Two excellent British battle studies

Decisive Victory: the battle of the Sambre, 4 November 1918
by Derek Clayton
published by Helion & Company, 2018
hardback ISBN 978 1 912174 90 4
221 pages plus appendices, bibliography and sources. Index. Illustrated. Colour maps.

A battle too far: Arras 1917
by Don Farr
published by Helion & Company, 2018
hardback ISBN 978 1 912174 92 8
288 pages plus lengthy appendices, bibliography and sources. Index. Illustrated. Colour maps.

Two books that share some common characteristics, by two respected authors. On one hand: excellent work and valuable additions to the library. They are well written; deeply researched; fully referenced descriptions of two of the British Army’s key battles of the second half of the Great War. Both books are beautifully produced and I am very taken by the clear, colour maps that they include. For today’s price they are a snip and I recommend both. On the other: as with virtually every British book published in the centenary and before, the enemy is largely absent from the battlefield. They are an amorphous mass. As such, detailed and reliable as these books are (it is difficult to believe that you could find a more comprehensive study of the British Expeditionary Force in these actions) we are looking at the battles through one half of the binoculars. Both books consider the British and Allied strategic, operational and tactical aspects of the battle, but not the equivalent from the other side and the two were necessarily absolutely intertwined.

I place no blame on the authors. Researching the German side is hard work, particularly if the language is not one in which you excel. The sources of information are of course in Germany. You can’t just pop into Potsdam because you need to cross-check a fact. You can’t download a German war diary for pennies; in fact, you can’t do so at all. And even when you have the source material to hand you have to contend with that infernal script or scripts that were in use. I know what it’s like. I’ve gone into the German side a little when writing my own books and have barely ventured past the excellent collection of regimental histories held at the Imperial war Museum. It’s tough going. To do it well would be a stretch, in terms of skill, time and money. Yet if anyone is going to develop our understanding of the war beyond this point they really are going to need to consider and tackle it.

The first indicator of one-sidedness is the bibliographies and source lists included in each book. They list dozens of formation and unit war diaries – and I have no doubt at all that they have been plundered for every bit of useful detail. Don Farr’s list of war diaries runs to five full pages: perhaps 230-250 diaries listed in all, down to just about every battalion that participated. He lists no German diaries or even regimental histories; only Ernst Junger’s “Storm of Steel”, Cron’s order of battle and three of Jack Sheldon’s fine works on the German Army. “Decisive victory” is not dissimilar.

The publisher’s blurb to Don Farr’s book says that Arras has “scarcely received the attention it deserves”. While it is true that it is not the magnet of the Somme or periods at Ypres, there is other good reading for those interested. There is a 500-page volume of the Official History, for starters. Does “A battle too far” take us much beyond that work? Nothwithstanding my comments about the German side of things, it does. The book provides a good account of the inception, planning and execution of the battle and considers its impact upon British desires to get on with a more important offensive in Flanders. It is also good to see space devoted to the French actions of the time, especially as the entire affair was devised as a prelude to the French attack on the Chemin des Dames.There are some thoughtful conclusions and overall it makes for a good read and useful work of reference. The German side is considered in an appendix chapter, albeit at a high level of strategy, discussing the strategic posture and the development of the in-depth defensive system. The air war (and Arras was a dreadful time for the British in the air) is similarly covered in an appendix.

“Scarcely received attention” would be overstating things as far as the Battle of the Sambre is concerned, and Derek Clayton’s book is especially welcome in filling a major gap. The Battle was the last of the large scale “set piece” actions on the Western Front. By that time, the German Armies had been under attacks since late July; had lost ground and huge numbers of men; and were heading towards defeat. But there was as yet no room for British complacency as their own losses had been enormous; their supply lines were becoming stretched; and the enemy had a maddening habit of continuing to fight despite everything. The book reveals how planning and preparations were still underway when the battle began, and that, while it was a clear success, things did not all go smoothly for the attacking side. Clayton argues – convincingly – that the British had reached an operational and tactical zenith in the offensives of August and September, and that by the Sambre the weather, ground and logistics worked against the all-arms technological warfare that had proven so successful. He concludes that the victory stemmed from the capability and experience of British command and well trained small units As with Farr’s work, good maps help the reader and overall it is a very worthwhile book.

Buy them

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Links

The Battle of Arras 1917

The Battle of the Sambre