Review of “Killer Butterflies”

Killer butterflies: combat, pyschology and morale in the British 19th (Western) Division 1915-18
by James Roberts
published by Helion & Co. 2017
Hardback ISBN 9781911512240
268 pages plus bibliography and index
Review copy kindly provided by Casemate UK.

This study of the men of the 19th (Western) Division – often called the Butterfly Division after its symbol – is based on the author’s University of Worcester PhD which he was awarded in 2004. It bears the hallmarks of such work, being thoroughly researched and with numerous references to source material. The division was selected for the study as it was seen as “typical”: raised from volunteers of Kitchener’s Second New Army in 1914, it saw its first serious action in September 1915, developed through the ups and downs of experience, tactical and weapons development of the middle years, and played an important part in the final offensives of 1918. The division had no particular geographic or other social focus. For example, irs original infantry battalions were from the English North West, Midlands and Wales.

The author’s subject is men killing other men. How ordinary fellows from an industrialised and civilised nation were turned into soldiers whose role was to kill the enemy; how they faced up to that challenge, or not; and how it affected them. It is a tough subject, hard to define, and often harrowing in its realities. The book’s first two chapters explain that the subject is one not often tackled in depth in the historiography of the Great War, at least not from an analytical viewpoint.

“Killer butterflies” third chapter defines the methodology of the study by defining terms and how the author intended to tackle the distinctions between killing at a distance (for example, by machine gun or artillery) and the more intense, personal experience of close-in combat (for example, in trench raids with bayonet and grenade). This made sense to me, for I have often read of the “empty battlefield”, where men could fire away, and be fired upon, without ever seeing an enemy soldier. That surely differs in its demands and effects from those imposed on the face-blackened trench raider.

After that, the study is chronological, working its way through the division’s key engagements in analysing the men’s acts of killing within the context of the evolving tactical and organisational approach. It exposes,for example, the effectiveness of training, or lack of it, and the possibility in some circumstances that a man could effectively choose to be a non-participant by not firing. As such, it raises complex behavioural and moral questions and makes for an intriguing, absorbing read.

Well worth reading by any student of the war, and of course particularly by anyone with an interest is the 19th (Western) Division.

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19th (Western) Division