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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So near but so far, 22 April 2010
This review is from: Magnificent But Not War (Pen & Sword Military Classics) (Paperback)
Strangely I agree with both the above seemingly opposing reviews. John Dixon had the opportunity to write a First Definitive of the battle. He clearly has the skills of assessment, the greatly needed ability for sorting complex multiple activities, and what it takes to weave the whole into a riveting read. The most infuriating thing was that he did all this, gave us a glimpse of what was required, yet still fell well short. His hour-by-hour, day-by-day recording of the British, Canadian and Indian side of the ground battle is riveting. But even louder than the relentless German artillery is his glaring omissions, the unanswered questions simply scream out at us. There is no explanation as to why Germany chose this time, or place, to launch their attack, nor what their objectives were, other than to suggest they were attempting to "straighten the line". It seems unlikely that Germany would accept the outrage of the world by the use of gas and to expend so many men and in particular artillery resources, whilst deeply engaged in the East, for so little ambition. The German forces and their Government rarely make an appearance other than as a bit part player. Whilst the British, Canadian and Indian forces are clearly defined (but even here what constitutes the make-up of a battalion [i.e. how many bayonets, machine guns, what other weapons do they have, etc.] is totally ignored) French, Belgian and German Forces get not even this detail. Indeed, whilst two of the major features of the battle are the German use of gas and artillery, there is no detail what-so-ever as to how the Germans technically overcame (what the allies believed to be) the insurmountable engineering problems of delivering gas as an effective weapon, where and how units were formed and whether there were problems in finding people prepared to use this illegal weapon. Nor is there any detail as to the composition of the German artillery forces, their unit size, details of their weapons (or even their ranges and various types and calibres) let alone what must be an extremely interesting detail as to how Germany was able, both in manufacturing terms and logistics, to continue to supply such vast quantities whilst conducting substantial warfare in the East. All this, including the war in the East, and details of what forces were withdrawn from the West, go unrecorded. Equally, in the entire book there is one half-sentence mentioning aerial reconnaissance, and absolutely no mention of any of the air forces or their aircrew (whilst Dixon is conscientious in listing all the Allied Officers killed on the ground, he records not one of our aircrew dead)! As for the wounded, unless you have read other Western Front histories, you would be forgiven for thinking once wounded they remained in the trenches. There is not one mention of the massive work to save their lives and the frantic medical research that that was being undertaken only a mile or so behind the lines, nor the logistics being developed to quickly get our wounded back to Britain.
One of the extraordinary features of this battle was that two quality divisions rose out of their trenches and drove into murderous fire to support French troops that in most cases did not leave their trenches. Having suffered huge casualties, they were ordered to do it again next day, for the same result. Surely there was some Government/Press reaction? Dixon makes no comment about this other than explaining that Sir John French felt his orders impelled him to give support to the French! There is equally no mention of any Governments, belligerents or neutrals (or the worlds press) reaction to the use of gas, or whether any pressure was put on Germany to cease (such as there was in their first unrestricted U-boat offensive). Finally, a small matter, but a source of great irritation - from the British, Canadian and Indian Forces more than 82 separate infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments took part. Dixon provides 20 plates of soldiers killed, this includes 9 from the Monmouthshire's alone (including what I believe to be one from his own family) plus a further 2 plates related to the Monmouth's. I know he is a specialist in the Monmouthshire's, but I feel that such a highlight on one specific regiment in a general history is not right.
What a tragedy that John Dixon could not go that bit further and produce a book that would comprehensively stand alone as the Definitive of the Second Battle of Ypres.
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