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Planning gone wong?
on 6 August 2009
This is a military history book written in the great modern tradition with sweeping general descriptions alternating with fascinating close-ups on individual experiences and destinies. The topic lacks no interest either, the pioneers in tanks in The Great War. The book is well written and the illustrations (photos) are fine.
Having said this, it must be mentioned that the book displays a curious imbalance. The first year of tank action (1916-17), which mainly consisted of fiascos, is described in great detail. Then the pace of the book picks up notably, and the events in 1918 are described on relatively few pages. You get the suspicion (warranted or not) that the author (or his publisher) some 250 pages into his book realised that it would become far too long, and then he raced through the rest of the story at double speed.
To illustrate this point the number of pages dedicated to each major engagement can be listed:
The Somme (1916): 29 pp.
Arras: 9 pp.
Flandern (1917): 9 pp.
Cambrai: 48 pp.
Le Hamel (1918): ½ p.
Amiens: 6 pp.
Cambrai of course was the most famous of them all, but very few details of the major successes scored at Le Hamel and Amiens are provided.
The same goes for the different technical versions of the lozenge-shaped tank. The later and more successful types are described in much less detail, the Mk VIII only mentioned in passing.
The author also seems to be biased towards the first "generation" of tank leaders, Swinton and his people. The successors, notably Elles & Fuller, are treated with much less sympathy and interest. J.F.C. Fuller especially is not credited with any positive contribution at all (apart from his Memoirs, which are characterized as entertaining).
Campbell does not seem to want to understand the position of men like Fuller & Basil Liddell Hart. They were genuinely appalled by the doctrines of Haig and his command. Haig believed that as long as one enemy soldier died whenever one of his did, then in the end the war would be won by the side who had the most soldiers to put in the field. This philosophy slaughtered a whole generation of young British (and French) men and more sensible officers of course looked for other solutions. Fuller and his peers were on the right track, and while their writings were largely ignored in Great Britain after the war, they had interested students in Germany, and the result was seem when France was overrun in 1940 at a fraction of the cost incurred by Haig on the Somme.
I can recommend Christy Campbell's book, but the interested reader should supplement with a wider reading. Why not the classics by Fuller & Liddell Hart?