date information about the history and affiliations of regiments. With the regiments of the army now being barely recognisable from those described on the Long, Long Trail due to a series of mergers and developments since 1918, such an update is most valuable. The author provides for each regiment a summary of its history all the way from original formation, through the name and structural changes of the various army reforms, to the present day. Regimental badges (no pictures), nicknames, mottoes and other useful and fascinating information is also given. Perhaps most valuable of all is a wonderful bibliography, outlining published histories of each regiment. A really tremendous piece of work. The book is beautifully produced in two volumes. I could find no way to buy it online except through the publisher (see link right), which states that Volume 1 is £24.95 and Volume 2 £18.50. A third volume, covering artillery, engineers, signals and other services is slated for publication in 2010.

Copies are available from the publishers here

Kitchener's Men: the King's Own Royal Lancasters on the Western Front 1915-1918
by John Hutton MP
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2008
ISBN 9781844157211
cover price - 19.99
hardback, 239pp plus index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

After a few years of what seems a welter of minutely detailed studies of infantry battalions, this is more of an account of an entire infantry regiment, the King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) . Well, not quite. During the war the regiment grew to include a total of 17 battalions: this work concentrates on four of them. They are the 4th, 7th, 8th and 11th Battalion, all of which had strong attachment to the Furness area.  

The author, John Hutton, is the current Member of Parliament for the area where these units were raised (Barrow and Furness) and Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Quite how he managed to find the time to craft a regimental history I do not know.  

Of the battalions on which he has focused, three were raised for Kitchener's new armies in 1914 and one pre-existed the war in the shape of the 4th, a Territorial battalion. John narrates the history of each unit in turn, drawing, it seems, principally on the war diaries, official history and local material. I say "seems" as no references or sources are given, which is a pity. The stories are told in enough detail for the book to be a useful reference without the reader getting mired in the minutiae, although inevitably that means there is much less colour and personality than in, say, Terry Carter's "Birmingham Pals".  

I was a little disappointed to find little of the author's own feelings expressed in the book, other than in the preface. There is no analysis, comment or reflection on their performance, morale, capabilities or development. This is a shame, for such insight from a man of Mr Hutton's eminence would surely be of interest to many readers. Perhaps that is another book, once he retires!  

Overall, a useful addition to your bookshelf.   Just a comment to end this review. Readers, do not confuse this "Kitchener's men" with Peter Simkins earlier and masterful work on the raising of the new armies.