on 30 April 2008
This excellent volume commences with the capture of Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette in October 1914 and concludes in 1917. In writing it, Jack Sheldon has once again triumphed in producing yet another outstanding and fascinating volume which I am certain will be sought after and will be sure to grace many military historian's and enthusiast's bookshelves in the years to come, as it is the type of publication that can be read over and over again! Those who have read this author's previous volumes will of course already be familiar with the quality of Jack's work and like me, praise his excellent style and ability to write both flowing and accurate narrative on what many consider to be fairly complex subjects! He has certainly gone to great lengths in his research to complete this splendid title and should be commended on that point alone, as his sources of information must have been numerous, widespread and often fragmented at times.
I am led to believe that the majority of the information contained in this publication may have been previously unpublished and therefore of immense interest to a widespread audience of readers. In my view, it will certainly challenge many previously held ideas and theories and therefore, may well prove controversial at times, however, having said that, in my opinion, that makes excellent and refreshing reading!
For anyone interested in the tunneling during the Great War, they will find this one aspect of the book alone, compelling reading. However I was personally engrossed with the tremendous amount of detail covering the fighting for Vimy Ridge and this along with German accounts covering interrogations of British and Canadian Prisoners of War made absorbing reading too!
There are some very useful and highly detailed maps and in traditional Pen and Sword style many excellent photographs support the highly readable narrative. And therefore in summary, I feel this publication will be indispensable to anyone interested in the Great War in general and the battles of the Western Front and Vimy in particular. I found it a joy to read and therefore, I cannot praise it too highly - it is a valuable addition to my library and I commend it to you too.
on 26 June 2008
The word "Sheldonian" should now enter the lexicon of Great War historiography.
With THE GERMAN ARMY ON VIMY RIDGE, Jack Sheldon completes a superb trilogy, following his chronicles of the German experience on the Somme and at Passchendaele. Here we have meticulous research into Bavarian archives, a properly arranged narrative and a most cogent analysis of the German ordeal in this deadly sector of The Western Front.
Sheldon corrects the widely held view that Vimy Ridge was nearly impregnable. The narrow ridge, he explains, hindered deployment of artillery, and infantrymen, deprived of thoroughly constructed zones of support to the rear, were excessively crammed into the first line of defence.
The narrative is informative but dramatic. This was warfare of a particular intensity : on the ground, above it, and, most notoriously, below it. Never favouring the Anglo-centric view of the war, Sheldon reminds us that in Artois the French, in 1915, fought " a series of battles of extraordinary savagery." The first 130 pages deal mainly with this Franco-German fighting, which yielded lessons that the Germans used to such effect in their defence against the Entente on the Somme a year later. Sheldon concludes his survey of the 1915 fighting, observing that
" One of the ironies of Vimy Ridge is that local geographical factors, lack of depth and diversion of effort to more pressing priorities elsewhere, meant that few of these lessons could be applied here."
The following chapter deals with the trench warfare of 1916. Here we learn that the Germans, despite their predominantly defensive role on the Western Front, were remarkably aggressive and conducted many local attacks, consolidating their superiority and upsetting enemy plans. Sheldon describes how this was particularly apparent on Vimy Ridge in the first half of 1916, when the Germans conducted local attacks against the French, and then, in May, on a larger scale against the newly arrived British. We read interesting accounts of the interrogation of British prisoners. This fighting occurred when the Germans were making their principal effort at Verdun, and we read that the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria was dismayed by transfer of his troops to other sectors, noting that German officers were apparently suspicious of an attempt to construct a Bavarian front !
The next chapter - Mining Beneath Vimy Ridge - is spine chilling. The Sheldonian approach works well here : information, analysis and carefully considered conclusions, all based on archival research. There is also a good measure of sensitivity and emotion in the way Sheldon finishes this chapter, reflecting on the ordeal of "...the men of both sides involved in mining and counter-mining on Vimy Ridge. Working in appalling conditions and at constant risk of their health and their lives, they gave their all, elevating their craft to levels rarely reached on other sectors of the Western Front. Their courage and skill was seldom equalled and never surpassed." He concludes with a quotation from a poem by Friedrich Rickert (1788-1866), who, we read in the notes "...was a prolific poet with mastery of many different forms of verse and an outstanding self taught orientalist." It should be mentioned that there are superb notes after each chapter, with necessary references and intruiging anecdotes : none more amazing than the account of Otto Ludwig Dorr, a story which exemplifies the notion of truth being stranger than fiction !
The final three chapters deal with the build up to the Canadian offensive on Vimy Ridge, the battle itself and, finally, how the German High Command analysed defeat.
We are reminded of the scale and intensity of Canadian trench raiding in February and March 1917. In a single week, one Bavarian regiment suffered casualties of 79 killed and 217 wounded, from relentless artillery and mortar fire, and from trench raids. Conversely, Sheldon emphasises that the raid on March 1st was " ..an utter debacle, and the casualties were so high that it is possible that it was the most costly failure of its type of the entire war on the Western Front....From the approximately 1,700 Canadian raiders, no fewer than 687 - including two battalion commanders - became casualties." Significantly, Crown Prince Rupprecht was keen to retaliate with an attack that would "...show the enemy that we are not content just to resign ourselves to passive defence." Fortunately for Canada, the attack was not launched.
Sheldon uses documents to great effect when describing the ordeal suffered by German soldiers as they faced the huge preponderance of Allied artillery, gas attacks, constant raiding and the hostile attentions of numerically superior British aircraft. We read a report by a medical officer, two days before the Canadian attack, lamenting the wastage caused by nervous exhaustion and dysentery. Most striking is the report of a German Major, who reckoned that, in terms of the demands it made on battleworthiness, Vimy Ridge surpassed the Somme or Verdun.
The culminating assault of April 9th 1917 is vividly described. On that very day, Rupprecht wrote in his diary "..it is questionable if we can hold in the face of artillery fire of this increasing intensity....is there any point in continuing to prosecute the war ? "
For those of us weaned on legends of smooth and efficient Canadian victory, Sheldon provides testimony from Bavarian officers and men describing the most resolute resistance in conditions of confusion and terror.
The unflinching summaries of the Bavarian Crown Prince provide the crux of Sheldon's final chapter, the Epilogue. Here we appreciate that it was not only the British who experienced "learning curves" as they experienced 1914-1918 on the Western Front.
The photographs in the book are striking, and the maps, although simplistic, are effective.
Jack Sheldon has enriched our study of the Great War.
on 10 June 2008
Author Jack Sheldon has performed a real service to readers in providing a rare glimpse into the first-hand accounts, thoughts and actions of German soldiers of the Great War. For the first time the authentic voice of German veterans can be read by non-German speakers.
Expertly combining first-hand accounts, archival material, as well as large numbers of narratives from German regimental histories, the author weaves together the story of soldiers in combat using their own words.
The value of his writing transcends those interested in the German Army, to those, who reading about their own countries troops, would like to learn more about the men who fought, and often died, "on the other side of the hill."
One of the primary sources left to those researching the German Army of the Great War is the extensive series of regimental histories. With the destruction of the Heeresarchives in 1945, along with almost all official operations and unit files, these histories take on an importance which cannot be overstated. Author Jack Sheldon displays his expert knowledge of the sources with a comprehensive explanation of the use and limitations of the regimental histories. By careful cross checking of facts contained in archival files with those detailed in the regimental histories he demonstrates the fidelity of the regimental accounts.
The primary purpose of the German regimental histories was for the veterans of the units themselves, and to maintain the traditions of units disbanded after the war. The actual writing of the regimental histories was undertaken by single authors or in some cases by regimental associations. With this in mind the author reminds us of the natural (and understandable) human tendency to put endeavors in their best light. It is worth noting that though the regimental histories were not written by the Reicharchivs, influence was exerted in the form of editorial agreements which potential authors had to sign to gain access to the all important unit files in the archives. This being said, it was also written guidance that failures of the unit could be written about honestly.
By explaining the value and limitations of the sources left to researchers of the German army in the war, the author clearly shows that his readers are in good hands.
In summary Jack Sheldon's books offer a valuable look into the up till now closed experience of the German soldier in the Great War. By his able writing and expert use of material he has provided a valuable resource to both students and experts of the Great War
on 11 May 2008
Vimy Ridge saw some of the bitterest fighting on the Western Front during the Great War, and the author is to be commended for producing a readable and balanced account of events on Vimy Ridge from 1914 to its capture by the Canadian Corps in April 1917.
The author first describes how Vimy Ridge ended up in German hands in the autumn of 1914 before moving on to chronicle the desperate attempts of the French to wrest Vimy Ridge from the Germans in the spring and autumn of 1915. Even by the standards of the Great War, the magnitude of the French losses is staggering. The ferocity of this fighting is brought to life through a wide selection of personal and official accounts, skilfully interwoven with the narrative.
The author then moves to the arrival of British troops in the sector and there is an excellent chapter on military mining and counter-mining, a terrifying feature of everyday life in the trenches on Vimy Ridge, particularly at its northern end. The graphic accounts of German officers and men provide a vivid illustration of the subterranean war.
The build-up to the attack of the Canadian Corps on 9 April 1917 is examined in some depth. Of particular interest is how the Germans tried to piece together Allied intentions from intelligence reports and the interrogation of prisoners (mention should be made of a Canadian deserter, Otto Dorr, whose remarkable story is told here for the first time). Evidence is also adduced to challenge the widely held perception that the Germans believed their positions on Vimy Ridge to be impregnable.
The achievements of the Canadian Corps on 9 April 1917 are deservedly well known, but those of battered and understrength German units, such as Reserve Infantry Regiment 261, which held up the 4th Canadian Division for nearly two days in the vicinity of Hill 145, considerably less so. Even though the capture of Vimy Ridge was a resounding victory for the Canadian Corps, it was far from a walkover, and the author succeeds admirably in detailing the extent of the German resistance and in helping the reader understand how the battle unfolded.
The German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917 is the third of the author's books on the German army during the Great War, and is arguably his best yet. As one has come to expect from Jack Sheldon's books, the analysis is first-rate, and the text well supported by detailed maps and a good selection of photographs. Quite simply, this is an outstanding book, and it deserves a wide readership.
on 3 April 2008
From the May 2008 edition of Navy News.
IN APRIL 1917, the Western Front was ablaze.
The Royal Naval Division stormed German lines outside Arras; the French attacked along the Chemin des Dames, an imposing ridge beyond Reims, intending to deliver the German Army a fatal blow; and in the skies, the Royal Naval Air Service was locked in mortal combat with its German foe.
There were few reasons for the Allies to cheer in `Bloody April':
Britain's diversionary attack at Arras failed to draw German reserves from the Chemin des Dames so the French offensive failed miserably; the French Army mutinied; and the RFC suffered horrendous casualties.
The one bright spot, however, was the capture of high ground to the north of Arras which offered a commanding view of Artois.
The capture of Vimy Ridge was a decisive success - and one which has become a defining moment in Canada's national identity, for her men were at the forefront of the onslaught.
Little space has been afforded to the defenders of Vimy... until now. In his unceasing efforts to give a voice to the men `on the other side of the hill', Jack Sheldon has turned his attention to The German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917 (Pen & Sword, £25, ISBN 978-1844-156801).
Few people are better qualified to offer an insight into `Fritz' than the author whose trawl of the archives, regimental histories and countless first-hand accounts has already shed light where it is dark on the Somme and at Passchendaele.
His Vimy Ridge work continues in the same outstanding vein.
Foe or not, it is hard not to feel sympathy for the German defenders - who have left us with some vivid, and incredibly haunting, first-hand accounts.
All survivors of the Easter battle of 1917 attest to a strangely mesmeric "thunderous hail of iron". Feldwebel (Sergeant) Paul Radschun's regiment stood firm until "the last waves of the British burnt out and the dreadful storm of steel ebbed away", but at a cost of nearly 900 men.
"It had not yielded. It had defended its appointed place to the last drop of blood; worthy of its fathers; worthy of the heroic spirit of its beloved commander," he recalled.
The English-speaking focus is invariably on those fateful April days. But there were ferocious battles for the ridge, largely between Gaul and Teuton, in 1915.
And while the warriors fought to the death above, an army of tunnellers and counter-tunnellers burrowed beneath Vimy, determined to blow a gap in the enemy lines - or to bring their adversary's tunnel (or `gallery') crashing down. There was no more horrible a fate on the Western Front.
One German engineer tried to rescue a comrade trapped by a British charge which had already killed a second miner.
"We could hear the moans and groans of this unfortunate man, trapped by his legs which were gripped tight by the collapsed chalk walls," he recalled.
The unfortunate man was rescued - his legs had to be amputated and he died shortly afterwards.
Such was war on Vimy Ridge.