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Supplying the British Army in the First World War

Supplying the British Army in the First World War

Janet Macdonald
ARRSE Rating
0.5 Mushroom Heads
This is a book I was looking forward to; the “Q” triumphs and trials of the British Army in the Great War has been covered in large scale by historians as part of their publications, but has not generated a decent genre of books devoted solely to the arts logistic. I’ve felt for some time that this is a missed trick; there is enough drama and endeavour (not to mention fascinating / dull detail) buried in the histories to fill many a book, and so I was very keen to get started on reading this. Sadly, it’s awful.

The book is a hardback 224 pages long, priced at £25 with a startlingly good selection of photographs and some interesting original tabulations of the supply chain. It’s logically set out with the main meat split down into bite sized chapters – Mech Transport, munitions, engineering, horse drawn transport, rail & waterway, food, medicine, uniforms etc – where each topic is looked at singly over the period 1913 to 1918. A final chapter examines the post war draw-down en bloc.

Everything looks great about this book until you actually start to read it. The writing style is hard to pin down; one moment it’s Janet & John, the next it’s plummy Edwardian English interspersed with 21st century jargon. Basically it’s un-referenced cut and paste, or at the very least large parts are culled from original documents. This could be tolerated (if not forgiven) were it not for the unmitigated bollocks that the author tries to pass off as fact.

From the dust sleeve, it appears Janet Macdonald is a published historian who previously has concentrated on 18th Century Royal Naval victualling, which for all I know she might be the world’s greatest authority on. Presumably she was looking round for something new to punt to her publisher and thought “WW1 – that’s very zeitgeisty at the mo. I’ll write about stores on the Western Front; how hard can it be?”. Unencumbered by any specific knowledge Ms MacDonald has eschewed research for the less obvious gambit of copying out stuff where she could, guessing at other stuff, and filling in the gaps by paraphrasing orders of march into paragraphs. Sadly her guess work has been less than inspired. This is not immediately apparent if you have no knowledge of her specific topic, but when you get onto an area you’re familiar with, boy does it stand out.

Ploughing through this book(no mean feat- it manages to be both interminably dull and hopelessly erratic simultaneously) I began to suspect that the author had less grasp of the subject than your average GCSE student; however it was only when I reached the chapter on munitions that the scales fell from my eyes fully.

She mentioned the ammunition scandal only tangentially, which I suppose could be forgiven if she was concentrating on the field army, but she wasn’t. Her lack of understanding is so manifest that I could not quite believe what I was reading. Terminologically the woman is a menace, referring to all small arms as “Hand guns”, FFS:

Did you know that a box of 250 rounds belted .303” weighed 221lbs? Or the reason that the SMLE was so called is due to the fact that its magazine ONLY held 10 rounds (“Short Magazine”, see)? How about the ”fact” that “mortars need a launcher”? My personal favourite is the description of how a mortar works: ”The mortar shell was dropped into the tube manually, where it connected with a firing pin at the bottom of the tube detonated it”, Presumably a single-use weapon then. When she got round to describing actual hand guns, what she wrote defies description, so here it is:

“The standard British pistol was the Webley Mark IV revolver… Using 11.6mm bullets they were very reliable but needed much practice as they tended to jump when fired”. So, not too bad Macdonald Minor; apart from the fact that it was the Mark VI which was the standard military firearm, the calibre of .455” is never referred to ANYWHERE by a metric conversion, and the term you’re looking for instead of “jump” is RECOIL. See me after class for a sound thrashing.

The description of Cavalry supply is laughable, her passage on machine guns appears to have been culled from the “How and Why Wonder Book of the Great War”, everything she wrote about tanks is either blindingly obvious or wrong and she didn’t really mention any of the logistical support they required (a shortcoming in a book about logistics). Her description of hand grenades development was utter, utter bollocks.

Looking at the transport chapters, Macdonald has decided to pad them out by writing out the contents of various standing orders, technical publications and so on in full but passing it off as her own work: was it really of any use to anyone for her to write out “To handle minor problems each lorry carried its own toolbox containing : 1 adjustable spanner Seabrook or Billings &Spencer or similar pattern, 10-12in; 1 adjustable spanner King Dick or Billings &Spencer or similar pattern, 6-7in” and so on through another sixteen items? Surely it would have been easier and more honest to include a plate of the toolkit CES, as she obviously got her hands on one.

The same pattern can be seen throughout the book. For each chapter Macdonald writes a bare bones framework and then fills it up with stuff she copies out from sources (but doesn’t reference, so there’s no way of knowing whether it’s original or secondary) and then makes shit up to fill in the gaps. Supplying the British Army in the First World War is an example of the worst sort of history book; it does nothing to increase knowledge and has been slapped together with unseemly haste, no intellectual rigour and absolutely no care for the facts. It’s doubly frustrating as it should have been so much better.

I have nothing further to say about this book except to implore you not to buy it.

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