Victory on the Western Front

Michael Senior

Pen and Sword (2016)

£25:00

ISBN 978-1-78340-065-2

235pp

24 b/w photos

7 b/w maps & tables

 

Many military historians were hopeful that the centenary of the First World War would encourage a more balanced public debate about this phenomenally important period of European history. However, despite a few notable exceptions, the traditional and digital media have remained wedded to the idea of a lost generation betrayed by incompetent generals and unimaginative politicians. Occasional diversions into topics like the 1914 Christmas Truce and the mechanics of tunnel warfare have done little to provoke a broader public debate notwithstanding the richness of the First World War’s recent historiography.

The 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme last year offered up an ideal opportunity to make the crossover in terms of public perceptions about the Great War. Last year Simkins, Sheldon and Sheffield, in particular, accepted the challenge and some of their views are nicely set out in a reappraisal of Terraine’s The True Texture of the Somme originally published in 1991 and revisited in 2016 (WFA Bulletin 106). Much of this contemporary thinking coalesces around the idea that the British Army experienced a pronounced ‘learning curve’ during the months following on from the largely failed assault on the 1st July 1916. By the time of the Arras offensive in the following Spring, so it is said, the British Army was at last fit for purpose and well placed to develop further - pressing home its’ advantage during what has become known as the ‘one hundred days’ to achieve a decisive victory in November 1918.

Unfortunately, public perception remains rooted in the horror of the 1st July to the exclusion of all else. Senior approaches this conundrum from a slightly broader angle – arguing that the exponential scaling up of the British Army and the necessary restructuring of the British economy was a unique, war-winning endeavor. He concludes that the leadership, technical innovation and tactical developments that enabled the effective use of this large-scale instrument of war are worthy of considerable admiration.

This book looks at the development of the British Expeditionary Force through a number of lenses. Firstly, the challenge of turning a small scale professional army into an almost two million strong force capable of trading blows with a German Army which had critical mass and attuned capability at the outset of hostilities – a task made harder by the destruction of the ‘old’ army at Ypres in 1914 and Kitchener’s prejudice against the Territorials. Secondly, leadership in the fuller sense – Haig is commended for his receptiveness to new ideas and others such as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George are praised for their foresight in understanding the size of the challenge and mobilizing the resources of the country accordingly. The pre-war contributions of men like Haldane and Wilson are cited as being essential first steps – the former in reorganizing the Army and the latter in aligning strategy with the French.

The next three chapters are concerned with innovation – airpower, tanks and artillery. Clearly the timely assimilation of best practice was of vital importance – no more so than in the development of tactics where successful initiatives by either side were invariably replicated very quickly. The sixth chapter covers this latter point in detail showing, for example, how the high command eschewed the policy of ‘breakthrough’ in favour of smaller scale deep penetration and adopted a ‘combined arms’ approach to offensive action. The author also takes care to cover instances where the British were slower to learn – for example in failing to fully understand and implement the German tactic of ‘defence in depth’ as a pre-emptive response to the Kaiserschlacht in the Spring of 1918.

The real power of this book is in the wealth of empirical evidence that is produced in support of a careful exploration of how an army, which was of marginal importance in 1914, came to be the most powerful force on the critical Western Front during the final year of the war. The author illustrates how the British industry was transformed in short order so as to support a military establishment on a scale that was simply unimaginable in the pre 1914 era. In summation Senior argues very persuasively that the transformation of the British Army was the decisive factor in achieving victory. Other factors such as the impact of the Royal Navy’s blockade, declining morale in Germany and the large-scale commitment of men and matériel by the USA are acknowledged but not explored in depth – an understandable expediency given the need to keep the book to a manageable size.

The text is supplemented by a very useful ‘month by month’ timeline of the First World War that links in nicely with the flow of the narrative. As might be expected given the author’s impressive academic credentials, each chapter is accompanied by a meticulously compiled list of references and there is an extensive bibliography containing published and unpublished sources.

Senior’s conclusion that the development of the British Army was “less of a learning curve and more of an uneasy continuum” does not lessen the positive impact of a fascinating narrative that enumerates the transformation of the British Army during the 1914-18 period with authority and style. In this reviewers opinion the author has produced a succinct and highly readable account of the foundations that underpinned the British Army’s greatest ever victory in 1918.

 

Reviewed by Phil Curme

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