Top critical review
A curate’s egg
4 August 2018
I like Hart’s “1918: A Very British Victory” and had quite high expectations of his latest book, which seems to have been well-received. I was expecting a similar book but with greater detail on the final weeks of the war. I’m sorry to say that I find it rather unsatisfactory. It does concentrate more than his earlier book on the final few months of the war and follows his formula of interspersing historical narrative with the eye-witness accounts of participants. Those accounts are valuable but I felt that the historical narrative was somehow lacking and often rather confusing whereas I hadn’t experienced the same issues with his “1918”. For example, the story of the great Battle of the Sambre on 4th November, just a week short of the Armistice, is not told in much detail and there is no mention of the three members of the Royal Engineers who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in this attack on the same day. As for confusion, one example will suffice. In “1918” Hart gives a good account of the capture of the Bellenglise tunnels (German-built defensive tunnels, part of the Hindenburg Line) and an account of the Bellicourt canal tunnel and the finding of the “corpse factory that never was”. The tunnels, some miles apart, were captured during the late September assault on the Hindenburg Line and it is perfectly clear in his earlier book that the tunnels were quite distinct. The new book narrates the capture of the “Bellenglise Canal tunnel”. In this account the two tunnels and the separate events involving them have become hopelessly conflated. Goodness knows how.
I did enjoy his look at the period following the Armistice as the men waited for demobilisation, but felt that a look at some of the shattered lives of the severely wounded would have been helpful. On the other hand Hart does often give quite humane assessments of soldiers’ motivations, both the good and the not-so-praiseworthy.
The Kindle edition of “The Last Battle” is furthermore littered with typographical errors, mainly the use of lower case letters where capitals should be used, which may not matter to some readers, but which I find pretty annoying. Things like the “BeF” and “sir douglas Haig”. Errors of this sort seem to occur on almost every page. Readers paying a not inconsiderable amount for the Kindle version deserve better.
If you know little of how the war came to an end (I used to assume that it somehow fizzled out until I found that two of my relatives were killed almost at the end of the war in huge-scale fighting) I’d suggest Nick Lloyd’s “Hundred Days”. Lloyd’s book is pretty concise, very readable and looks at the military operations down to the level of the soldier on the ground and also has a pretty gripping account of the events at the highest German political and military level (more involving than Hart’s account of these events). Sometimes those events are almost reminiscent of the fantasy world inside Hitler’s Berlin bunker.