- Philip Hamlyn Williams
- ARRSE Rating
- 3.5 Mushroom Heads
Against this brief, it broadly delivers. The author is clear that he is not a military historian, and the occasional reference which strikes the ear oddly makes this clear - "artillery guns" for example. However, notwithstanding this he has made good use of his sources to present the broad sweep of British Ordnance activity (which goes much further than just weaponry) in World War One.
The book is divided into nine chapters, further divided - slightly choppily - into multiple sub-chapters, and preceded by an introduction. It is as well not to skip the introduction (even though it reads more like acknowledgments in part) as it introduces you to some characters who become important later in the book. After this, then, each chapter covers one or more important facets of the war of supply, illustrated by some excellently-chosen photographs from the RLC archives.
In the first chapter (The British Expeditionary Force) there is a good, brief section on the antecedents of the AOC, also overall the chapter feels a bit disjointed, whilst generally true to its early BEF theme.
The second and third chapters (The Home Base and Supply of Warlike Stores under the Master General of Ordnance, and Gallipoli, Salonika and East Africa) are also informative, giving a good idea of what the AOC did - as acknowledged above, much broader than just Ordnance.
The book gets into its stride in chapter 4 (The Shell Crisis and the Birth of the Ministry of Munitions - in which the author, as he reveals, has a family interest) and becomes a more interesting and engaging read, although the break-up of each chapter into sub-chapters, as noted, makes for a choppy reading experience.
Chapter 5 (Trench Warfare on the Western Front) illustrates a slight proofreading problem which is a theme throughout the book, having two sub-chapters both headed, without differentiation, 'Ammunition'. It had a number of interesting vignettes on the role of Ordnance men.
Chapter 6 (Vehicles and the Tank), is good on the development of mechanisation but the Ordnance aspect feels a bit undermentioned.
Chapter 7, (Other Theatres of War - Palestine, Mesopotamia, Italy and Russia), especially the section on Palestine, works well. In the author's own phrase, the story of the development of the rail network serves as a thread for the ensuing narrative. The Mesopotamian section, also good, has a nice eye for the detail of watches, gun-springs and wheelwrights.
Chapter 8 (The Role of the USA), a brief excursus into American industry and its contribution to equipping British, American and Allied forces was interesting on the role of the British military and purchasing missions and war finance.
Finally, there are good reflections in chapter 9 (The End) on the effect on supply of the great retreat (good and bad) and the subsequent Allied advance.
The book does have some mild idiosyncrasies. There is no index, for example, which is a drawback if one wishes to track down references to a particular person or unit. This makes it all the more important to fight the temptation to skip the introduction, as to do so is likely to involve leafing back 100 pages in the hope of finding the page where the person was introduced.
The quality of composition, of writing and of analysis is uneven. Sometimes the author could do more to draw out the relevance of a quotation, rather than treat it as self-evident and therefore leave it 'hanging'. There are also some anti-climaxes. Sandwiched between the accounts of an unnamed former China missionary on the one hand and a railway clerk on the other, we are advised that "the range of backgrounds [in the AOC] was huge". However, we can't evaluate that statement as there is no information about their antecedents given in the text.
On analysis, the limitations of the author self-confessedly 'not being a military historian' surface when the 'weapons development' section of chapter 4 briefly devolves into a debate between two schools of thought on the effectiveness of Woolwich, with no obvious resolution. It would have been good for the author to come down on one side or the other.
My biggest criticism is probably down to the publisher rather than author and centres around proofreading. The transposition of 'Von Donop' to 'Von Dunlop' is more than a little unfortunate for the name of the former Master General of Ordnance, but perhaps pardonable, whereas rendering Govan as 'Govern' really isn’t, nor is 'leant' instead of lent, 'motor' for mortar or 'Royal Enfield' for Lee-Enfield. Foreign place names are hard but a publisher of military history should not render Menin as 'Menim'. Admittedly, some of the errors might lay elsewhere: for example, the incorrect captioning of "guns en route" for what are plainly carriages only (8" MkVI Howitzer, I think) might be the fault of the source, although one would expect the RLC Archive to know better!
The criticisms above aside, I ended up with a better understanding of ordnance and supply than before. Although not expressed as a smooth and compelling narrative, that is perhaps almost inevitable given the sweep of the subject. Overall, the book worked, and I would recommend it, although as a book into which you can dip, rather than one which you sit down and read. To this end, having the sub-chapters listed on the contents page (and an index) would be a help.
The History Press, 1 June 2018
Star rating: 3.5 out of 5