Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Victory on the Western Front
Reviewed by David F. Beer


Victory on the Western Front: The Development of the British Army 1914-1918

by Michael Senior
Pen and Sword, 2016

By the end of the Great War in 1918 there were almost two million British troops on the Western Front. Few—if any—were remnants of the initial BEF force of 125,000 who had left England for France over four years earlier, and just as their numbers had grown drastically over the years of fighting, so, the author argues, had tactical and technical innovations gradually been developed and improved. In this book, Michael Senior identifies and analyzes these developments and shows how they led to the British Army becoming an infinitely more efficient force by 1918 than it was in 1914.

1918: British Artillerymen with the Look of Victory

Although written in an impressively lucid style, this is not a quick read. The author is meticulous in assembling his evidence, refers to numerous political and military figures, and analyses details scrupulously. The army's gradual transformation was never a foregone conclusion, but, as Senior shows, was often a case of muddling through to improvement:

The development of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) between 1914 and 1918 was extraordinary. Its growth was rapid and largely unplanned and its composition and character evolved piecemeal through the course of the war. Altogether, it was an outstanding, and eventually successful, masterpiece of improvisation (p. 7).

The first "improvement" of course was to get enough men to fight this war. Britain's 1914 army was insignificant compared to the German and French armies—and half of it was stationed in the colonies. The tremendous recruiting efforts that took place right away are the topics of the book's opening chapters, including the difficulties of finding enough experienced officers and NCOs, uniforms, and rifles. Even seasoned generals lacked the experience the new situations demanded, hence their learning curve was steep (and sometimes hindered by rivalries, feuds, resentments, intrigues, and hostility).

Most of the book consists of chapters devoted to technical improvements within the Royal Flying Corps, munitions, trenches, tanks, artillery—all combat elements that were to adapt in various ways as the war developed. One thing that didn't change until it was too late for innumerable souls on all sides was the traditional idea that an outright "offensive spirit"—the courageous frontal attack with guns and bayonets—was the only way to win the war. Not the best of ideas in the age of the machine gun. But as Senior shows, even this concept was reworked by the last year of the war when "bite and hold" tactics combined with careful aerial and artillery coordination came into use.

You will meet a lot of British politicians, industrialists, and generals in Victory on the Western Front, including many whose names are not much remembered today. All played a part in developing the British Army into the complex and efficient organization that it became by 1918. One caveat: although the author doesn't ignore French or American efforts, or even the Portuguese (they were "of doubtful morale and fighting capability" (p. 181) there's a danger, I think, of a reader unfamiliar with the truly global nature of WWI coming away from the book with the impression that this war was primarily Britain's war. This can be remedied of course by reading one of the full histories of the war.

Ultimately, Victory on the Western Front is a convincing antidote against the popular "Lions led by Donkeys" attitude toward the Great War that has sometimes been in vogue. It's a well-written and well-organized book of seven chapters, introduction and conclusion, notes, bibliography, index, and an appendix listing the main events of the war. The seven maps at the front of the book are clear and will be useful to some readers. Four pages of "plates" contain 24 black-and-white photos of significant people and scenes.

All in all, this book is an excellent read for those whose WWI interests include the workings of the British Expeditionary Force from 1914 to 1918.

David F. Beer

3 comments:

  1. It sounds like a powerful argument against the "Donkeys" view.

    And hurrah for fine maps!

    PS: what's the story behind "Not On Strike"?

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  2. Perhaps a final appendix would be how numerous lessons were forgotten by 1939 and led to disasters in Northern France and on the Malay Peninsula. As always, an excellent review. I look forward to lounging about with the book in the near future. Cheers

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    1. True - I know an elderly gentleman who is a Dunkirk veteran, and he says that his regiment went out to France in 1939-40 with spades to dig trenches, exactly as his predecessors had done in 1914!

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