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

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Defiance! Withstanding the Kaiserschlacht

By C. H. F. Nichols
Pen & Sword Military, 2022
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

German Troops Advancing to Their Jump-Off Point

This British artillery officer’s memoir is a reprint of the original 1919 edition. The author, C. H. F. Nichols, was a lieutenant and captain in the 82nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA). His memoir covers the period from March 1918, after he returned to the brigade following his recovery from a wound suffered in 1917, to 4 November 1918. During this time, Nichols served mostly at brigade headquarters as a combination adjutant, signals officer, liaison officer, and transport officer

When Nichols published his memoirs in 1919, wartime censorship was still in effect. Consequently, the text contains “space holders” when referring to various British army units, such as “-------rd Brigade.” Much of the narrative consists of Nichols’s efforts to establish contact between battalion headquarters and its four batteries, and in arranging moves, quarters, and liaison for brigade headquarters. Nichols witnessed artillery barrages, gas attacks, aerial bombardment, and aerial combat. His narrative shows that, even late in the war, the Germans were by no means impotent, and they posed a significant threat even while retreating. His confusing, and often perilous, forays into the night to find a battery or an infantry unit headquarters highlight the difficulties of communications and liaison common to all armies of the Great War.

Amid these combat duties, Nichols relates items of human interest. For example, he records card games, a search for a major’s missing smoking pipe, and a frantic search for a missing much-loved dog. His interactions with fellow officers are often interesting or humorous. When discussing his sleeping arrangements with a snoring U.S. Army doctor assigned to his brigade, Nichols relates: “Down in that shaft, he must have introduced a new orgy of nasal sounds. It commenced with a gentle snuffling that rather resembled the rustling of the waters against the bows of a racing yacht, and then in smooth even stages crescendoed into one grand, triumphant blare” (p. 165). . .

British Prisoners Carrying Their Wounded

Nichols had great respect and admiration for the nameless colonel who commanded the brigade: “[T]here was no one like our colonel; and, in the serene atmosphere of his wise unquestioned leadership, petty bickerings, minor personal troubles, and a half-jesting, half-bitter railings against higher authority, had faded away” (p. 196). American readers will appreciate his account of his interactions with some Americans, probably from the 27th Division, during the assault on the St. Quentin Canal in September 1918.

When Nichols reports on his conversations with various officers and men, the dialog is recreated and therefore must be viewed as giving an overall impression rather than a strictly accurate account. There are no maps, and Nichols avoids discussion or analysis of the strategic situation on the Western Front; this is simply one officer’s memoir of his participation of the momentous events of 1918.

Defiance! is reminiscent of such American works as Toward the Flame (Hervey Allen, University of Nebraska Press, 2003 reprint) and Let’s Go! (Louis Felix Ranlett, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927). It is highly recommended to anyone interested in learning about the workings of an RFA battalion headquarters in World War I.

Peter L. Belmonte

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