Review of “An Army of Brigadiers”

An Army of Brigadiers: British brigade commanders at the Battle of Arras 1917
by Trevor Harvey
Published by Helion & Company, 2017
ISBN (hardback) 978 1 911512 00 4
Hardback 332 pages plus appendices (list of brigade commanders, DSO citations, orders of battle), bibliography, index. Illustrated.
Reviewed by Chris Baker

Declaration: I know the author of this book. Trevor Harvey has been the chairman of my local branch of the Western Front Association for the last couple of years.

Produced in Helion’s now familiar high quality style on glossy paper and with good black and white photographs and colour maps, “An Army of Brigadiers” is certainly good value at the prices I have seen being asked for it today. It is another in the Wolverhampton Studies series, and another based on a recent PhD study at the University of Birmingham. As such it has all the hallmarks of that kind of work: it begins with a survey of existing literature, and is footnoted and referenced to within an inch of its life.

Trevor Harvey sets out to explore command of an infantry brigade, a role borne by some 600 Brigadiers-General during the Great War. The cover of the book is based on a cartoon, a caricature of a white-haired, white-mustachioed, rosy-cheeked man with red tabs and lots of ribbons of campaigns long before.  He’s been “out there” since 1914 as he wears a red overseas service chevron, and as such we just know he’s an old regular, not a Kitchener volunteer or a colonial. “An Army of Brigadiers” helps us understand whether that caricature is in the least bit accurate. The opening section analyses exactly what a brigade commander did and what was expected of him: it appears to be far more loose and flexible than I imagined. The role and even its importance was shaped by the personality and experience of the individual in command, and those to who he reported, his brigade staff, and to some extent those he commanded. We have some excellent statistical analyses of the men’s age, the route by which they came to a commission, their experience and promotions, their staff training, or not, and the campaigns in which they had participated. A key fact that emerges is the men’s age: on average in 1914, a Brigadier was just under 50; by 1917 he was 41. Hardly a white-haired old blimp. He’s almost certainly come in via Sandhurst or the Militia, although there was a much greater chance of him being an ex-ranker if he commanded a Dominion brigade. Most had been at the rank of Major in 1914; a brigade was their second promotion since then, and most in 1914 had seen service in the Second Boer War.

The majority of the book focuses on five individual Brigadiers-General who played a part in the Battle of Arras: Loomis of 1st Canadian Brigade; Cator of 37; Kellett of 99; Cameron of 151 and Pelham Burn of 152. We are treated to good, detailed personal and military biographies of each, examining similarities and differences, and to what extent it affected the battlefield performance of their respective brigades. As the author says, their most significant contribution does not appear to have been on the battlefield but in the perpetual struggle to ensure that the officers and men of their battalions were adequate in numbers and possessed of individual skills, tactical acuity and and strength of morale. Oilers of the wheels, indeed.

An interesting and important book; one you may consider reading alongside Peter Hodgkinson’s similar study of battalion commanders.

And finally a personal plea to the War Studies departments of our universities: it was an artillery war. Let’s see something similar for the gunners.

Buy it