Pouring with rain – Troops fed up
British Second Army and the liberation offensive in Flanders 1918
by Dennis Williams
published by Helion & Company in 2018
hardback ISBN 978 1 911096 55 9
296 pages plus extensive appendices, bibliography and index
Maps. Not otherwise illustrated.
Reviewed by Chris Baker.
The 1918 fighting in Flanders is a particular interest of mine. I have written about the events of the spring, when the British First and Second Armies, lately reinforced by the arrival of French reserves, held the German “Georgette” offensive. My first book on the subject included a chapter on the defence of Merckem by the Belgian Army – another subject of interest. For some years I used to give talks about the Belgians during the war. I have long since been mulling over writing something about the “second half”; the series of Allied offensives in this region that finally broke out of the confines of the Ypres salient and advanced deep into Belgium by the time hostilities came to an end. So I received “Pouring with rain – troops fed up” with great anticipation.
Let me begin with what this book is not – and to some extent the subtitle gives the game away. This is not a work on the entirety of those offensives, for the strong Belgian component of the final months is not within scope (so it excludes, for example, the recapture of Passchendaele). French involvement in French Flanders receives some attention but is not central to the story. There are no Germans here, either. Concentration is almost wholly upon the British Second Army and it is essentially an operational study, of plans, actions and outcomes. Whether the troops really were fed up is hard to tell, for they have no voice here: it does not draw upon the diaries, letters or memoirs of individual soldiers.
So let us turn to what it is. The principal source of information used by the author is the wonderful collection of war diaries produced by the units and formation headquarters of Second Army. The key points of interest are drawn out of a wide array of them and collectively they describe an army operating towards the top of its game in changing circumstances. After the nibbling recovery of much of French Flanders, the main assault began in late September 1918. This, of course, was at a point when the German force elsewhere in France and Flanders was tottering under the series of hammer blows it had faced since late July. That the notorious, blood soaked ground of the Ypres salient was captured in a day is largely ignored in other works; that the fighting then rolled through largely undamaged and populated territory also receives little coverage elsewhere. The authors covers all of this, and the hard periods of fighting for Courtrai and the Lys valley, very well. Those readers with an interest in the doings of 9th (Scottish), 14th (Light), 29th, 30th, 31st, 34th, 35th Division, 36th (Ulster) or 41st Divisions will find much of interest.
I understand that the book is based on the author’s 2016 MPhil from the University of Birmingham.