- Derek Clayton
- ARRSE Rating
- 4.5 Mushroom Heads
For those not familiar with it, this was a battle which rivalled the first day of the Somme in scale - with 80,000 troops of thirteen divisions engaged across a battlefront measured in miles - and saw seven Victoria Crosses won: four probably, as the author says, in sight of each other. It marked the forcing of the last prepared German defensive position on the Western Front and, with its loss, the end for the German Army in the west, all for approximately a tenth of the casualties of 1 July 1916. Yet it is known, if at all, for the death of one man, Wilfred Owen. It is certainly high time that someone devoted a good deal of scholarly research to a book on this battle, and this is that work.
The author analyses the battle both operationally and tactically, covering planning and execution, and the gap between these, tactical proficiency, where the engagement fits in the context of the BEF's "learning curve" and its overall contribution to the war.
To do this he deploys ten pages of Introduction - including an excellent historiography section (the scholarly apparatus is good throughout) - and an interesting chapter on Contexts before entering into the narrative.
The narrative of action is arranged by Corps, proceeding north to south down the battle line (each Corps having its own chapter) and then further arranged in sections by Division. Even with the inevitable trade-off against an overall view of the entire front which this arrangement entails, it makes it easy to follow the action.
The style is crisp and academic but simple to take in and the descriptions of action are well-supported by bespoke colour maps. The judgements given are, to a civilian eye, just and well-rounded and the use of an introduction and a conclusion section to each chapter is good in helping draw out the key points of the author's analysis of the action and how they relate to his overall thesis. Occasionally the author is able to reflect on the German experience and this lifts the narrative still further.
It is a very good book, masterly in its sweep and clarity and overall, sustains his core conclusion: "that this victory, hard-won as it was by a British army, hampered by logistical, geographical and meteorological constraints and worn down by the almost continuous hard fighting of the summer and autumn, irrevocably and finally crushed the will of the German defenders, leading to a pursuit of a demoralized, broken and beaten army, whose means of continued resistance had been destroyed, thus expediting the armistice."
Refreshingly, the proofreading is good, with only a handful of typos or missing letters/ figures. The excellent maps could only be improved by checking the titling of the battalions for accuracy and securing that all of the roads and places named in the text are reflected on the appropriate map.
The explanation of how these maps work is very useful. Knowing that the four sub-squares into which each map square is subdivided are lettered, clockwise, A-D is very handy as this knowledge is required to place the action on the maps. It might be good if this was brought forward from Appendix V to the opening matter of the book.
Star rating: 4.5 out of 5