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Thoughtful contribution to the WWI Debate - Essential Reading,
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This review is from: Battle Tactics of the Western Front: British Army's Art of Attack, 1916-18 (Paperback)Books on the British side of WWI tend to fall into two camps which you could caricature as "Lions led by Donkeys" and "We won, so we couldn't have been that bad". This book is excellent because it doesn't fall simplistically onto one side or the other, instead it actually goes into the evidence on how the BEF grew in knowledge over the last half of the war, and if you read it with an open, enquiring mind you will come away much better informed about the performance of the BEF.
One example of the quality of the book is that it demolishes any idea that tanks were a wonder-weapon that could have achieved the much-sought breakout from the trenches "if properly used". Tanks in 1917-18, he points out, could go little faster than walking pace and would need refuelling after 8 hours, so there's no way they could truly have achieved a breakout. As at Cambrai, the tanks could allow assaults to make better progress for fewer casualties, but that's all.
It's not perfect by any means. A lot of it tends to be "on the one hand... then on the other hand..." rather than coming to firm conclusions (although in some ways this is quite refreshing compared to a lot of WWI books which have a preconceived set of conclusions, and are going to hammer away at them regardless of the evidence). And it does come down more often in favour of the BEF than against, sometimes in defiance of the evidence it cites.
To give a few examples. At one point it talks about the German tactic of infiltrating machineguns forward under cover of night, and using them to support an assault the next day, and then says that the BEF mainly gave up on this sort of idea after bad experiences with machineguns accompanying the first wave getting wiped out, and so concludes that the eventual BEF practice of keeping machineguns back was more "advanced" that the German tactic. But I think infiltrating machineguns at night before an attack is very different (and better) than having them go over the top with the first wave - it isn't surprising the BEF approach didn't work out very well !
Another example is that he cites BEF manuals from 1916 which include what he regards as infiltration tactics ahead of their introduction by the German army in 1917-18. This is weak in two ways - first, whatever the manuals said about infiltration, in 1916 the BEF clearly wasn't doing it in reality; and second, he seems to take "infiltration tactics" to mean that you advance on a broad front and just carry on advancing in the gaps between enemy strongpoints (i.e. carry on where you are not stopped by resistance). From what I've read, the German stosstruppen tactics were a lot more sophisticated. And when he says in his conclusion that the BEF had been using infiltration tactics since 1916, I don't think this is at all supported by the chapter covering it.
One last example : In comparing the German and British offensives of 1918, I do think he uses double standards, for example at one point he talks about a German attack that "only" advanced 40 miles, while a little bit later he talks glowingly about a British advance of 10 miles or so during the hundred-days at the end of the war.
But unlike many WWI books, this one actually goes over the evidence and let's you form your own view - if you disagree with mine, read it and see what you think !
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Initial post: 16 Mar 2010 14:47:05 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Mar 2010 14:47:23 GMT
K. N. Crosby says:
He was referring to holding back Vickers guns when they were in short supply. It was the Lewis gunners who went forward later in the war to give covering fire (once there were enough to go round).
Posted on 10 Aug 2011 11:10:49 BDT
MR. PAUL J. BARTON says:
A good and thoughtful review, but remember far more went into the success (or otherwise) of attacks than whether or not infiltration tactics were being used. Artillery superiority was by far the most important, and in 1916 the British didn't really have this yet, although the Somme still gained far more ground than the Gemans were happy with. The German offensives of 1918 owed their intial success as much to huge local superiority in men and guns as to tactics.
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