1915 was a year of transition in the first World War. On the Western Front the British Army was reconstituting itself from the remnants of the 1914 BEF plus Territorial, Indian and Canadian units. Towards the end of the year the first of Kitchener’s New Army divisions also arrived. At the same time soldiers and generals were having to come to grips with trench warfare and the challenges that it produced.
- Andrew Rawson
British industry was still gearing up production levels and was struggling to meet demands in terms of both quantity and quality (dud artillery rounds were notoriously common), new weapons were being rushed into production (notably the Stokes Mortar and Mills grenade). These problems were exacerbated by the Gallipoli Landings. Gas was used for the first time and the British Tommy reluctantly donned a tin helmet for the first time.
The British started the year on a line essentially chosen by the Germans, which meant that most of the British front was overlooked by German positions. Given the French refusal to allow withdrawal to more favourable ground (surely one of the poorest military decisions ever made) the British choice was either to remain in the current, unfavourable positons or recapture ground from the Germans. Given the French obsession with attack and the need to keep pressure on the Germans given events in the East the stage was set for Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, Loos and the rest.
This book describes this eventful and bloody year. The focus is very much at the tactical end; aided by sixty maps it describes who did what, where and when. The author has eschewed describing the German experience in anything other than the most general terms, which makes for a shorter book. The tale is told chronologically and the prose is generally clear.
The big disappointment is the maps. Most of them are based on the contemporary mapping, with formation locations overwritten in black text and the opposing front lines represented by black lines. This might have worked if the underlying maps had printed clearly, but they didn’t and the text on them is often illegible and they don’t contain trench names. There are far too many references to locations in the text that simply are not marked on the maps. The result is an intensely frustrating read that often fails to explain what was happening. This is a great shame as with more work on the maps the evolutions and manoeuvres would be made as clear as the author had hoped.
The prose itself is dry. The author has decided to include the names of commanders as well as units, so phrases such as “Lieutenant Colonel Green’s 2nd Sussex were shot to pieces” which makes for wordy sentences, a bewildering array of proper nouns and of course most of the commanders are rarely referred to again. In the parts of the book where battalions are being commanded by Captains and Lieutenants this does indirectly make the point about officer casualty rates – but that point needs to be made specifically as it was often relevant. All Victoria Cross winners are also mentioned by name which is usually managed without interrupting the general flow of the narrative.
There are some quotations from contemporary accounts and diaries, although irritatingly these are not sourced. The book ends in mid-1916 during the build up to the Somme and is finished off with a couple of pages of pithy conclusions.
Had the maps been up to scratch this would have been a very useful reference work describing who fought where and when. As they aren’t it’s a hard book to enjoy or commend. I hope that the publishers will allow a second edition with clearer mapping.