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Chris Baker "The Long, Long Trail man" (Leamington Spa, UK)

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Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
by Peter Hart
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Objective and pacy analysis, 24 Nov 2014
I have often wondered why the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 has attracted so much attention from historians. There is a touch of “creation myth” about it all. The Official Historian dedicated two full volumes to it, yet there are battles of a greater size and fought by a technically much superior BEF in 1918 that barely merit a few pages. This is understandable to a degree, for there is a certain heroism to 1914 and the army was still small enough that the contribution of individual officers and men is not yet subsumed into a war-fighting machine. We have been told over the decades that the BEF – “Sir John French’s contemptible little army” according to the Kaiser – was brilliantly equipped and trained and it played the part of the hero at Mons, Le Cateau and Ypres. The BEF was dogged in retreat and defence; dashing in the offence; and fought to the last. Indeed the Official Historian would have us believe that the old army had died by the end of the First Battle of Ypres. It is a terrific and inspiring story.

As time has passed and documentary evidence has become increasingly available to researchers who had no personal involvement in these affairs, are more objective view is emerging. There have been several works that take this line in recent years. It is not so long ago that I reviewed Adrian Gilbert’s “Challenge of battle”, a good example of the trend. Peter Hart’s “Fire and movement” falls into this category, revealing a strong approach to research, sympathetic and adult analysis, and expression of opinion in ways in which Hart’s readers will be familiar from his previous body of work.

Drawing mainly on personal memoirs and papers (the end notes reveal few instances in which primary operational records are quoted), Hart takes us through the story from the pre-war decisions that shaped the BEF and took it to France; the key clashes during the retreat from Mons, the entrenched fighting on the Aisne and the move to the climactic battle in Flanders. He rounds off with a skate through the Christmas Truce. Weaknesses in command, battlefield control and tactics are exposed, but Hart remains conscious of the difficulties and is not shy of praise for men who found themselves in unexpected situations and facing a determined enemy. It makes for a good read and a balanced counterpoint to the creation mythology. There are plenty of endnotes for those who wish to find the original sources that the author has used.

The books is very nicely produced with good quality materials, and is rather heavy – a point to watch if you are paying for postage! For once the font used is not one guaranteed to cause eye strain and overall it is a book that will stand re-reading and reference without falling to bits. This is not the case with many books these days and OUP are to be congratulated upon it. My only comment in terms of production relates to the maps, which are reproductions of those in the British Official History and are in colour. They are good maps: so why squeeze them into about two-thirds of the page, leaving wide white margins?

Overall, whether you are new to the subject or a hardened 1914 devotee “Fire and movement” is well worth reading.

Signals from the Great War: The Experiences of a Signals Officer on the Western Front as Told Through His War Dairies 1917 - 1919
Signals from the Great War: The Experiences of a Signals Officer on the Western Front as Told Through His War Dairies 1917 - 1919
by Archibald MacGregor
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars War in 1917 and 1918 through a subaltern's eyes, 18 Nov 2014
I have to confess to a connection with this book in that the editor, Archibald Gordon Macgregor’s daughter Anna, kindly allowed me to quote from his diary and use a photograph of him in my 2007 book “The battle for Flanders: German defeat on the Lys, 1918″. Even back then she was engaged in the work that resulted in this excellent “Signals from the Great War”.

Archibald Gordon Macgregor, born in Nova Scotia in 1894, moved with his family to Edinburgh in 1901. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in February 1915 and served as the Signals Officer of 27th Infantry Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division on the Western Front from 1917 to 1919. “Archie” was awarded the Military Cross for his work during the Battle of the Lys in April 1918.

Archie left a real treasure trove of material concerning his war: his diary, letters, collected orders and other official material, maps, press cuttings, photographs and sketches. He also wrote a fascinating dedication of his material to his grandchildren in 1968. The editor has applied the lightest of touches to pull this material into a good, logical, well-presented and easily readable story. Letters and other documents are reproduced in facsimile, while the narrative is in clear text. It makes for an insightful, detailed, view of the war as experienced by a subaltern and is particularly valuable for its coverage of the last year of the war, a period all too often skimmed over or virtually omitted. Archie’s personality, practicality and objectivity come across clearly and I found I liked him. It is also of great interest that despite experiencing periods of great tension, personal danger and loss he never descends to disenchantment: quite the opposite indeed, for he knows there is a job to be done. His 1968 missive to his grandchildren concludes, “I hope neither you nor your children have to fight another war to defend the basis of Christian civilisation – but if you do, hold high the torch that was passed on in Flanders fields so long ago!”. Amen to that.

Very nicely produced in glossy paperback, the book is well priced and I commend it anyone. For those interested in the work of the Signals Service of the Royal Engineers or in the 9th (Scottish) Division, it is a particular treat.

Swansea in the Great War (Your Towns and Cities in the Great War)
Swansea in the Great War (Your Towns and Cities in the Great War)
by Bernard Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best local studies, 8 Nov 2014
The name of Bernard Lewis will be known to many people with an interest in South Wales in the period of the First World War, for he also is the author of "Swansea Pals" - and excellent account of a locally-raised battalion of Kitchener's Army published in 2005.

2014 has seen a veritable flood of books on the local experience of the Great War, with many cities, towns and villages being covered. To some extent the stories are inevitably similar, but they always have a specific flavour depending on the local industry, the pre-war presence of military facilities and the economic ebbs and flows during the war. "Swansea in the Great War" ranks among the best of these publications. It is also illuminating in showing us how fruitful the local newspapers can be as a source of snippets of information.

Swansea was, and to some extent it remains, an industrial town with a busy commercial port. Lewis carefully chronicles how war affected the industries and sea traffic. We read of the effect of men being recruited and others, including many women, taking their places to keep the industries working; how casualties and refugees alike arrived from Europe and were cared for by the people of the area; and of the issues of food supply, the effect of the Defence of the Realm Act, and much more.

Just under half of the book looks at Swansea people at the fighting fronts on land, sea and in the air. Two Swansea men were awarded the Victoria Cross during the war, to great acclaim at home; many men saw service with the 38th (Welsh) Division and shared its searing experience at Mametz Wood in July 1916; but local men and women also saw service in many others ways as detailed in this fine work. It is a not just a very good work of history, it is a tribute to Swansea and its people - and a good, absorbing and well-illustrated read. Top class.

For Bravery in the Field Great War British Army Recipients of the Military Medal 1914-1920 a Register
For Bravery in the Field Great War British Army Recipients of the Military Medal 1914-1920 a Register
by Peter Warrington
Edition: Paperback
Price: £32.25

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Researching the MM is not an easy task, especially if the soldier’s own service record ..., 27 Oct 2014
The Military Medal was introduced in 1916 to recognise bravery in the field by those of non-commissioned rank. Only some 1.5% of serving personnel received the award, although this amounts to more than 88,000 individuals. Researching the MM is not an easy task, especially if the soldier’s own service record is not available and even then it often gives scant detail. The awards were announced in the “London Gazette”, which for some years now has been available online, free of charge and is searchable – although many of us who have tried it sometimes find the search results somewhat unreliable. Researchers have found a pattern in that the date of the “Gazette” was often around three months after the act of bravery, and in some cases the award is mentioned in the operational record (war diary) of the man’s unit or the higher formation under whose command it came. In other words, it is often possible to determine an approximate date of the brave act. Much less easy is to find quite why the MM was awarded, for citations were not published and in most cases are hard to find. Service records, war diaries, local newspapers and letters or memoirs or the best sources but even they are not guaranteed to provide the information.

To date, there has not even been a single list of MM awards. ‘For bravery in the field’ corrects this. I can only applaud the work that must have gone into Peter Warrington’s compilation of what appears to be a complete list, for the book comprises 640 pages listing the recipients in alphabetical order or surname and forenames. It must have taken a considerable amount of work to produce. For someone researching lots of soldiers it provides a quick reference to check whether the soldier was a recipient of the medal. Each entry gives his name, rank, number, regiment and unit (the latter in most cases, although not all). The entry for the man also shows whether he was the recipient of other awards including a mention in despatches, and the date of his death if it was during the Great War. As such it is a very handy work of reference. It remains to be seen whether a heavy book in a large format paperback format will stand up to the rigours of frequent handling.

‘For bravery in the field’, though, falls short of being a genuinely valuable research tool. As a minimum I would have liked to have seen the “Gazette” date, alongside the man’s name; and ideally I would have liked to see listings organised by regiment (although accept that would double the size of the work if in printed form). I understand that Howard Williamson, author in recent years of two splendid works on researching medal recipients (and much more) is working on a complete MM directory that will not only give the “Gazette” date but the citation too, from wherever they can be found. This would be the holy grail for MM researchers but represents a gargantuan effort for which we will need to wait. In the meantime, ‘For bravery in the field’ provides a very useful listing.

Retreat and Rearguard - Somme 1918: The Fifth Army Retreat
Retreat and Rearguard - Somme 1918: The Fifth Army Retreat
by Jerry Murland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Study of inevitability and incredible courage, 29 Sep 2014
A new work from the prolific pen of Jerry Murland, who many readers will know from his previous excellent work on the British Army in the retreat from Mons and in the battle of the Aisne, both in 1914. In “Retreat and rearguard Somme 1918″ Jerry is dealing with an altogether different kind of war as experienced by the British Army. Gone are the days of cavalry charges and extreme shortage of guns and ammunition, for this work covers a period when the British and Commonwealth forces were increasingly able to exploit the fruits of material advantage and mechanised warfare. The book concentrates on a number of incidents during the defensive fight carried out by Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army against the immense German Operation “Michael” offensive which began on 21 March 1918. For Gough’s men, it was a “perfect storm”. They had recently taken over a long stretch of front line from the French, thanks to a political decision that flew in the face of military advice, and found it almost without defences. They had also been forced to reorganise the infantry brigades from four battalions to three, due to a critical shortage of manpower. The Machine Gun Corps companies had also only just reorganised. And to cap it all the British had recently begun to adopt a “defence in depth” tactical approach which placed the infantry in isolated posts, with the theory that their guns would halt any enemy incursion in the gaps between them and safe in the knowledge that the British artillery was present in mass and well on top of its game. Sadly for the Fifth Army, the Germans had developed tactics that were tailor-made for defeating this approach: a pulverising artillery bombardment that would cut off and neutralise the British artillery, and rapid “storm trooper” units that would penetrate into gaps in the British defence and fan out behind the posts. They also had, for a while, an overwhelming advantage in terms of sheer numbers of men, for they had been recently able to transfer many divisions from the now-silent Eastern Front. For many British infantrymen in the thick fog of 21 March 1918, the first they knew that enemy infantry had attacked was when they were behind them. Units in the forward posts were surrounded: they faced the appalling choice of surrender or to fight to the last. The German attack advanced rapidly through the gaps, forcing Fifth Army into a general retreat. As this took place, units were ordered forward to hold a position as long as possible – and they too often found themselves cut off and surrounded. Gough, in many quarters an unpopular General who might well have faced the sack for earlier battles, was removed as a scapegoat – for a battle in which his army had little chance of success.

It is understandable but a pity that the scope of the book has been limited to the British Fifth Army front, for the German attack did not succeed anywhere near as well against the better-prepared Third Army. The second phase, Operation “Mars” on 28 March 1918 in the Third Army area, proved to be a sound defeat for German arms.

In the mass and pace of the German advance against Fifth Army, many units and posts were simply annihilated. It is unsurprising that there are few documentary or even verbal accounts of what took place. Jerry Murland had wisely decided to focus on those where there is a body of evidence. The stories make for grim reading, yet are also uplifting for the men’s courage and stoicism in the face of extreme danger and tension. He covers, amongst others, the fights for the posts, keeps and redoubts from Le Fere up as far as Ronssoy and Epehy; the retreat to the Crozat Canal and the defence of the Somme crossings; battles for Rosieres and Moreuil. In comparison with the well-trodden paths of the Somme and Ypres, these places are little heard-of today but they deserve attention and respect. “Retreat and rearguard Somme 1918″ does a good job in bringing them alive again. To some extent the story is already covered by the British Official History and by Martin Middlebrook’s “The Kaiser’s Battle” but the author has plumbed the depths of official and personal accounts from both sides to create a pacy, well written and well-illustrated work.

Well worth reading.

Ypres 1914 - Langemarck (Battleground)
Ypres 1914 - Langemarck (Battleground)
by Jack Sheldon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent battle account and guidebook, 10 Aug 2014
What a pleasure it is to read a book by knowledgeable authors who are on top of their game. Many readers will be very familiar with the style, for "Ypres 1914: Langemarck" is from the “Battleground Europe” imprint, a series of part-history, part-tour guide works that has been building up over many years. The authors should be commended for taking an all-round view of the fighting they describe, for they lean heavily on German sources in addition to those of the British and Commonwealth forces.

Langemarck is a most important location in the Ypres salient, for it played a vital parts in the fighting of 1914 and 1917. Now a thriving and much larger village than it was before the war came to it in 1914, it is home to one of the most-visited spots on the area, the enormous German military cemetery. The coach- and car-loads that go there in the whistlestop tour of the Flanders battlefields miss much that is of interest around Langemarck. For anyone travelling to the area who wishes to see and understand more, “Ypres 1914: Langemarck” is your guide.

Nigel Cave had been the “Battleground Europe” series editor since its commencement and the author of some of its best works; Jack Sheldon is without doubt the best non-German historian of the German Army on the Western Front. In combination they make for a formidable pairing and this work is testament to their research, knowledge and authorship. The book covers the German advance into Flanders and the fighting when up against the British Expeditionary Force in the Ypres area, of course concentrating on the detail of the Langemarck actions. It is not only a good, readable history and battlefield guide but a corrective to the largely post-war German legends of the “Kindermord”; the slaughter of the innocent students as they marched, singing and with flags flying, to their deaths. The book is illustrated throughout and includes four battlefield tours and a description of the British and German cemeteries relevant to the battle.

Anzac - Sari Bair (Battleground Gallipoli)
Anzac - Sari Bair (Battleground Gallipoli)
by Stephen Chambers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.62

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent account and guide book, 10 Aug 2014
What a pleasure it is to read a book by a knowledgeable author who is on top of his game. Many readers will be very familiar with the style, for "Anzac: Sari Bair" is from the “Battleground Europe” imprint, a series of part-history, part-tour guide works that has been building up over many years. The author should be commended for taking an all-round view of the fighting he describes, for it leans heavily on Turkish sources in addition to those of the British and Commonwealth forces.

The name of Stephen Chambers will be familiar to most students of the Gallipoli campaign, from his previous body of work on the subject. He is also a frequent visitor and battlefield guide, and his knowledge and experience pays off in the narratives of this book. The book concentrates principally on the August 1915 offensive carried out by British and Commonwealth forces, against stubborn Turkish resistance, on the Gallipoli peninsula. The battlefield names ring with significance – Lone Pine, the Nek, Chunuk Bair, Hill 60. They were scenes of the most extraordinary courage and endeavour by both sides, with actions fought on precipitous slopes and in a geography that often defies description.

The Sari Bair ridge, so important to the fighting in the Anzac and Suvla Bay sectors of the Gallipoli campaign, is an incredibly complex and in places a remote and rather dangerous place to visit. Even armed with good maps, the reader will not comprehend just how tangled, steep, scrubby and rocky a battlefield it is. Anyone who has walked these slopes and ridges will appreciate how wisely assembled the suggested tours in “Sari Bair” are. Some of the tours can be undertaken by car, with stops and short walks to the more accessible spots. Some can only be walked, and Chambers’ advice not to do this alone (simply because of the terrain and inaccessibility) should be taken seriously.

For any student of the Great War, I would recommend that they go to Gallipoli if at all possible. “Anzac: Sari Bair” will be an essential part of your kitbag. For anyone reading it at home, there are few works that better illustrate the campaign or the place that is Gallipoli.

Somewhere in France: A Tommy's Guide to Life on the Western Front
Somewhere in France: A Tommy's Guide to Life on the Western Front
by William Whittaker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Letters from soldier in unusual unit, 2 Aug 2014
“Somewhere in France” is based on the letters written by William Whittaker, a native of Burnley who served in France between 1915 and 1919. It is of importance and is fairly rare in that he served with a Sanitary Section (41st) and accounts of these men and their units are few. The subtitle “A Tommy’s guide to life on the Western Front” is odd and misleading. William Whittaker was not your average Tommy. His place in a sanitary section was unusual and demanding, and his life inevitably different from the footslogger. His role makes him distinctive, not average or usual.

The 41st Sanitary Section was under command of the 24th Division up until April 1917 when it left to come under command of First Army. Not that we are told this in the book, either by William himself or by his son Geoffrey, who added the linking explanatory narrative. It is a pity, for even simply knowing that places the unit and William’s story in context and explains some of the movements and battles that play a part in his descriptions of his life in France. (For interested readers, the day to day war diary of the section during its time with 24th Division can be downloaded for a small fee from the National Archives website). As an example of where context would have helped enormously, William describes in one latter dated 1 November 1915 a lengthy and exhausting march, with only cobbled floors of pigsties as a resting place. The editor wonders “just what madness prompted this kind of manoeuvre”: a look at the war diary reveals very quickly that the move took place on 21-22 September 1915 when the unit moved from Maresquel to Hezelque via Le Biez. And why? Because the 24th Division had been lately allocated as reserve for the Franco-British offensive that was just about to begin (the British part being the Battle of Loos, which began on 25 September) and there was an urgency to move it into position. The sanitary section was attached to 73rd Field Ambulance for the operation and had to move from its rear area to be towards the front of the divisional area.

The letters are genuinely very interesting, give good detail and mention several of William’s comrades. They are worthwhile and a good read in themselves. The linking narrative is less good, containing errors of fact and is all too often subjective in its observations as to why things happened and what men thought of them. Examples of the factual: Lord Kitchener is referred to as General, when he had been Field Marshal since 1909; Sir Douglas Haig is referred to as Earl Haig, a title he did not receive until 1919; posters of the finger-pointing Kitchener apparently appeared on every hoarding, when in fact it has long since been shown that the poster was not used at all; and we are told that entire units of infantry went on leave together, which is just nonsense. “Somewhere in France” would have benefited by review by a third party to make sure such howlers were eliminated before publication. There are many examples of the subjective, but generally they fall into the “Tommies as victims”/”Lions led by donkeys” school of thought. An example of this is commentary of mention in a letter of 2 November 1915 that a company of a Scots unit had come out of action with only 17 men out of 250. We are told that “this all took place before the horrendous battles of Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme, where such casualties would be described as ‘slight’ in official reports”. This is just not so. No one used that language in 1915 or at any time, in high command circles or anywhere else.

“Somewhere in France” is a wasted opportunity. The letters give an excellent basis for a much better book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 11, 2014 12:22 PM BST

Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-1918 (Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare)
Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-1918 (Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare)
Price: £39.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent exploration of relationships, 5 July 2014
The French and Belgian civilians in the areas immediately behind the front line occupied by the British Expeditionary Force came into more frequent contact with British troops, and saw at first hand more of the life and death of those troops, than did anyone back at home. Almost every memoir, diary and letter that has been bequeathed to us as the historical legacy of the soldier’s experience in France and Flanders mentions some kind of interaction with the local people. Although the front became increasingly militarized and the occupants removed either by their own choice or forcibly, they continued to play a vital part in the billeting, feeding, entertainment and car of the troops. It is a little curious, then, that the relationship between the two does not seem to have been explored too much by historians. Craig Gibson’s “Behind the lines” is an excellent corrective and goes a long way to fill the gap.

As might be expected by the fact that this is produced by Cambridge University Press, the book is PhD-thesis in style; crammed with references to primary and secondary material – and the author has trawled widely for these sources. The discussion is themed: billets, money, claims for damages, farming, discipline and sex are all explored in detail. One interesting topic that emerges also serves as a good reminder, that while we often think of “the Western Front” as a civilian-free area under military law, it was in fact occupying two different countries with different language, culture and laws – with a friendly but ultimately foreign army implanted into its midst. The knitting together of the civilian and the military in this context is of great fascination; as it must have been of great frustration at times for the military and civilian authorities. There are many examples in “Behind the lines” where it is evident that the civilians were not only tolerated in the otherwise military zone, but relied upon and valued. The benefits of having a huge foreign army in your house, barn or field are sometimes less clear and in many ways doubtful, but for the brewers, innkeepers, farmers wives cooking up eggs and chips for famished Tommies, prostitutes and shopkeepers the Great War brought an economic boom.

The cover price will deter many potential readers of this book, which is a great pity. It adds much to our understanding and is a good read. I recommend it. The content is certainly 5-Star, but the pricing of the book is such that its accessibility is limited - and that is a pity.

Stolen Lives: Individual Tragedies of the Great War
Stolen Lives: Individual Tragedies of the Great War
by Andrew Hamilton
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sets a standard for production quality, 21 Jun 2014
In 2009 the authors of ‘Stolen lives’, Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed, produced a book about the Christmas Truce of 1914 that was based on the diaries of Andrew’s grandfather. Titled ‘Meet at dawn, unarmed’, it set a standard for self-published work not only in terms of the research and writing but in the exemplary standard of illustration and production quality of the book. In ‘Stolen lives’, they have raised the standard, for it is a product that puts most recent Great War titles to shame in terms of quality of materials and production, for a similar price. The book is produced on gloss paper, is full colour throughout and with a solid hard cover. It will stand handling on many a battlefield journey.

The theme of the book is a journey down the British part of the Western Front by telling the stories of 50 individuals who lost their lives in the conflict. The locations of their graves or memorials are illustrated in a number of maps and the stories are grouped into what could be a number of battlefield tours. Each story is deeply researched, not only in terms of the individual’s biography but the historical context in which they died. Each is profusely illustrated with contemporary and modern photographs. They make for absorbing and sobering reading.

The individuals chosen span a broad range: there are the famous (VC winners; air aces; sportsmen; an executed soldier; poets and composers; a politician; aristocrats and sons of the famous), the unusual (a nurse; the eldest man; black and Indian officers) and representatives of ‘everyman’ (who happen to be relatives of George Sayell, friend of the authors and researcher and map-maker for the book). One individual is a mascot dog. Their stories tell tales of great courage, of endurance, of bad luck and of lost potential. All are tragedies in their way.

My only doubt is about the selection of some of the fifty individuals, for although they are of great interest, they have received much coverage in previous works: Noel Chavasse VC, Edgar Mobbs, William Redmond, William Noel Hodgson and Rugby international Ronald Poulton Palmer’s stories can all be readily found, for example. I would have liked to see more original work about men and women whoare as yet ‘undiscovered’. But these well-trodden stories will be new to some readers and their inclusion does not reduce the value of ‘Stolen lives’.

It is a great effort that had taken several years in the compilation and a very good read. Recommended.

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