From Somme to Victory
The British Army’s experience on the Western Front 1916-1918
by Peter Simkins MBE
published by The Praetorian Press (Pen & Sword Books), 2014
ISBN 978 1 78159 312 7
cover price – £25
Hardback, 205pp plus notes, sources, bibliography and index bringing it to 254pp. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker
The name of Peter Simkins MBE will be familiar to most students of the British Army in the Great War. The current President of the Western Front Association, Peter was for many years the senior historian at the Imperial War Museum and latterly has played an important part in the development of war studies at the universities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton. His 1988 book “Kitchener’s Army” is considered by many to be the finest work on one of Britain’s finest achievements, in the raising of the new armies in 1914. I admit to some bias in writing this review as I know Peter quite well and have learned much from him over the years.
‘From Somme to Victory’ is a collection of essays that consider the development of the British Expeditionary Force from its dark 1 July 1916 until its succession of battlefield victories in the ‘Hundred Days’ campaign of 1918. It doing so it concentrates on the Somme and the offensives in Picardy but does not cover the German offensives of spring 1918 other than at Villers-Bretonneux. In other words it concentrates on the BEF’s qualities and performance as an attacking force. The essays are presented in an academic style in that evidence is thorough and every detail referenced to original sources, but Simkin’s writing is fluid and easily digested.
Peter Simkins is unashamedly one of those often called ‘revisionists’: he eschews notions of poor Generalship, ‘lions led by donkeys’ and suchlike. His core thesis is that the BEF developed very quickly under good leadership, and by 1918 had succeeded in integrating new weapons, new tactics and new methods of command and control to produce a formidable and highly effective fighting machinery. The essays make for a strong and cogent argument.
The opening chapter, on the changing historical perspectives, takes us on a review of the literature of the Great War, from war-time and post-war fact, through the 1930′s ‘disenchantment’ (surely that is the real revisionism?), to the 1960s peacenik phase (when ‘lions led by donkeys’ originated as a popular view) and into today’s hopefully more balanced and objective view of history. The remainder of the essays are mainly specific studies of battle, with particular emphasis on Simkins’ favourite 12th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions and in addition to V-B cover the capture of Thiepval in 1916; the fighting in mud and snow on the Ancre in early 1917, Thiepval and the Ancre again in August 1918 and the ‘Hundred Days’ as experienced by the 12th (Eastern) Division.
A book of serious weight and value for any military historian.