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4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome coverage of key battle, 14 May 2011
This review is from: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel: Tommies, Diggers and Doughboys on the Hindenburg Line, 1918 (Hardcover)
There is a dearth of good, scholarly work on the operations of the Allied "Hundred days" offensive of 1918. Why this should be I do not understand, for the battles were of critical importance and huge scale and complexity. Perhaps the reading public (and not a few academics and authors) prefer to dwell on the pains of 1915-1917 than understand how it was that the Allies finally overcame a mighty foe. Of all of the fighting in the second half of 1918, none was of greater importance than that of late September, when a number of parallel assaults were made. Among them, the central attack against the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line system was surely the most daunting. Yet with David Lloyd George's warnings not to incur large numbers of casualties ringing in his ears, Sir Douglas Haig and his armies tackled it and defeated it. It is a key component in possibly the greatest British military victory in history.

"The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel" deals with the combined British, Australian and American operations that tackled the problem - and, as Dale Blair recounts, achieved a victory albeit at very considerable loss and with confusion along the way. The battle is barely touched upon outside the official and regimental histories, making this book especially welcome. The core of the narrative deals with the American 27th and 30th Division's attack against the land above the tunnel, in the area of the Knoll, Gillemont and Quennemont Farms, which was supported by and carried forward by the 3rd and 5th Australian Divisions. The British 46th (North Midland) Division's southern flanking attack and extraordinary feat in crossing the deep cutting of the St-Quentin canal is also covered to some extent, as are the northern flanking operations by 18th (Eastern) Division.

We are presented with a concise telling of the operational story, principally at Corps, Division and Brigade level rather in the style of an official history. It is not down at the level of the experience of the fighting soldier: there are few personalities and individual stories. The narrative is essentially one-sided, with little coverage from the German Army's perspective: we are left largely wondering how they put up as strong a resistance as they did. The author is in turn critical of Haig and Rawlinson (mainly for allowing fresh American units to be committed to preliminary operations when they might have been better advised to hold them for the main stroke), but pinpoints Monash as having been cautious and not integrating the raw American Divisions sufficiently into his command and care. He also highlights the paucity of artillery support as a factor in the continued ability of the Germans to defend and pour fire through the fog into the Allied infantry. But this is where I began to be puzzled and found that "The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel" asked more questions than it answered. Why, for example, (given that we are talking about the most critical attack in the offensive) was the artillery cover so weak? Why did the tank support flounder so badly in the "old British minefield" to which the author refers? Did they not know it was there? Professor Gary Sheffield's endorsement of the book calls it a distinguished contribution to the military history of the First World War. It is - I welcome this book and enjoyed it - but there is more to be said about this battle and I hope that "The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel" leads to more studies of the action, for I feel there is as yet more to understand.

The book has a small selection of photographs and the text is illustrated by the use of eleven maps from the Australian Official History.

One criticism I must make is of editorship: there are misspellings of place names (examples being Beurevoir, Guillemont Farm, Vendhuilles and Guoy (even the index spells this wrongly)).
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