Review of “An unappreciated field of endeavour”: logistics and the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front 1914-1918
by Clem Maginniss
published by Helion & Company 2018
hardback ISBN 978 1 913390 17 5
341 pages plus bibliography (28 pages) and index. Illustrated.
Cover price not stated.
Supply chain and logistics is a subject of great interest to me, not least as I spent more than 20 years working in this field as a consultant to major businesses. The complexities and demands of the logistic support of the huge British army of the Great War outstrip those faced by even the globe’s largest organisations today. The fact that it was handled so effectively is something I greatly admire and always seek to learn more about.
I have to say that despite seeing several glowing reviews of the book and opening it with great anticipation, I found it hard going. This was not because of the core subject matter or the author’s exploration of it, but the way in which it is presented. “An unappreciated field of endeavour” is simply littered with features that render it hard to read and frustrating. Typographical errors abound. There is frequent odd Capitalisation of Things That Do Not Need Capitals and a veritable blizzard of acronyms, many of which are unnecessary (such as twice telling us within four pages that the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry is DCLI) and others related to today’s logistics practices rather than those of the period. There are also a few oddities too, such as it being explained that it was an advantage to the logistic planners of the opening of the Battle of the Somme that they did not need to support tanks: well, they didn’t need to support tactical nuclear weapons either! I usually prefer the addition of footnotes to the use of end notes and am pleased to see them in use in this book, but in my view this has been rather overdone, with the value of many being peripheral at best. These things are of course a matter of style and it may simply be that the adopted style does not sit well with me. Other readers may be more tolerant.
There is no doubt that the author has invested much effort in research and in compiling the facts that form the heart of the book. The sources quoted are broad and varied, from official records, regimental histories and academic studies to private papers, memoirs and histories. After some introductory work in defining logistics, providing a glossary of terms and explanations of weights and quantities, the book is organised into twelve thematic chapters.They are grouped into three parts: “Perceptions and Plans”, “Finding a Way”, and “Innovation and Improvisation”. The author takes the pre-war methods and plans for supporting a relatively small British Expeditionary Force through the strains, failures, lessons and innovations that enabled a much expanded force to operate with high effectiveness. He concludes that today’s logisticians could learn much from a study of the organisation, processes and procedures that developed during the Great War. As such, a book well worth reading by any professional in the field but also by the more general historian.