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History made vivid
on 16 January 2009
As we entered the twenty-first century, there was the suggestion from some social soothsayers that the importance of some big events from the early years of the previous century might fade: Scott's expedition to the Antarctic, the sinking of the Titanic, the suffraget movement, and even the Great War would all lose some of their potency and relevance to our modern age. This, like most futurologists' predictions, is risibly wide of the mark. For while there are writers of the calibre of Bryn Hammond, the past will continue to enlighten and inform the present.
Cambrai 1917 is an excellent book. It is exhaustively researched, concisely written and well designed. There is no putting of words into soldiers' mouths, no lame conjecture. On almost every page there are quotes reproduced verbatim from diaries, letters or official reports, so the reader sees the war from the point of view of the people who were right there, right then. When these contemporary passages are juxtaposed with Hammond's informed overview, the results make for an engaging and moving read, a story about people, not statistics. Hammond takes events from over ninety years ago and makes them as real and as vivid as anything going on now in Iraq or Afghanistan. An example: In mid-battle, the 'auto-vac', which supplies petrol to the tank engine, has just failed. With German shells thudding all around, one tank is now a stationary target. In the words of Captain Daniel Hickey, H28 'Hadrian', No. 23 Company, 'H' Battalion, Tank Corps:
"It was a trying moment! With tense faces the crew watched the imperturbable second driver as he coolly and methodically put the auto-vac right, ignoring all the proferred advice to give it a good hard knock. To the adjurations to hurry up or the tank would be blown to blazes, he replied with his habitual stutter: 'Why d-don't you m-mind your own b-bloody b-business?'"
Cambrai 1917 is a masterly account of an extraordinary battle. I thoroughly recommend it.