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Book Reviews The First World War: join the Western Front Association, the premier organisation for study, learning and research into all aspects of The Great War 1914-18, and to understanding more about the phenomenon which shaped the 20th century http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews.html Thu, 30 Oct 2014 14:23:11 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb HMS Inflexible: A Sailor's Diary 1912-1918 http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4167-hms-inflexible-a-sailors-diary-1912-1918.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4167-hms-inflexible-a-sailors-diary-1912-1918.html From Millionaire's Cruise to a Battle for Survival

Fred Cofield, Edited by Rob Wood
ISBN Number 978-0-9574459-4-9
Salient Books 2014
215pp with photographs
By Paul McNicholls

Fred Cofield was born in 1892 in Sutton Coldfield. His childhood was difficult and, after his parents split up, he found himself living with an "uncle" who recommended he join the Royal Navy. This he did at the age of 16 and he remained in the navy until 1918.

Fred joined the Invincible Class Battlecruiser HMS Inflexible in November 1912 and embarked upon a lengthy deployment to the Mediterranean. This is the "Millionaire's Cruise" reference in the book's subtitle. Fred tells us about his travels to Greece for the funeral of the assassinated King George and later for the coronation of his successor King Constantine. Along the way we receive some commentary on the Balkan Wars and lower deck gossip (not always accurate) of world events. We hear of visits to Alexandria, Corfu and various other ports in the Eastern Mediterranean. Frequently we read Fred's comments, made in later life when reviewing his diaries, which usually say something along the lines of "and we got paid as well". He certainly comes across as enjoying this part of his life.

A large part of the book (pp 9-117) deals with this pre-war deployment. Fred's entries are quite brief and often deal with the mundane. For those interested in the musings of naval personnel of this era, Fred's observations are not as expansive as those found in "Scrimgeour's Small Scribbling Diary" or "The Enemy Fought Splendidly" for example. However these were written by officers, in the latter case a surgeon. Fred is a man of humble origins and limited formal education, though we find that, despite his spelling errors (which the editor has quite rightly left in), he has intelligence and ambition.

Fred's observations are those of the lower deck and, though they may be mundane, we learn things about the navy and about Fred himself. We are informed of the pride taken by the crew in the speed of Inflexible's frequent coalings. We hear of Fred's normal routine of dodging inspections and his exploits ashore with the ladies of Malta. He is circumspect in his descriptions, but he is young and readers can use their imaginations. We find out about bathing in the sea after charges have been fired to scare off sharks. Occasionally we are told of fatalities such as Boy Telegraphist Percy Stuart being killed by a coal hoist motor that "smashed everything out of him". Life in the navy could be dangerous even in peacetime.

With the outbreak of war the Inflexible was involved in the pursuit of the Goeben and Breslau and was then dispatched to the South Atlantic, along with her sister HMS Invincible, to deal with Admiral Von Spee's Asiatic Squadron fresh from its victory at the Battle of Coronel. The resulting Battle of the Falkland Islands on December 8, 1914 is described by Fred in two entries. The first, and shorter one, is a contemporary description. The second, in greater detail, appears to have been written early the following year. One interesting aspect is the reception of news aboard the Inflexible that Invincible was claiming credit for the victory. This did not sit well with Fred and his shipmates and ultimately led to Admiral Sturdee addressing both crews.

Perhaps the most interesting wartime entry is Fred's description of the aftermath of Inflexible hitting a mine during the famous attempt to force the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915. I had not seen a first-hand account of this occurrence with this level of detail before and for naval buffs it makes compelling reading.

Fred would continue to serve aboard the Inflexible for the rest of the war and saw service at the Battle of Jutland. Whether due to restrictions of time or the order forbidding the keeping of a diary, other than a 2 ½ page description of the escorting the German High Seas Fleet to its surrender in November 1918, the diary ceases with the aftermath of the Dardanelles mine explosion.

A really nice addition to the book is Fred's autobiography, largely written in the early 1960's. One gets a sense that he is writing for the benefit of his family, perhaps to explain the decisions he made that kept him away from them for lengthy periods. Fred was clearly a man of intelligence and ambition and Britain in the 1920's could be a difficult place for anyone, let alone a man of humble origins with limited formal training and no connections. However, in 1928 he secured a position with the Sudan Government as a mechanical (electrical) engineer. This meant leaving his wife and three children, though they would make regular visits to the Sudan and he received three months leave each year that he spent with them in England. Fred's Sudan service allowed him to mingle in social circles that would have been off limits to him had he remained in England and this comes across as being of great importance to him. He comments with regret that the outbreak of the Second World War, and the consequent dispersal of a number of key individuals, denied him the opportunity to become a freemason.

Fred would remain in the Sudan throughout much of the Second World War, but retired in 1943 and returned to England. He was now in his early 50's, but his adventures were not at an end. Subsequently he found himself going through officer training and ultimately rising to the rank of captain in the RASC. His service would take him to Normandy, Brussels and Antwerp before he was demobbed in 1945.

Fred's post war reflections deal with concerns over the long-term status of his Sudan Government pension after the country's independence, along with a somewhat melancholy summing of his relationship with his wife Annie (Nance). Fred had a wide range of interests and he laments her "couldn't care less" attitude. However in a later addition to the diary written after Nance's passing, he comments on how much he misses her.

Frequently old diaries found tucked away in the family home can be of such mundane content that browsing a few pages is all that is required to derive the maximum benefit. I have to admit that, as I opened the first pages of this book, I wondered if that is what I would be confronted with. It was not. Overall the book made enjoyable and interesting reading and I was happy to overlook Fred's comment in his autobiography connecting Oliver Cromwell with the Bayeux Tapestry. I would recommend this book to those with a naval interest of the First World War, as well as life on the lower deck in the years immediately prior to it. Mostly though it was interesting to hear the tale of a man of humble origins who made good and led an interesting life.

Reviewed by Paul Lyndy


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Sun, 19 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000
Gallipoli and the Dardanelles 1915 – 1916 http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4168-gallipoli-and-the-dardanelles-1915--1916.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4168-gallipoli-and-the-dardanelles-1915--1916.html gallipoli dardanellesIntroduced and compiled by John Grehan & Martin Mace
ISBN 978 1 78159 344 8
Pen & Sword 2014
182 + xiii pp, illustrations and map of area

This is not a history of the Gallipoli campaign, but rather a series of key despatches, reproduced in the same form as originally published in the UK; they are apparently not modified or interpreted in any way. It contains a brief introduction to the campaign and a list of relevant abbreviations.

The despatches comprise:

  1. Naval attack on the Dardanelles, 17 March 1915, by Vice-Admiral S H Carden. It includes a narrative of events from 19 February to 16 March 1915 and a letter from Vice-Admiral De Robeck, dated 26 March including a report of operations on 17 & 18 March.
  2. Sir Ian Hamilton's first Gallipoli despatch, 20 May 1915.
  3. De Robeck's Gallipoli landings despatch, 1 July 1915.
  4. Sir Ian Hamilton's second Gallipoli despatch, 26 August 1915.
  5. Sir Ian Hamilton's third Gallipoli despatch, 11 December 1915.
  6. Sir Ian Hamilton's fourth Gallipoli despatch, 10 March 1916 (a supplementary despatch after he had been recalled to London, and containing corrections to his previous missive).
  7. Sir Charles Monro's Gallipoli despatch, 6 March 1916, covering the period from 28 October 1915 to 9 January 1916.
  8. Sir John De Robeck's evacuation despatch, 22 December 1915.

Hamilton believed that the campaign could be successful, long after others had realised the futility of carrying on. In his third despatch he describes the problems with obtaining enough water supplies for the men and bemoaned the lack of reinforcements, which he believed would have turned the tide in the Allies' favour. He objected to being asked for an estimate of possible losses if there was an evacuation of the region.

His successor's report described the objectives of the campaign and the issues involved. He recommended evacuation and went on to describe how this was achieved. Despite a few minor problems, Monro considered the evacuation to have been a success; apparently the Turkish forces appeared unaware of what was happening until the men had been safely boarded onto ships.

There is an index of persons and military and naval units and an advertisement for 'Find my past' detailing the various relevant sources it holds.

This is a book for the specialist and there is a considerable amount of information. However, for the 'average' WFA member, it is likely to be far too erudite. Although I am interested in the Gallipoli campaign, I must confess to skipping some of the detail.

Reviewed by Kate Thompson

3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Sun, 19 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000
From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-hand Accounts from the Great War http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4166-from-downing-street-to-the-trenches-first-hand-accounts-from-the-great-war.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4166-from-downing-street-to-the-trenches-first-hand-accounts-from-the-great-war.html downing street trenchesEdited by Mike Webb

Bodleian Library, Oxford 2014
ISBN 978-1-85124-393-8
260 pages, illustrations

This anthology is built around ten people, ranging from prime minister Herbert Asquith, through soldiers to one of Oxford's leading academics of the time, Professor Gilbert Murray. It covers the years 1914-16 and is drawn from the Bodleian Library Archives. What the scribes have in common is that they were all Oxford men. As Sir Hew Strachan writes in his perceptive Foreword:

' ... the University had identified with public life, with the capacity to prepare undergraduates to lead the nation and with the need to generate fresh solutions to match the demands created by Britain's sap0rawling responsibilities.'

The book begins with the last week of July 1914, with the Government hoping to keep Britain out of what was rapidly becoming an inevitable European conflict. Lewis Harcourt, the colonial secretary, was strongly in favour of this and right up until the eleventh hour was attempting to organise a majority against war within the Cabinet. What is invaluable about his diary is that he made notes of Cabinet meetings, thus providing us with a feel for the tensions that existed. Herbert Asquith himself is even more indiscreet with the intimate letters that he writes to Venetia Stanley. Neither man seems to have much liked Winston Churchill, especially in his attempts to dominate Cabinet. Between them, though, they give a very good picture of how the Government increasingly wrestled with an ever wider range of problems, the story ending with its fall in December 1916.

Among the soldiers, future prime minister Harold Macmillan is initially unenthusiastic about the prospect of war, but does enlist, eventually serving in France with the Grenadier Guards. He takes his duties seriously and has an eye for the minutiae of military life. His active soldering would end with his wounding, for the third time, on the Somme in September 1916. T E Lawrence, on the other hand, seems surprised that the Army should want his services, but his knowledge of Palestine made him a natural for Intelligence. During this phase of the way he was largely tied to his office at GHQ in Cairo, but there is a description of his fruitless parley with the Turks over the fate of the British garrison of Kut el Amara. Another who produces some fascinating descriptions is Burgon Bickersteth of the Royal Dragoons. Waiting with his fellow cavalrymen for the creation of G in Gap during the early days of July 1916 on the Somme, he was able to observe some of the British attacks and wrote in detail about them in a long 30-page letter.

The Home Fronts is certainly not neglected, with Gilbert Murray concerning himself with Conscientious Objectors and the Reverend Andrew Clark, rector of an Essex parish, writing of a visit to Oxford shortly after the establishment of Officer Cadet battalions there. Among the 'walk on parts' are Ethel Whitehouse's description of the shooting down of a Zeppelin. There is also an impression of a mood of pessimism hanging over Britain as the Somme battle degenerated into virtual stalemate.

Other fronts – Africa and Salonika – are also covered, as is the war at sea. It is indeed a rich pot pourri and Mike Webb is to be much congratulated for the skill with which he has selected the extracts and put them into context.

Reviewed by Charles Messenger


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Sun, 12 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000
Digging the Trenches http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/116-wfa-members-publications/4169-digging-the-trenches.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/116-wfa-members-publications/4169-digging-the-trenches.html digging trenchesThe Archaeology of the Western Front

By Andrew Robertshaw and David Kenyon

Pen & Sword Archaeology, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, 2014 (First published in hardback form by Pen & Sword Military in 2008)
£16.99 pp. 199 plus brief notes and index
ISBN 978 1 47382 288 7

I was pleased when this title dropped through my letterbox for review. I do not know David Kenyon but I have heard Andy Robertshaw speak on a few occasions and he has always been informative, enthusiastic and stimulating. I expected that the book would be in the same vein and, sure enough, it was.

The book claims to tell of the development of battlefield archaeology in the past decade or two but, in reality, it does much more than that, as will become apparent below. It was first published in hardback in 2008 and in publishing this paperback edition the authors decided to "retain the book in its original form" as they are of the view that it remains a "thorough and up to date review" of battlefield archaeology. They have, though, taken the opportunity to add an interesting preface that summarises developments in the field since the first edition; in particular, the difficulties of finding sustained and editorially neutral funding beyond the television companies for work on the Western Front itself. The preface also mentions the threat to the physical evidence on the battlefield sites from continuing urban, agricultural and transport developments.

The Introduction to the 2008 edition opens with a moving account of the funeral in the spring of 2004 of a British soldier disinterred by an archaeological team. This is the first but by no means the only display of emotion by the authors. The accounts of the finding of the British soldier and the attempt to identify him, together with the discovery and identification of the bodies of three German soldiers, form the last chapter of the book. So in the opening and closing pages the authors demonstrate the very human side of much of their work and how it can touch families and friends across the generations. As they say themselves, "Almost everyone in the team has had a moment ... where they have had to stop ... for fear their emotions would overcome them ... The day that uncovering the remains of soldiers leaves us unmoved emotionally is the day that we have lost something of our basic humanity ...".

The Introduction continues by setting the historical and archaeological scene, including the genesis of the authors' archaeological work at Avril Williams' guest-house in Auchonvillers, the subsequent developments at other sites and the creation of TV series such as 'Finding the Fallen'. Contrasts are drawn between memorialisation, aspects of 'heritage marketing' and the ability of the battlefield archaeologist to present something of the experience of the soldiers themselves. The authors challenge the complaints of those in conventional strands of archaeology that, academically, the excavation of battlefields reveals little, and assert that the book makes clear that much new knowledge about the war can be gained from digging. I am not sure that the book settles this debate conclusively. The authors certainly make discoveries, as much about the application of archaeological techniques to relatively recent battlefields as to the progress of the Great War itself, but some of their findings seem to be reinforcing the existing actual or inferred knowledge of the conflict.

The body of the book breaks down into five major chapters: the trenches today; the digging of the trenches during the war, highlighting differing and evolving styles of construction; living in the trenches; fighting in the trenches; and death in the trenches. I found this a very effective structure, taking me through the natural sequence of events. The archaeological content is at its highest in the first two sections but then reduces before coming back strongly in the final section. Consequently, as mentioned above, the book is as informative about the soldiers' experiences in the trenches as it is about the archaeology of those trenches, and explains why I wonder whether the debate between the conventional and battlefield archaeologists is wholly resolved. I suspect that parts of the book could have been written in a non-archaeological context from general historical knowledge of the day-to-day progress of the war.

In considering the trenches today the authors first explain how, within only a few years, the "physical traces of the fighting" were "replaced by a post-war memorial landscape". They draw what was for me a telling and potentially controversial comparison: "the cemeteries with their ordered rows of headstones and their immaculate planting are the antithesis of what actually took place in the bloody chaos of battle. If ever death was 'dulce et decorum' it is in a Commonwealth cemetery." The point being made is that the style and even the location of the cemeteries and memorials can mislead the visitor about the reality of battlefield existence and experience. It is a point well made with a number of examples.

The remainder of the Trenches Today chapter addresses the questions of what makes the Western Front a special case in the archaeological field, what are the key objectives of the Great War archaeologists, and what are the peculiar characteristics of battlefield archaeology? I found this all fascinating: the distinction between 'finds' and 'features'; the importance of 'context'; the public focus on monetary rather than historical value; the science of preservation and decay (taphonomy); the deposit and layering of artefacts and objects (stratigraphy); the dangers of uncovering unexploded ordnance; and the painstaking examination and interpretation. There is also the first glimpse of the authors' intense distaste for unethical metal-detectorists who strip sites and desecrate human remains in their search for a quick buck.

Not surprisingly, in the Digging the Trenches chapter the archaeological component is still high, and just as fascinating. It opens with one of many myth-busters that are so typical of at least one of the authors. The British soldier in 1914 was equipped and trained, at least to a limited extent, in the craft of digging trenches, from a humble scrape to a deep inter-connected trench system. Experience from the American Civil War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War had conditioned the equipment, training and field manuals of the BEF throughout the years preceding 1914. The authors describe their experiences excavating a variety of British, French and German trenches in a number of locations around Ypres and on the Somme. Identification of a trench location is by no means straightforward and the interpretation of a dig, with possibly layers of trenches laid down over time, is more than a little demanding. Consideration is given to the evolution of the structure of trenches from 1914 through 1915-16 to 1917-18, often dependent upon local geological features. The different types of trench, e.g. front-line, communication, support, are also examined. In addition, there are interesting diversions into, for example, communication and telephony techniques, trench mapping, defence in depth, dispersal of fortifications and field toilets. The lovely word 'frowsty' gets a mention too. One interesting aspect is the trench-building lessons learnt by the archaeologists themselves as they restored some of the trench network they had uncovered.

Living in the Trenches describes the garrisoning of the trench systems. It is here that the archaeological content reduces somewhat but, nevertheless, the chapter is an absorbing account of day-to-day trench life. Again, another myth is tackled in the opening paragraphs: the misconception that troops stayed in the line for long periods is corrected by a description of company, battalion, brigade and even division and corps rotation. A nice personal touch is introduced by one of the author's grandfathers being used as an example of one soldier's experience of life in the trenches. The section continues by looking at the daily round (mostly nocturnal), food, comforts, hygiene and cleanliness, and personal items. The section on food throws up [pun unintended] some delightful facts about the diet of soldiers and pre-war civilians and the need not to overload the digestive system with protein. Contrasts are also drawn between British, French and German rations. The important archaeological point is made that every trench excavation uncovers huge amounts of food waste and that much was thrown into no-man's-land or behind the trench thereby exacerbating the problems with flies and rats more usually attributed to the "iconic unburied dead". There is also the slightly macabre warning that just because bones are found alongside discarded equipment "it does not mean that they aren't simply the leftovers from a lamb stew". Comforts from home and other personal items, the authors comment, provide some of the most poignant artefacts found during excavation. Consideration of cleanliness and hygiene inevitably requires the uncovering and analysis of latrine buckets.

The chapter on Fighting in the Trenches opens by reminding the reader of the primary reason for the soldiers being there: killing the enemy. The authors ponder how this part of the soldier's experience is furthest from our own lives, and how death was random and came in many forms, all of which are reflected to some extent in any archaeological remains. There follow sections on artillery, machine guns, personal weapons and equipment, the form of an attack, and evolving technology, all illustrated by reference to archaeological finds. As regards artillery, interesting observations are made regarding the different nature of shell craters according to the trajectory of the guns used and the impact of shrapnel on barbed wire entanglements. Evidence regarding machine guns is quite limited as they were simply too large and valuable, even if just for their parts, to be abandoned frequently, but there is an engaging paragraph on the taphonomy of Lewis gun cartridge drums. Items of personal equipment abound in varying stages of decay, leather surviving where webbing does not, apart from the brass components. The authors warn of the danger of misinterpretation due to the differential preservation. Visitors to the excavation at Thiepval Wood on the Somme are introduced to the reality of the nature of an attack using saps into no-man's-land, and the classic myth of waves of soldiers walking into a hail of machine gun fire is shown to be largely, but not entirely, misleading. The section on personal weapons including grenades, particularly for hand-to-hand trench fighting, is slightly chilling. The authors describe in some detail the various mortar sites they have unearthed but when it comes to tanks they remark, perhaps in a slightly regretful tone, that "the team has not yet had the chance to look for one of these monsters".

The chapter on Death in the Trenches starts by summarising some of the key statistics of the human cost of the Great War, many of which will be familiar to readers. A key point made by the authors, reinforcing their theme about the memorialisation of the battlefields, is that "the vast cemeteries that dot the battlefield ... represent a significant minority of those who served there, but not the majority that popular opinion might suggest". The experience of the wounded soldier is considered at some length, with references to finds made at Beaumont Hamel and Auchonvillers. This section includes tributes to the bravery of doctors, stretcher-bearers and Roman Catholic chaplains. The treatment of the dead is then considered and, not surprisingly, this was very dependent on the military situation at the time. Burial processes during the war and afterwards are dealt with, as are the problems of decomposition and damage by rats and maggots. As is well known, identification was very often impossible for reasons discussed by the authors and this issue leads into a section on the 'missing', a word that has different definitions in the world of 'Remembrance' and the system of the army, which has frequently led to confusion. The early sections of this chapter provide the foundations for the closing part, which returns to archaeology and the topics of the ethics and technicalities of excavation of the dead. The emotional quotations at the beginning of this review are from this part of the book. The archaeologists have clearly faced some difficult questions of themselves and from others about the sanctity of the battlefield and the appropriateness of the investigations undertaken on the dead. It is to their credit that the authors do not sweep this issue under the carpet but deal with it openly, making their own views clear. Clearly, as regards the teams to whom this book refers, significant care has been taken to protect the dignity of the disinterred soldier.

The book closes with the four case studies already referred to above, each one of which highlights one of the early and key points made by the authors that battlefield archaeology is embedded in the humanity of the soldiers.

I really enjoyed this book and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Reviewed by David Parmee


3135lish@gmail.com (Andrew Robertshaw and David Kenyon) WFA Members' Publications Tue, 07 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000
Chemical Soldiers - British gas warfare in World War One http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4095-chemical-soldiers-british-gas-warfare-in-world-war-one.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4095-chemical-soldiers-british-gas-warfare-in-world-war-one.html chemical soldiersWritten by Douglas Richter

ISBN 978-1-78346-173-8

Published by Pen & Sword

Paperback, 282 pages,230 mmx150 mm, including appendices, notes, bibliography and index, with maps, diagrams and photographs in text. Price £14.99

This is a straight reprint of a work first published in 1992, but nevertheless still of value. The book is based on extensive study of original documents and subsequent literature, mostly British, but also some German. Although written by an American professor, it is largely in the form of a narrative and is not a difficult read.

In his introduction, the author emphasises his belief that, contrary to the popular view, gas in the Great War was anything but reliable or effective, except in the most exceptional circumstances and a defensive capability was developed very rapidly. He describes the German introduction of poison gas in 1915 and then proceeds to the British response.

This response was led by Charles Foulkes and his Special Brigade: a very odd unit, initially recruiting men on the basis of their scientific knowledge and with no personnel of lesser rank than corporal. It was first deployed at Loos, using cylinder release, in the hope this gas would make up for the shortage of artillery. This attack was generally considered a debacle, with much gas blowing back over British troops.

The book is a detailed history of the Special Brigade rather than of British gas warfare. The use of gas shell is not covered, as the artillery was responsible. However, since the Special Brigade deployed them, flamethrowers (of an impractical design) are also considered.

Foulkes felt, with some justice, that the achievements of his Brigade were never given proper recognition after the War, with official embarrassment at the use of what the British had initially condemned as a diabolical weapon when the Germans introduced it. Indeed, he wrote a history of the Brigade to put the record straight, as he saw it.

Richter is very frequently critical of Foulkes, in both big and small matters. Certainly, it seems difficult to understand how Foulkes , in spite of the later availability of mortars and Livens projectors, remained an adherent of gas cloud attacks.

Whilst it is easy to criticise the effectiveness of gas attacks, I feel that Richter does overstate his case somewhat. Although he uses German sources, these do not include regimental histories. It is clear from some of these that German gas protection at Loos was far from fully effective and some German troops panicked. Moreover, later with the Livens projector, the British were able to saturate an area with lethal concentrations of gas almost instantaneously. Even if this did not always kill , the threat of such attacks was unnerving and forced the wearing of gasmasks for many hours, which German troops found a torture in warm weather.

Maps and diagrams have been especially drawn and are clear. Unfortunately, the reproduction of the photographs in the text, although on better paper than most paperbacks, is less successful.

In spite of my reservations, this book remains a useful study of gas warfare, and the Special Brigade in particular. Recommended.

Reviewed by Michael Lucas


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Thu, 02 Oct 2014 18:11:46 +0000
Wilfred Owen – An Illustrated Life http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4097-wilfred-owen--an-illustrated-life.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4097-wilfred-owen--an-illustrated-life.html wilfred owenWritten by Jane Potter

ISBN 978 1 85124 394 5

Bodleian Library Publishing 2014

144 pp 60 colour illustrations Hardback £14.99

Don't be put off by the rather gaudy, embossed hardback which gives it the feel of a school textbook. Jane Potter (editor of Owen's Selected Letters) knows her subject, and she knows him well.

Albeit quite short (with perhaps less than 60 pages of critical text), hers is an authoritative and well-balanced portrait of the soldier-poet, illustrated by a selection of the poems and letters. The six sections of text deal with: Owen's childhood and young adulthood; the search for a profession; enlistment and training; active service and shell-shock; the last year of his life, at Ripon and France; and finally, publication, critical reception and canonization. The notes indicate how extensively Potter has drawn on Owen's 673 surviving letters and the bibliography is very helpful in directing the reader to further study of the poet's work.

Many of the photographs and other illustrations are published here for the first time: the picture of Owen as a young boy dressed in the Hussar uniform made for him by his mother is particularly poignant.

For WFA readers wanting an introduction to the life and work of Wilfred Owen, this is an excellent starting point.

Reviewed by Richard Benefer


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Mon, 29 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000
Female Poets of the First World War http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4098-female-poets-of-the-first-world-war.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4098-female-poets-of-the-first-world-war.html female poetsWritten by Lucy London

ISBN 978 1 909643 02 04

Push Up North Publishing 2013 126 pp

This anthology is part of a research project to inform and educate people about the First World War through publishing the works of women poets, many of whom were previously unknown. Although the Appendix lists a very large number of poets discovered by the project up to July 1913, this is Volume 1 and it brings to our attention just 41 of those: 17 from the United Kingdom; 9 from the USA and the British Empire; and 15 from the Rest of the World. Brief biographical details introduce each poet.

Among the more well known women here are Agatha Christie, Edith Sitwell and Mary Webb. WFA readers will also be aware that it was an American female poet – Moina Belle Michael – whose response to John McCrae's "In Flanders Field" was ultimately to lead to the Royal British Legion adopting the poppy as its emblem. Micheal's link with the First World War is obvious, as is that of Lena Guilbert Ford who wrote "Keep the Home Fires Burning".

It seems harder, however, to justify the inclusion of the other poets. The Chinese poet Bing Xin seems to have little connection with the war but perhaps her inclusion is to remind the reader of the role played by the Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front. And why include Sarojini Naidu of India – her poem in this anthology was first published in 1905. The inclusion of the Serbian Jelena Spiridonovic-Savic is also problematic, particularly given that her two poems here are published in the original, without translation! The work of other 'foreign' poets is also published without translation, which this reviewer found rather irritating.

There are some gems to be found – Winifred Holtby's Saraband, Fredagond Shove's The Farmer 1917 and May Sinclair's Field Ambulance in Retreat for example – but overall this anthology seems a somewhat quirky collection of writings.

Reviewed by Richard Benefer


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Mon, 29 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000
Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4071-banker-traitor-scapegoat-spy-the-troublesome-case-of-sir-edgar-speyer.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4071-banker-traitor-scapegoat-spy-the-troublesome-case-of-sir-edgar-speyer.html banker traitor scapegoat spyWritten by Antony Lentin 

Haus Publishing paperback, London, 2013

ISBN 978-1-908323-11-8, 216pp, illustrations

One of the less palatable aspects of Britain at war during 1914-18 was the treatment of enemy aliens, whether naturalised or not. There were at the outbreak of war a significant number of Germans domiciled in the country, and those who had not been naturalised were severely restricted in their movements and some even put in internment camps. Public suspicion also spread to those who had become British and were in the highest echelons of society. Thus, Earl Mountbatten's father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, a cousin of the King, was forced to relinquish his position as First Sea Lord. Another was the prominent banker Sir Edgar Speyer, well known in his day but now virtually unheard of. Thanks to Professor Antony Lentin, his case is now brought into the limelight once more.

The Speyers were one of the great German Jewish banking families and had establishments in Frankfurt, London and New York. That in London was run by Sir Edgar, who became a naturalised British citizen in 1894. Once of his greatest claims to fame was financing the electrification of the London Underground. He also did much to get the Proms established and was a noteworthy philanthropist. His contributions to his adopted country were recognised by a baronetcy and being made one of His Majesty's Privy Councillors. Yet, in spite of his standing, he became the subject of attack almost immediately after the outbreak of war, especially by Conservative politicians and newspapers.

His close friendship with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith protected him, to an extent, for a time, as did his own stoicism. But the sinking of Lusitania caused a further frenzy of anti-German feeling. Speyer felt forced to withdraw to the USA, where his pro-German brother was making no secret of his political sympathies. This did little for Speyer's cause back in Britain and neither did the fall of Asquith's Liberal government.

The Conservatives enjoyed increased political influence under Lloyd George and the immediate aftermath of the war brought about a mood of 'Hang the Kaiser' and renewed German hostility. A new Aliens Act was enacted and a committee of enquiry was established, to which Sir Edgar was subject. He came back to Britain to face it in person and was found guilty of treacherous behaviour. He lost his British citizenship and was stripped of his knighthood and Privy Councillorship, both of which he had earlier twice offered to surrender voluntarily. He returned to the USA never to set foot in Britain again.

Professor Lentin has researched deeply and produced a very lucid account of this sorry but very illuminating saga. He is careful not to make a final judgement, but there is no doubt as to where his sympathies lie.

Reviewed by Charles Messenger


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Thu, 25 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000
Secrets in a Dead Fish http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4070-secrets-in-a-dead-fish.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4070-secrets-in-a-dead-fish.html secrets dead fishSub title: The Spying Game in the First World War

Author: Melanie King

ISBN: 978 1 85124 260 3

Publisher: Bodleian Library, 2014, 102 pages

Maps are not included however the book is illustrated with 20 black and white cartoons. Spying is, however, complex and illustrations and diagrams would have been useful for the general reader.


For the Western Front specialist it should be noted that this book covers the Great War as a whole. It has large sections on, for example, the Eastern Front.

The work is thematically arranged with nine chapters covering the conflict, together with an introduction; a glossary; notes and references and a useful biographies section of the eight writers of the contemporary material upon which Ms King bases her book.

Use of sub-headings within chapters to allow rapid access to specific aspects of the subject and an index would have been useful additions.

In contrast to most aspects of conflict about which participants can comment freely after a war, espionage is an area where secrecy prevails. A writer is in effect precluded from revelations, which could endanger former colleagues or reveal to the high command of former enemies - or the high commands of former allies.

The anecdotes told in this book are all taken from eight memoirs, which are held in Oxford University's Bodleian Library. This book draws together these first-hand experiences of the inventive; ingenious and amusing methods of espionage used during the Great War. The effect is gripping and readable insight into the methods used for concealing secrets in the conflict and for spying on the enemies. The spies are from agents from Germany; Russia; America and from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Methods used by First World War spies

The agents use methods which range from exchanging messages concealed in clothing and the eponymous dead fish to sending messages by means of a toothpick. One of the best-known methods used by the USA was by use of trench telephones using speakers of indigenous American Indian languages. These included Navajo and Choctaw and Cherokee.

In Britain, agents used advertisements in The Times. The dull routine task of checking the numbers of train arrivals and departures was vital. When the Germans increasingly used trains to transport troops and war supplies this dull routine successfully and usefully forecast a planned attack.

Spies needed to contact each other anonymously. Henry Landau's octopus system was one of the methods successfully used, in which the body of the octopus represented a central mailbox for a group of agents represented by the tentacles.

Some of the methods seem surprisingly simple. Leaving a message in a newspaper, which was then picked up by the spy's contact must in fact have been dangerous for both parties. Using invisible ink messages on a train dining car tablecloth must have exposed both writer and reader who followed the writer at the same seat to major risk of detection.

Secret codes and the use of disguises seem to have been extensively used by the secret operatives featured in this book. False paper, including fake passports seem to have been readily available and presumably effectively fooled the enemy officials whose duty it was to check them.

High-tech spying developments at the time included the use of sound analysis to pin point the source of artillery fire and thus allow attempts to destroy it. Similarly the Germans developed a system called Muritz, which enabled them to listen in to British field telephones. Both sides attempted to use deception in their use of such devices.
The use of what we would subsequently call wire tapping also began in this period.

Both sides extensively used interviews with POWs. Fake deserters were put among genuine POWs to encourage revealing comments to be made. These interviews were usually made on an empty stomach and in the POW's own language.

My wife's family provided carrier pigeons and homing pigeons; large quantities were used successfully throughout the war. Refugees were also a widely used source of information. The German intelligence agencies used children to mix among refugees and spread disinformation. Unexploded German shells were studied to assess the state of production in German munitions factories.

Perhaps the most famous spy of the whole war was Marter Hari. She was a Dutch exotic dancer whose real name was Margaret Zeller. She has acquired a mystique that has attracted much fiction around her. The book devoted a whole chapter the female spies, Edith Cavell, who was shot as a British spy being one of them. Another who faced the firing squad was Gabrielle Petit. All three are said to have died "without a tremor".

A German spy operating as a fortuneteller and beauty parlour operator off Bond Street was said to tempt the wives and sweethearts of soldiers in the hope of gleaning information.

Women used as "illuminates" to befriend the wives and female companions of the spy's target were often well paid to obtain details which could be used to blackmail the target.


Some of the tools are well known to most WFA members. Master keys, which work in multiple locks and are sometimes called skeleton keys, were used by both sides. A human hair stretched across the opening of a document case to show by its removal that the case had been opened.

The hollowed out heal of a show – which was used recently in an attempted plane attack – or the hollowed button were both used. In the early part of the conflict a walking stick with the top removed; a section hollowed out and the top skillfully refitted worked, but this became known widely and was not much used afterwards.

Wigs; watches and garments all offered opportunities for the concealment of messages and other secret material. Similarly hats and neckties were used. Personal toiletries and even toothbrushes and tobacco pouches and pipes were all used. The last offered an opportunity to destroy the message by igniting and smoking the pipe and thus burning the incrementing material.

Perhaps the method which most affected the general public in all the combatant countries – and so is perhaps the best known of all spy details – is the reading and censoring of vast amounts of correspondence. Some of this was fruitful and intercepts and sometimes modifications to mislead the enemy were carried out.

The cigar seller who sent messages to his "head office" ordering different sizes of cigar was successful for some time. However it was eventually realised that the number of thousands of large cigars corresponded to the number of battleships in harbour. The other sizes gave similar information for different classes of ship.

A huge array of different kinds of invisible inks was used. These ranged from lemon juice (which can be red if heated to sophisticated chemical materials) saliva, dilute milk, sugar of lead, nitrite of nickel, bromide of copper and sulfuric acid all had their uses and produced different colours when they were revealed. (Original names have been kept for chemicals). Garments soaked in a solution of such chemicals were sent to spies to supply the invisible ink. The garments then had to be soaked in water to release the invisible ink.

Material was also supplied in perfume or medical packs to try to avoid detection.

Codes and ciphers

The work of Bletchley House is well known in the Second World War, but similar code-breaking activities were used in Word War One. One spy used to write to an address in Nederland talking of the number of birds in their area. The numbers actually told of the number of zeppelin raids which successfully reached London.

Newspaper ads or items in the Personal Columns serve similar purposes. Messages concealed under stamps were frequently tried and sometimes detected.

The book's title relates to messages inside dead fish being floated in streams across borders.

Windmill sails set at particular angles; fields ploughed in careful ways and even washing on lines could all carry secret messages, visible from aircraft.


This is a very readable little book which recalls spying in an age before our digital word of today.

Reviewed by Keith F Lainton


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000
The Battle of Bellewaarde June 1915 http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4066-the-battle-of-bellewaarde-june-1915.html http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/book-reviews/91-general-interest/4066-the-battle-of-bellewaarde-june-1915.html bellawaardeWritten by Carole McEntee-Taylor

Pen & Sword, 2014

£25.00 hbk 328pp ISBN: 978-178340-052-2

On 16 June 1915, Allenby's 5th Corps of Plumer's Second Army carried out a one-day attack on the Bellewaarde Ridge, east of Ypres. The author believes that the attack demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the British Army of the time, and failed for two reasons: the total lack of communications from the attacking troops to and from their commanders, and the high number of officer casualties, both in the attack and in the preceding months, that led to problems of leadership and control in an army sent to a major war too small and ill-equipped. What was achieved was due to sound planning and the "tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness of the British soldier".

The book is very detailed, under-pinned by what must have been enormous research work by the author and by Martin Clift and his www.bellewaarde1915.co.uk website. Mrs McEntee-Taylor, author of other military histories, begins with separate chapters that take up just under half the book on the story in the preceding months and years of each of the individual British units and formations that played a substantial part in the battle. The account of the battle itself takes up around a fifth of the work, and after a 25 page summing up, 120 pages list in detail the individuals, British and German, who fell. The book is as much a memorial to all who fought in the battle as a history of it.

From the very start, the author combines vivid reporting using extensive quotation with convincing analysis. She introduces themes of the losses of trained officers and men and the shortage of shells early on. There are detailed if small biographies of the major commanders.

The account of the battle is richly detailed and quotes from many individual accounts of participants and of their units. This can make discerning the wood as opposed to the trees somewhat difficult, and is perhaps exacerbated by the placing and clarity of the numerous sketch maps provided.

This is an excellent memorial and work of reference that will be of use for a long time to come. The author's royalties are to go to The Bellewaarde 1915 Memorial Fund.

Reviewed by Peter Cox


3135lish@gmail.com (Editor) General Interest Fri, 19 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000