Review of “Friends are good on the day of battle”

Friends are good on the day of battle: the 51st (Highland) Division during the First World War
by Craig French
published by Helion & Company Ltd
ISBN 978 1 911096 54 2
Hardback. 279 pages plus appendices, bibliography, index. Not illustrated except for maps.
Cover price: not stated on book but publisher says £29.95
Reviewed by Chris Baker

This is another Helion publication of a work in the “Wolverhampton Military Studies” series and is typical of that series. It is a very nice physical product, although not in the high quality glossy paper of recent Helion output. The book, based on the author’s postgraduate study of the 51st (Highland) Division in both World Wars, has all the hallmarks of academic work.

The division was amongst the first of the formations of the Territorial Force to go to war, fighting in France and Flanders from May 1915 until the end. As such it saw action in most of the major battles and engagements. It has attracted a good deal of attention over the years and has a considerable historiography of its own, including a good divisional history. “Friends are good on the day of battle” does not set out to be another history, but is an evaluation of its development and battle performance. As such it is not untypical of much of the study  that has emerged from the war and military history departments of our universities in recent years, exploring the “learning curve” of the British Armies.

I appreciated the structure of the book. After an introduction, French examines the division’s development in terms of three themes: training; recruitment and reinforcement; and esprit de corps. He then assesses the division’s performance in four of its main actions: Givenchy in the spring of 1915; Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme in late 1916; Cambrai in late 1917; and finally in the defensive fighting in March 1918. I must say I found this a somewhat curious selection: three offensive actions and one defensive, and no coverage of the period of summer and autumn 1918 in which the whole British Expeditionary Force was at its most effective.  Perhaps you could argue that the division ceased to be quite the same after its terrible March to May 1918 and that when it did return to action it was a different beast. Cambrai is certainly an intriguing battle when examining this division, for controversies about its integration (or not) with the massed tank attack that formed a key part of the battle. The research is good and well-referenced, as you would expect; the analysis is sound and makes for an interesting read. If anything I would like it to have been rather longer!

For any fans of this division or with interest in the “learning curve”, a good addition to your library.

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51st (Highland) Division