Review of “On the dangerous edge”

On the dangerous edge: British and Canadian trench raiding on the Western Front 1914-1918
by Kenneth Radley
published by Helion & Company, 2018
paperback ISBN 978 1 912390 75 5
489 pages plus bibliography and index
cover price not stated
reviewed by Chris Baker

After ploughing through all 489 pages of this detailed account of trench raiding, I emerge with very mixed feelings about it. Perhaps I was put off a little by the rear cover blurb that said, “If the reader has appreciable military service so much the better since knowing how an Army works unlocks the nuances and enables amplification”. Well, that is me and many hundreds of other historians and readers who just won’t get it. I wasn’t sure that I was qualified to carry on. Or perhaps it was in the verbiage of the introduction where I was informed that the antonym of success is failure. I think I knew that already.

On the positive side, the author has written several excellent books before, notably on the work of the 1st Canadian Division and the Canadian Corps in the Great War. To compile this book he has plundered the official accounts, unit war diaries, memoirs and secondary accounts to provide a broad and deep assessment of the art and science of trench raiding and how it developed over the years. It is logically organised, taking us from definition (when was a raid a raid, as opposed to a patrol or attack); through the background of positional warfare and the value of raiding; to a number of specific examples that illustrate evolution of ideas and technologies in practice; to a brief summary and retrospective. The examples are well illustrated and described, for the author has a good turn of phrase. “On the dangerous” edge, while perhaps not being bedtime reading, is a work that is digestible and enjoyable despite the detail and the sheer extent of its coverage. It will also remain on my shelf as a useful work of reference.

The principal downside is that there is no enemy presence to speak of. Not a single German source is quoted, save for documents captured. Not a single German unit is listed in the index: there are four and a half pages of the index of British and Canadian units. As in so many histories, the enemy is an amorphous mass and while we learn in detail about one side’s approach to raiding and the learning that came from it, we know nothing of the other. We find out the names of individuals who participated on one side but do not even know which unit they were facing. To me, this renders the blurb’s contention that “this book must be the definitive study of raiding” to be invalid. Much work remains to be done on the German side of the wire if we are to gain a genuine feel for this subject.

Helion’s production quality remains high and the book is well produced although there I noticed a few errors that had crept through: a date mis-typed in a caption to a map and incorrect pages numbers given in the index (on the one example I checked, the 1st South Staffords, where some of the references are actually to the 6th), for example.

Overall, at the price that this sells for it is worth buying and a decent read. But the definitive book on raiding remains yet to come.

Buy it