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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Kitchener's Mob
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson

Kitchener's Mob: The New Army to the Somme

by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster
The History Press, 2016

Kitchener's Mob tells the hectic story of the raising of Kitchener's Army in August and September 1914. The number of volunteers who joined Kitchener's Army was higher than the total number of soldiers obtained by conscription in 1916 and 1917 combined. In fact Kitchener and the War Office were able to add five New Armies to Britain's military forces. Kitchener's first call was for 100,000 men; this goal was reached within just two weeks. A further 100,000 men were required almost immediately. Feelings of patriotism ran high, as in the case of Harry Gilbert Tunstill, a land agent and county council representative who, on 24 August had just returned from a trip to Russia and immediately took on the responsibility of raising men to serve in the New Army. All but two of the New Army divisions saw action in France and Belgium. As Boyle and Foster demonstrate, the men of Kitchener's Army suffered greatly during the first few months of the war because of a severe shortage of weapons, equipment, and accommodation.

British Troops Advance Along the Ancre, Late in the Battle of the Somme

Kitchener's Mob is divided into five chapters: Men of the Moment, Kitchener's Men, Pals, Road to the Somme, and End of an Experiment. The first chapter describes Kitchener's qualities as a leader in time of war. Kitchener's Army quickly entered the popular imagination, as evidenced in the wide range of posters, postcards, and advertisements reproduced in Doyle and Foster's study.

Chapter two, "Kitchener's Men", describes the training of the volunteers, and the production of their uniforms and equipment. Among the many evocative illustrations in this chapter are the photographs of individuals and groups at camp and in training. Equipment was hard to come by and of questionable quality. All the same, the total weight carried by Kitchener's men was between 61 and 65 lbs., which included clothing, arms, ammunition, accoutrements, rations, and water.

Conditions in the camp were far from comfortable, as the postcard text below illustrates:

Down in our blinking camp,
We're always on the ramp,
That's where we cop the cramp,
Through sleeping in the damp.
(p. 81)

It is clear, however, that despite the difficult conditions, spirits ran high.

"Pals", the third chapter of Kitchener's Mob, describes how the retreat from Mons in August 1914 spurred on the recruitment campaign as fears grew that the Expeditionary Force would be pushed back to the Channel ports. The Pals concept grew out of this fear along with a subsequent request that the City of London raise a whole battalion of stockbrokers. Two weeks later, a letter from Lord Derby appeared in the Liverpool Echo, addressed specifically to the commercial classes:

It has been suggested to me that there are many men, such as clerks and others engaged in commercial business, who wish to serve their country and would be willing to enlist in the battalion of Kitchener's New Army if they felt assured that they would be able to serve with their friends and not to be put in a battalion with unknown men as their companions. Lord Kitchener has sanctioned my endeavouring to raise a battalion that would be composed entirely of the classes mentioned, and in which a man could be certain that he would be amongst friends (p. 95).

Pals regiments, from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland became a vital part of Kitchener's Army. A particularly moving photograph reproduced in the chapter is that of Private 15/1545 Tom Scawbord, who was killed on the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916 (p. 119). The chapter also describes recruitment in Ulster, showing a photograph of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912; they are a pathetic sight as they march with neither uniforms nor ammunition.

Chapter Four, "The Somme", is richly illustrated with photographs from the front, showing the trenches, dugouts, labor battalions, and German barbed wire. There are also extracts from letters such as the one below, which makes it clear that soldiers found it difficult to describe what it was really like at the front:

It is awfully cold and dismal at nights. I would refer you to Rudyard Kipling for a description of the dawn and the close of the day, when soldiers stand to arms, to give you a truer idea of something no-one but a good poet can describe (p. 174).

The chapter also contains a section on Gallipoli and Egypt.

It is, however, the section on the Somme that is the most powerful. With the aid of maps, photographs, and illustrations from Punch, Doyle and Foster demonstrate the challenge that the Somme represented for Kitchener's Army. They conclude Chapter Four with the following sentence ~

"The story of Kitchener's Army does not end with the 151 days of the Somme, but there the youthful army came of age—and it would face the challenges of 1917 head on" (p. 197).

Pvt. Charles Branston
The final chapter, "End of an Experiment", is shorter than the previous ones. It describes how the social experiment of locally raised battalions of volunteers met the reality of modern warfare - and how so many did not make it across no-man's-land. Their bodies remained in France, as a symbol of patriotism and sacrifice. The lack of experience of the men and their leaders took its toll. The chapter ends with the statement "one thing is clear: the road to the Somme paved by Kitchener's Army continued on to the victory of the citizen army in November 1918" (p. 204).

The photograph of one of the men on the final page says it all:

Charlie Branston was wounded by shellfire in the trenches at Contalmaison on 10 July 1016, and killed in action on 12 October 1916 near Lesboeufs. His name is among the thousands recorded on the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval.

Kitchener's Army includes a wide variety of documentary sources, both primary and secondary, is richly illustrated throughout, and meticulously annotated. It is a fine commemoration to the patriotism and sacrifices of the thousands of men who joined Kitchener's Army. They are not forgotten.

Jane Mattisson
Østfold University College, Norway

1 comment:

  1. Very good review, Jane. Sounds like a rich book for the British side.

    And I can't resist:
    "[T]he men of Kitchener's Army suffered greatly during the first few months of the war because of a severe shortage of weapons, equipment, and accommodation" - not to mention being wounded and killed a lot.