Thursday, March 13, 2014

"The Western Front" by Richard Holmes... a review...

On the basis that anyone with an interest in military history should never be in a position of not knowing at least the smatterings of the varied and innumerable struggles that have engulfed the planet since the beginning of time, and because this is also a centernary year for the start of WWI, I picked up this book, which has been on the bedside reading pile for far too long...

I guess I should state up front that Richard Holmes is my favourite military historian bar none, and by a country mile over any others, so it's unlikely that the following is going to be a bad review...

A comparatively small book, this is an overview of the British Armies involvement with the Western Front theatre in WWI - he touches on the other armies (both allied and enemy) and he also mentions other theatres, but only in as much as those other armies and theatres impacted on the Western Front..

In summary, his book assesses the British Armies performance year by year, and how the British army "matured" as the war progressed - with improved tactics (especially in the area of artillery use), hugely improved logisitics, and better command and control..

His view of the generals is very much middle of the ground - he rejects the "Lions Lead by Donkeys" view, but also the opposite view championed by John Terrain and the like, and basically takes the view that Generals of the time had to learn very, very, quickly how to manage the enormous resources that this first truly industrial war had put in the hands, and how to circumvent the machine gun... when push comes to shove, not surprisingly given his bottom up approach to military history, Holmes's view is that the personality/skill/abilities were the key defining factors (he's very good on Haig, Holmes view is that he may not have been perfect, but the British had no one else even close to being able to replace him...)

The chapters on 1915 and 1916 are particularly grim - and to be honest I didn't learn a lot new - a simply unbelievable number of men died, in truly horrible ways. The picture from the end of 1916 however, was looking up - Cambrai and the tank was a turning point.

By the end of the war, the Front had never been broken - the Germans were beaten in the end by a collapse in morale, an exhausted source of man power, and the arrival of the Americans.The British army at this time was at the very peak of its organisational abilities, with coordinated use of all arms well understood, and used effectively....

Almost 9 million British and Dominion soldiers enlisted during the war, the vast majority served on the Western Front, and were the majority of the 947,000 who were killed during the war. That's over 10% casualties....  Astonishing...

Very, very good book to get you up to speed - very readable - he gives a good bibliography for more in depth reading, a few photo's, and the maps are ....  adequate...

Steve the Wargamer rates this one 9 out of 10...

6 comments:

  1. Thanks - a very useful review.

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  2. The Western Front gets a lot of the attention and in terms of numbers probably deservedly so. However, other theatres had far worse conditions then that seen in Europe. Troops returning from East Africa were in such dreadful condition that the British High command more or less turned the theatre over to the South Africans largely to prevent any dissent at home for the ill treatment their soldiers were getting. I have a feeling that all the discussions will focus on Europe, and like the far east in the Second World War, other theatres and the sacrifices made there, will be forgotten.

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    1. Paul - entirely valid observation - to be fair Homes does state up front that his is a very specific focus... he mentions the Iraq campaign - I must read up on that as the operations in Palestine seem to overshadow it....

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  3. I have several of Richard Holmes books- my favourite being " Redcoat" so know what you mean and certaily can't thin k anyone better offhand though if pressed might come up with someone in a specific field- say Anne Curry for the HYW but as a "Military Historian" he was perhaps the best of his generation

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    1. Andy - agreed... very personable as well, I had the good fortune to meet him a couple of times at various talks he did.

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