Victory on the Western Front: the development of the British Army 1914-1918
by (Dr) Michael Senior
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2016
ISBN 978 1 78340 065 2
Hardback. 209pp plus appendices, end notes, bibliography, index. Illustrated.
Between 1900 and 1918 the British Army underwent such deep and broad development that it might be described as transformation. The process of change commenced long before 1914, partly in reaction to poor performance in the Second Boer War and partly in consideration of potential involvement in continental war in Europe. Without the reforms and re-armament that took place in those years, the army would not have been in a position to conceive and implement the extraordinary developments of the Great War.
Development of the army in 1914-1918 was on a hard and complex road. It has been at the core of historical research and thinking for some five decades now. The touchpaper was lit by the likes of John Terraine and is now pushed forward by the war schools of the Universities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and King’s College London. Along the way there have been numerous studies of the changes in generalship, tactics, armaments and organisation: good examples include Paddy Griffith’s “Battle tactics of the Western Front” and Simon Robbins’ “British Generalship on the Western Front 1914-1918: Defeat into Victory”, published in published in 1995 and 2006 respectively.
The author Michael Senior gained a PhD for his study of XI Corps during the war and his book on the corps commander Richard Haking was published in 2013. Almost a decade before, he had written a book on the men of the village of Lee in Buckinghamshire, “No finer courage”.
“Victory of the Western Front” is a reasonable starter for the subject: it includes chapters on the key developments in generalship, the Royal Flying Corps, tanks, artillery and battle tactics. It is well written, well referenced and the reader is presented with much good factual information concerning these developments. I can’t say that I am convinced that the maps and photos included in the book add a great deal of value to it, and there are a few minor errors, but they do not detract from the overall work. For the reader who is new to the subject it is not a bad place to start.
More advanced students may be disappointed. With its sharp focus on the British Expeditionary Force, we might not expect too much by way of coverage of the other principal players in the shape of the French and German Armies. Yet in many aspects the British lagged behind both. Many of the developments that took place in the BEF, particularly in battlefield tactics and the war in the air, were belated attempts to copy or build on the learning of others. The book provides little way way of comparison between the armies.
There are many areas of development that are not mentioned, or at least only in passing: for example, we miss the huge effort in logistics; transformation of training of officers, recruits and men; the organisation of labour, engineering and communications. Such things are hardly the stuff of “Boy’s Own”, but without them the army could not have progressed from the nadir of 1 July 1916 to the capable, effective, high-tempo army of the autumn of 1918.
Overall then, a good book as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. There are already more important studies of the development of the British Army in the Great War, and with such intense study as there is at present, there will be more.
Final note to the publisher: if you are going to include one of my books – that you published – in a bibliography, please have the care to spell my name correctly!