Review of “Kitchener’s Mob”

Kitchener’s Mob: the New Army to the Somme
by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster
published by The History Press
ISBN 978 0 7509 6495 1
Hardback, large format, 205pp plus bibliography, notes and index. Illustrated.
Cover price £25.

First, basic impression: this is one hell of a book for £25. It is beautifully produced, printed on high quality paper and carries numerous excellent full colour photographs. In terms of sheer value for money, it puts most other books on the subject of the Great War to shame.

Second impression: you don’t need to read this book. I spent a good half an hour just looking at the photos before it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to go back and read it. It is profusely illustrated with a combination of images. Most of the colour photographs are of what we might call militaria: uniform, equipment, insignia, ephemera. We see the minutiae of a soldier’s life: his sewing kit, his badges, his buttons, his boot brushes. In black and white are the contemporary photographs of recruits; of men in training; of men on leave or having their photo taken in a studio before they went overseas.

“Kitchener’s Mob” describes the raising and training of the New Army, that huge and improvised expansion of the British Army that brought ordinary citizens to the battlefield in their hundreds of thousands. It is surely one of the nation’s greatest feats of commitment and organisation. From the formal raising of the armies under Lord Kitchener’s instructions, to the raising of many local units through public subscription and initiative, the book takes us through the challenges of going from a standing start to a large and capable army within a relatively short period of time. It is well written and will appeal to many readers who are unfamiliar with military matters.

In a few days time we will see the 100th anniversary of, for the infantry, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. For many New Army units it would prove to be a day of disaster and disappointment, and to some extent this stems from the high command’s perception that the New Army had not done too well in its earlier actions at Suvla Bay and at Loos. It is a myth that the Somme was the New Army’s initiation into war, although for some units – notably the “pals” of 31st Division – it was their first major action. “Kitchener’s Mob” explains this background very well and avoids the oft-repeated mythology. It also explains that for some New Army units, the first day was one of achievement: the 36th (Ulster) Division at Thiepval, although struggling to hold on to hard-won gains, certainly performed most creditably; the 18th (Eastern) and 30th Divisions at Montauban (the latter largely made up of “pals” units) achieved all that was asked.

A tremendous piece of work and if, inspired by this Somme anniversary, you only buy one book then this is the one I would recommend.