Death of a Division

Death of a Division

Author
David Martin
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
The 66th Division, as one can see by the high numerical Divisional number was formed late in the war, it went to France in mid-1917, their first taste of battle was at Passchendaele where they spent November 1917 to early January 1918 in the forward ‘positions’ of the newly captured Passchendaele, the positions couldn’t be called trenches as they were mere mud and water filled shell holes.

After Passchendaele the 66 Division was withdrawn from the line and sent to the rear to re-equip, retrain and to rest, they were then sent to a quiet part of the line to Gough’s 5th Army… quiet, or so it was thought. They held a part of the line that was not continuous, but a series of strong points; Redoubts. On the early morning of the 23rd of March the German attack came on in very thick fog that gave only 5 or 6 metres of view. Forward positions fell back to a defence line which was also ‘redoubts’ the sun came up about 10am and lifted the fog, whereby some devastating fire was directed at the German infantry by way of enfilade fire from the redoubts using Lewis guns and rifles.

The Fifth Army continued to fall back just as a boxer would ride the punches. They went back as far as the Somme battlefields of 1916. It was being called the ‘Worst defeat of the war’ The whole of Gen Gough’s 5th army continued going back, Gough remarked that the main attack would last 8 days; he was correct right to the day, give or take a few hours. After the eight days the German’s stopped and dug in.

The Fifth Army system of Redoubts were used throughout the whole retreat, British troops could not understand why the Germans came on in ‘line abreast’ sometimes in two or three lines one behind the other. On the Somme the Machine Gun Companies were brought into play from well prepared positions and used to very good effect. Some of the redoubts and defensive positions were commanded by Brigadiers, Lt Colonels and some by private soldiers. Many of the redoubts were manned by a mix match of about ten units. Some whole companies of Royal Engineers gave a very good account of themselves and fought so very well, though they were very disappointed to have to destroy the canteens, Hospitals and YMCA rest camps, including bridges over the Somme river that they had completed during early 1917 after the German had pulled back from the Hindenburg Line.

There is one scene where the 66th Div were defending a Beetroot factory, it was also used as a dressing station. They were chased out by a Jerry attack. The Jerries’ were seen to occupy the factory with about two companies of Infantry, A few minutes later both the British and German artillery laid heavy guns direct onto the factory, it was laid quite flat in minutes; One British officer remarked ‘Poor Jerry.’

The 66th was a Lancashire Division, tough men from the Mines and cotton mills, they had been found to be particularly good at ‘Raiding’ opposing German trenches, on one occasion swimming canals in bitter winter to do so. It is rare to see one County supplying enough men for a Division, but they also supplied men for three other divisions, in all Lancashire provided men for over 30 battalions.

The German attack was eventually turned around by some fresh Divisions, in particular two Australian divisions, using the new Whippet tanks. By now it was early summer 1918, once the Germans started to move back, they never really stopped after that. Just like the Bulge in 1944, or at Kursk, they had ‘shot their bolt’

Gen Gough was ostracized after the attack and the retreat, he was considered a failure and sacked. He was not brought back into society until after Field Marshall Haig’s death in 1928. In retrospect I would ask ‘Was it a failure?’ it crucified the Germans, though our casualties were not small either, many of those British defenders thought of as dead came back from the German prison camps after the armistice. Haig’s hostile feelings toward Gen Gough were not helped by Lloyd-George’s constant criticism of Gen Haig, in particular over Passchendaele, Haig, was on a sticky wicket and felt vulnerable.

The author has to be congratulated for his depth of research, which is a credit to him and to the book, there are some lovely anecdotes, also some very good descriptive scenes of what the Battalions had to face during their time at Passchendaele and during the retreat.

The following are two scenes as described in the book. One 66th Div officer describes seeing two companies of Australian infantry, raise up quickly from the ground and attack a few companies of exhausted German that were trudging towards them, he watched the glint of Australian bayonets as the Germans turned and ran back into an inferno of their own shellfire, just like running into a ‘wall of fire.’ And another; a Bn commander was having a bath, the first in 10 days as arranged by his adjutant, and using an old beer vat, when his Brigadier suddenly arrived, The adjutants picturesque description of the CO standing up quite naked to salute is beautiful to read.

I recommend the book and award it 4.5 stars, I felt there is a little too much detail in the first half of the book, also the title ‘Death of a Division’ maybe a little over the top as many other divisions were decimated from time to time and then rested, re-equipped, retrained and sent back to the line. A very good book otherwise, one that I will keep and read again.

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