Looking back: book and other reviews 2015

Defiance! Withstanding the Kaiserschlacht
By G. H. F. Nichols
Published by Pen & Sword Military, 2015
ISBN 978 1 473833 356 2
Hardback, 264pp

This book was originally published by William Blackwood in 1919 under the title “Pushed and the return push”. Written by George Nichols, it is a lively, personal account of the experience of 82 Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery from March to October 1918. The original title, while perhaps not suiting today’s book market, is more meaningful, as only the first third or so deals with the defensive fighting against the German “Kaiserschlacht” (Operation “Michael”). The majority concerns the brigade’s part in the successful Allied offensives from August 1918 onwards and culminates in the death of the commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Austin Thorp DSO at Bousies on 30 October.

Not that we know it was Thorp – for the book was presumably either published during a period of censorship or Nichols’ himself decided to disguise individuals and units. Thorp appears only as “the Colonel” and most officers are identified only by an initial of their surname. This reprint cries out for some research work to identify the dramatis personae and give some context: an opportunity missed. That aside, the narrative is full of detail and gives not only an insight into events but how the headquarters of an artillery brigade worked. Nichols’ joined the brigade on 27 February 1918 and was appointed as Orderly Officer. With many personal and even trivial events included in the story, we are taken right into the heart of affairs. I found it a very absorbing and interesting read – especially when seeing the brigade’s war diary (which can be obtained from the National Archives website) alongside.

“Defiance!” will be of particular value to anyone with connections to the brigade or an interest in the 18th (Eastern) Division under whose command it came, but I can also recommend it for those with a wider interest – as long as they can put up with the author’s disguising of names.

The book has no index. It does include a selection of photographs which were not presumably part of the original work. They show British field artillery in action but are not of the brigade and in many cases not even from an area or battle in which they were engaged: a rather odd selection that, for me at least, added no value to the book.

Battle lines: the battles of French Flanders
The Western Front by car, by bike and on foot
By Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland
Published by Pen & Sword Military, 2015
ISBN 978 1 47382 403 4
Paperback, 232pp including index, illustrated

From the pens and bicycle saddles of two of Pen & Sword’s most prolific authors, “The battles of French Flanders” is the latest in their “Battle Lines series” of battlefield guide books. This one is ambitious in geographic and historical scope, for it covers the area from Armentieres down to Loos-en-Gohelle, which saw a great deal of fighting in each of the years of the war. The book is subtitled with Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Loos and Fromelles, each of which gave their name to battles in 1915-16. The area was also where the ill-named “race to the sea” ended in 1914 and where both sides entrenched as they found no way to outflank their enemy; where the short but bitter fighting just before the truce of Christmas 1914 took place; and where there was fighting on the large scale in the spring and autumn of 1918. It is one of the most significant areas as far as the British Expeditionary Force is concerned, yet commands far less attention than Ypres of the Somme. “The battles of French Flanders” is a good corrective. Australian readers will also find it useful for the tour of the Fromelles and Pheasant Wood region in which their 5th Division fought its first and bloody action in July 1916.

Following the style of the previous “Battles Lines” work, Cooksey and Murland take us through a number of guided tours of the area – twelve in all – and slant them towards walking, cycling or car touring. Each tour is described in a narrative, picking out key spots and relating them to the historical events. The memorials, cemeteries and remains (for in this area there are many concrete blockhouses) are highlighted. There are good clear maps and, for those whose battlefield touring is done in an easy chair, plenty of photographs. It makes for a good read, and an invaluable guide when you are on the ground. There is also some good general advice about travel in the area and some recommendations for accommodation. Several titles in Pen & Sword’s “Battleground Europe” series describe places within the area covered by “The battles of French Flanders”: they tend to be more detailed and concentrated, and for anyone interested in a specific place or action are an excellent companion to this book.

A great addition to the battlefield tourist’s library.

Padre, prisoner and pen-pusher: the World War One experiences of Reverend Benjamin O’Rorke
By Peter Howson
Published by Helion & Company, Solihull, 2015
ISBN 978 1 910294 70 3
Hardback 163pp including bibliography, no index, illustrated
Cover price not stated

Benjamin O’Rorke had already seen military service as a Chaplain when he went to France at the age of 40 in August 1914, attached to the 4th Field Ambulance, for he had been in South Africa during the Boer War. His service was cut short in dramatic fashion on 26 August 1914, when he was taken prisoner at Landrecies. Any hopes of immediate release as a non-combatant were quickly dashed as he was sent rearward for incarceration in Germany. He was however sent back to Britain in 1915 after much diplomatic discussion. On his return he wrote a book about his experience: “In the hands of the enemy”. O’Rorke was eventually sent back to France, this time with 33rd Division where he had a co-ordinating responsibility for the Anglican Chaplains with that formation, but was soon appointed as Deputy-Assistant Chaplain General. He gained the DSO or his work in staff matters relating to the organisation of the army’s chaplaincy. We must be grateful that he left a diary covering the first half of 1918 – rather unusual in that it covers such rear-area affairs, for the work we have from other chaplains mostly concerns those who worked at the front line units – and it is this that forms the core of “Padre, prisoner and pen-pusher”.

Peter Howson, already the author of “Muddling through: the organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One”, has brought together a transcript of the diary together with biography, insights into O’Rorke’s ministry and theology, the relationships between those at the top end of the Anglican military chaplaincy and their emerging views about what the post-war world should and might look like. It makes for a most interesting read and will be invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the subject in more detail. The research is impeccably referenced. I found the “dramatis personae” listing of mini-biographies of many of the Chaplains and others mentioned in the text to be of great value, too.

The production of the book is at the very high standard we have come to expect from Helion, with good paper and binding and a readable font. There are some maps included – mainly town plans of some of the rear-area places in which O’Rorke worked – from the National Archives collection. They are physically very large and I am sorry to say that on being reduced down to fit this relatively small format book the text simply becomes almost illegible. It’s a small gripe, for overall this is a well written and absorbing work that will also be a useful and lasting work of reference.

Voices from the front: an oral history of the Great War
By Peter Hart
Published by Profile Books, 2015
ISBN 978 1 78125 474 5
Hardback, 424pp including index
Cover price £25.

Peter Hart’s name will be familiar to many visitors to the Long, Long Trail as he is the author of numerous books on the subject of the Great War, the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum and these days also a battlefield guide. He is always very active in social media and all told is one of the higher profile of our military historians.

In “Voices from the Great War” he brings together many first-hand accounts, drawing upon 183 interviews that he carried out with men who were there. Most of the interviews were carried out in the 1980s when the former soldiers, airmen and sailors were in their 80s or 90s. The author provides a framework, giving a well-observed historical context into which the extracts from the interviews are threaded.

Inevitably, we must question the value of the men’s statements in terms of their accuracy and objectivity. After all, they were remembering complex events many decades after they took place, and through the haze of the great events of the 20th Century and of their own long lives. It is hard to believe that the men’s memories and what they said in interview are not in some way tempered by the influence of things they had since read, heard or discussed about their war. But we must cut through that to reach the authentic voice beneath- and that voice is not so much about military matters as  men and their fragilities: at war they feel tired, hot, cold, frightened, exhilarated, proud. They remember mates, good leaders and bad. They recall minor incidents and places that no official documentation will mention. As such, “Voices from the Great War” should have an appeal to a wide readership for it is about the experience of men at war rather than a factual history of it.

The interviews embrace men from all three services although the army is in the majority, and almost all of it concerns the Western Front or Gallipoli. The important theatres of Egypt and Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Italy and Africa were just not covered by interviews at the time and now of course never will be. That is a pity for us all.

Excellent.

The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917
A battlefield guide to the Chemin des Dames
by Andrew Uffindell
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2015
paperback ISBN 978-1-78303-034-7
pages 197 including index
cover price £14.99

I have been a regular visitor to the battlefields of the Aisne valley and the Chemin des Dames ridge over many years and can honestly say that I have learned more from this book that all my visits and many other books combined. It is a terrific and well-written piece of work that I can heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in this sector of the Western Front.

British readers may be familiar with the Aisne due to the short but bloody period in which the area was occupied by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, and indeed there are several good books that describe this fighting and provide today’s visitor with guidance for seeing and understanding the battlefield. Others may know of the equally short and bloody time when a British Corps was here in 1918, and we now have a very good battlefield guide covering that fighting (see David Blanchard’s “Aisne 1918″ below). Visitors to the area are sure to see the “Caverne du Dragon” and the group of cemeteries and memorials at the crossroads at Cerny-en-Laonnois; and those looking for the 1918 fighting will also see the tank memorials at Le Cholera crossroads. It is also quite possible that many will have heard of the French army mutinies after the failure of the “Nivelle offensive” in April 1917 – but try finding a good English-language book on that major battle, or that preceding and following it. Try finding a good guidebook that explains why there is a huge memorial to the trench mortars at Moulin de Laffaux or even why the tanks at at Le Cholera. They just do not exist – at least, until the publication of Andrew Uffindel’s superb book.

“The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917″ is presented in a way that will be familiar to readers of Pen & Sword’s “Battleground Europe” series in that it is part-history, part-guidebook and well illustrated with maps and photographs. It is the same size and style all round. Quite why it is not in the “Battleground Europe” imprint I do not know.

The book provides is with a number of routes to follow, with very sensible advice as to the practicality of doing each by car, bike or on foot. I am also impressed to see that the author actually recommends not going to one site as it is a long hike and there is only a fragment of a memorial remaining. The routes cover the Chemin battlefield, essentially from Laffaux to Le Cholera, taking in Fort Malmaison, Craonne, Caverne du Dragon, Californie and many other places en route. In so doing, we learn of the real failures and indeed successes of General Nivelle’s 1917 offensive. British readers may be interested to learn that the first attack using tanks in any numbers greater than penny handfuls was a French one, half a year before Cambrai. Those with an interest in history before the war will also recognise the name of Marchand, a French officer whose expedition into the Sudan just before the turn of the century gave Britain  an apoplectic fit.

After the routes, Uffindell describes 46 of what he calls “stops”. A battlefield guide might call them “stands”. In other words, particular locations where there is something to see: a cemetery, a memorial, or a particular view or geographic feature. I found this separation of routes and stops very clear and useful.

Excellent. If you ever plan to see the Aisne in person or even through the internet from your armchair, or if you wish to know more about the French Army and their little-covered endeavours, do not hesitate to buy “The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917″.

Battle of the Aisne 1918
The phantom sector
by David Blanchard
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2015
paperback ISBN 978-1-78337-605-6
pages 280 including index
cover price £14.99

For a work published in the familiar Pen & Sword “Battleground Europe” imprint, David Blanchard’s book is a heavyweight, coming in as it does at 280 pages. The depth of research required to produce it is borne out by a detailed narrative of the experience of the British IX Corps when attacked and driven back from the Aisne in the German offensive that began on 27 May 1918. It is copiously illustrated by maps and photographs.

Inevitably, the ground covered by this book is part of that explored in Andrew Uffindell’s “The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917″, for the British relieved French forces here just before the German attack commenced. The line which they took over was to a great extent that reached by the French when they advanced during the Nivelle offensive in April 1917. We learn of the near-destruction of many hapless British units, overwhelmed by numbers and weight of enemy artillery; in positions that were difficult to defend; and with large numbers of drafts having very recently arrived, for the Divisions concerned had also been through the grinder of two previous offensives in recent weeks. Perhaps the best-known of the hopeless rearguard actions was that fought by the 2nd Devons at the Bois des Buttes: as we would expect it is covered in excellent detail. The enemy’s attack pushed the British southwards over many miles and eventually to the Marne, and the book somewhat belies in title in that the guide covers the many cemeteries and battlefield locations well down towards the Marne and into the Champagne area.

A very good book indeed and for my money one of the best of the “Battleground Europe” series.

The last great cavalry charge: the battle of the silver helmets, Halen, 12 August 1914
by Joe Robinson, Francis Hendricks and Janet Robinson

published in 2015 by Fonthill Media
illustrated hardback 131 pages plus afterword, appendix, endnotes, bibliography and index.
cover price £18.99
ISBN 978 1 78155 183 7
reviewed by Chris Baker on 23 June 2015

Before the British Expeditionary Force had begun to set foot on the continent of Europe, the vast forces of Germany and France were already engaged in mighty and bloody struggle along the mutual border. To the north,the strong German right wing had begun its advance across neutral Belgium in an attempt to outflank the French. It did not expect much resistance from the small, under-funded and obsolescent Belgian Army. At the obscure village of Halen on 12 August 1914, the Belgians gave the invader a very bloody nose. Wave after wave of German cavalry charges were mown down, in a sharp action that became known as the ‘Battle of the Silver Helmets’.

The battle is easily summarised: after the fierce fight for Liege in the first few days of war, the German First and Second Armies began to fan out for the planned sweep across Belgium. Ahead of the sweating ranks of infantry and artillery that began their long march, the regiments of cavalry moved swiftly ahead for reconnaissance and to deal with enemy rearguards and skirmishers. On 12 August 1914 the German cavalry, crossing the River Gete by the one bridge east of Halen in the far east of Flanders, came under heavy Belgian artillery fire as it passed through the confines of the town. On debouching past the railway that lay to the west, it also began to come under small arms fire from Belgian dismounted cavalry and cyclists hidden in the sunken lanes and higher ground beyond. In an effort to break the enemy resistance the Germans mounted eight distinct cavalry charges, each of which was cut down with heavy loss. The first charge was along the cobbled road toward Zelk, where the Belgians fired from behind a crude barricade; the German troops found that their route of escape into fields on their left was blocked by simple wire fences. They were routed, as were each of the charges that tried to reach the Belgians on the higher ground. The romantic glitter of helmets, lances, sabres, pennants and colours of old was tarnished by a welter of blood as Uhlans, Hussars and Lancers alike fell under Belgian fire. The German cavalry was never the same after Halen and scarcely features as a mounted element in the remaining battles of the Western Front. The feared “Oo-lans” were suddenly understood to be not so fearsome after all, and the “Battle of the Silver Helmets” proved to be a small, isolated but important action in the early stage of the Great War. That it took place in an area where the civil population was still present and within sight of any in Halen who braved the shellfire makes it even more unusual.

“The last great cavalry charge” is the first English-language book to explore this battle, as far as I am aware, and is one of very few to cover the actions of the Belgian Army at all. As such it is welcome. Although the core of the book is a well-researched blow-by-blow account of the battle, it also provides us with some excellent background into the history, structure, tactics and objectives of the German cavalry. It may surprise readers that despite the mounted arm being believed to be a key part of the German army, only nine of its cavalry brigades were assigned the “strong right wing” whose job was to sweep through Belgium. Two of them took part in the fight at Halen and were effectively destroyed. It certainly surprised me that virtually no organised supply existed to keep the cavalry fed, watered and able to fight. To a great extent it was expected to live off the land, and even by Halen – just a few days into the war – the cavalry was already showing signs of weariness and shortages that would affect it at Halen. So much for vaunted German efficiency. The Belgians are not neglected, and we learn much of the pre-war strategic thinking and of their unexpectedly fine defensive performance in August 1914. Even in victory there are controversies, and the book covers two of them that relate to the battle: the unfortunate positioning of the poor cyclists, who entrenched between the main Belgian firing line and the enemy ahead, and lost heavily as a result; and the late (or not) arrival of reserves in the form of the 4th Mixed Brigade. There are good maps and a collection of photographs that greatly add to the reader’s understanding. My only other observation is that the narrative does not flow too well in parts and I found I was having to track back and re-read; but I have no wish to be churlish: this is a good book that deserves a much wider readership that I suspect it will get.

Although it is off the beaten British track that seems to stick rigidly to Ypres and the Somme, Halen is a most interesting little battlefield that repays a visit. There is a small museum, several memorials and cemeteries – although many of the German dead were moved to distant Langemarck and Vladslo several decades after the event. The pattern of lanes, hills and woods, and the central Ijzerwinning Farm, are unchanged and make navigating the battle straightforward. Having a copy of “The last great cavalry charge” to hand on the ground will help make for an intriguing battlefield trip. It could be argued that Halen was not the last great cavalry charge at all, but no matter. It was certainly the end of fond hopes that the mounted “arme blanche” of the Napoleonic era could fight on equal terms with modern technology and firepower, and is rightly a proud Belgian battle honour.

Liverpool in the Great War
by Stephen McGreal
published in 2014 by Pen & Sword Military
One of the ‘Your towns and cities in the Great War’ series
illustrated paperback 155 pages plus bibliography and index.
cover price £12.99
ISBN 978 1 47382 161 3
reviewed by Chris Baker on 4 June 2015

Liverpool: the great port and industrial centre of Empire. In 1914 a bustling city where fortunes could be made yet life remained hard for the vast majority of working people. With the coming and going of seamen from the world over, perhaps the most international of British cities. This little paperback, written by Stephen McGreal, a name that will be familiar to many students from his previous work on the Cheshire Bantams, hospitals ships, Boesinghe and the Zeebrugge raid, tells its Great War story. It is, at 155 pages, perhaps only a summary or introduction to the subject but nonetheless covers much ground. The book is very nicely illustrated and will be of interest to people of the city and those with a more general interest in the war on the home front.

Liverpool’s position and its large scale dock facilities inevitably gave it centre-stage as a key port for inbound sea traffic crossing the Atlantic and the Irish Sea. The vital supply line for food and munitions from North America and elsewhere ran through the city’s docks, and nowhere witnessed more than Liverpool the sad effects of submarine warfare. In the latter years of the war the city also became the point of entry for troops of the United States forces making their way to the war in France. Business and the demand for dock workers boomed. The city, like all other industrial centres, gradually switched more of its capacity to munitions and other work of direct value in fighting the war. Inevitably, people’s livelihoods were affected, jobs changed, and under the increasingly centralised control of labour many people found themselves in unfamiliar types of work. The city responded magnificently to the early call for military and naval volunteers, producing numerous new units that included what is arguably the first “pals battalion” in the shape of the 17th King’s (Liverpool Regiment). The author covers all of this with detailed factual analysis and draws upon many local publications for the human side of the story. A great little book and well worth reading.

The naval flank of the Western Front

by Mark D Karau
published in 2014 by Seaforth Publishing, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books
illustrated paperback 227 pages plus appendices, bibliography, notes, index.
cover price £16.99
ISBN 978 1 84832 231 8
reviewed by Chris Baker on 9 April 2015

This book, “The naval flank of the Western Front: the German MarineKorps Flandern 1914-1918” was previously published in 2003 by Greenwood Press and Praeger under the title “Wielding the dagger: the MarineKorps Flandern and the German war effort 1914-1918“. It is rather scarce and consequently highly priced in the used book market.

The “naval flank of the Western Front” refers to the Belgian North Sea coast, a hotly contested stretch of water that was vital to Great Britain and Germany alike. German possession of the coast meant that in the ground war there was no flank that could be turned by any attack made by the allies, and the Germans set about making it impregnable to attack from sea or land. It also offered the opportunity for taking seaborne warfare to Britain, for the Belgian coast was within short sailing time of the English Channel ports and the way to the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. In the developing war, it also meant that Germany could establish air bases as close as was feasibly possible to that same seaway. The British understood this all too well. It is often forgotten that a strategic aim of the Third Battle of Ypres launched in 1917 was to remove Germany from the Belgian coast: and few people will have heard of the British Operation “Hush”, a planned D-Day-like amphibious landing with tanks that was planned for 1917 but which in the event never took place. Given the importance of operations in this area it is rather surprising that there have been relatively few works examining what happened, and even fewer delving into a force created specially for it: the MarineKorps Flandern.

The author explains the creation of the force, an unusual all-arms combination of naval, air and ground troops – the latter including garrisons of a string of gun batteries that the Germans built along the coast as well as more mobile battalions. The narrative takes us from early days in 1915; the construction of the batteries and actions against the Royal Navy; to offensive operations by torpedo motor boats and other small craft; and on to the MKF role in supporting U-Boat warfare. It covers the British attempts against the coast including Op “Hush” and the famous Zeebrugge and Ostend raids of 1918, but only fleetingly mentions the German Operation “Strandfest” which effectively killed two British battalions in a matter of minutes and made the success of “Hush” doubtful. It is well written and certainly well referenced in terms of its sources; somewhat academic in style, perhaps. There is a small selection of reasonably good maps and photographs, many from private collections.

An important work and very welcome in reprint.

Please note that the book title and publication date shown on Amazon differ slightly from my review copy.