A Complete Orchestra of War: A History of the 6th Division on the Western Front 1914-1919 by Peter Hodgkinson

Helion & Company Ltd., 1919.  £28.00, xxv + 455pp

pb, maps, photos, tables, index, notes and refs.

ISBN: 978-1-912866-19-9

During the Great War the United Kingdom raised 58 infantry divisions whose active service was spent wholly or partly on the Western Front. These were reinforced by two divisions of the Indian Army, four from Canada, five from Australia and one from New Zealand. Only twenty-two of these divisions, six British Regular and 14 Territorial and two Indian Army, were in existence when the war began. Apart from the Indian Army divisions, their structure and organization was also new.  At the beginning of the twentieth century it was expected that the basic tactical formation of any future expeditionary force would be the corps. The Haldane reforms abandoned this in favour of a ‘large division’ structure of 18,000-20,00 men with a balanced mixture of fighting arms and supporting services. It was hoped that these reforms would facilitate working with the Indian Army, where this structure was already in place, and allow greater flexibility in the case of other contingencies. The changes were formalised by the Army Council on 27 June 1906. As a result, the infantry division would be at the heart of the British military effort and its evolving technology, tactics, leadership, command, discipline and morale. There was sense in which the British Army was as good as its constituent infantry divisions and their commanders.  

This was one of the reasons that the infantry division became such an important part of the Great War’s early historiography. I have counted forty-three infantry divisional histories that were published between the wars. They were of varied length and quality, but many afforded access to material that did not become publicly available until the mid-1960s. The last of these inter-war histories, Everard Wyrall’s The Fiftieth Division 1914-1919, was published in 1939. I cannot find another divisional history until the publication of Robin McNish’s Iron Division: The History of the Third Division in 1978.  Writing divisional histories had gone out of fashion, to be replaced by a plethora of unit histories, many inspired by Martin Middlebrook’s seminal The First Day of the Somme in 1971. In the past few years, however, the wheel has come full circle. We have a new generation of divisional histories, based on archival sources, and firmly rooted in the scholarship that has transformed our understanding of the war on the Western Front. One of the most recent is Peter Hodgkinson’s study of the British 6th [Regular] Division, which arrived in France as part of III Corps in September 1914 and remained on the Western Front to the end. Dr Hodgkinson is well-placed to write a modern divisional history.  His pioneering British Infantry Battalion Commanders in the Great War (2015) established him as the authority on this subject. His important ‘Glum Heroes’: Hardship, Fear and Death.  Resilience and Coping in the British Army on the Western Front 1914-1918 (2016) brought his professional expertise as a clinical psychologist to a quite extraordinarily wide range of reading of published and unpublished accounts of the war. He has mastered the technical aspects of the war as well as its human ones and its human costs. This is reflected in his history of 6th Division, which is one of the very best studies of its kind and an important contribution to the literature.

One of the most prolific of the inter-war authors of divisional histories, Everard Wyrall, attempted to lay down guidelines for the ‘ideal’ divisional history.  He believed that these should be dedicated to ‘facts’ and to ‘narrative’, resulting - in the words of Professor Keith Grieves - in ‘standardised accounts of operations comprising intention, objective, disposition of forces, artillery, medical and supply arrangements, attack and results, but apparently with no evaluation of the whole process’.  Wyrall’s histories were formulaic, ‘non-judgemental and controversy free’.  Happily, Dr Hodgkinson has not followed Wyrall’s guidelines.

The framework of the book is undoubtedly – and necessarily – narrative. Hodgkinson takes the reader through all of 6th Division’s major operations – on the Aisne in 1914, at Hooge in 1915, to (in Hodgkinson’s words) ‘catastrophe at the Quadrilateral, Ginchy’ on the Somme in 1916, participation in ‘deep battle’ at Cambrai in 1917, to ‘valiant near annihilation’ on 21 and 22 March 1918, to its ‘still flawed’ participation in the Great Advance of the Hundred Days. It should be apparent from this that Hodgkinson has not written a ‘fan boy’ account of 6th Division. He makes no claims for its ‘superiority’ to other divisions or its ‘specialness’ or that it was one of the BEF’s top performers.  This is a great strength of the book.  It allows 6th Division to represent in miniature the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the BEF as a whole. There are incisive and well-informed chapters on command, both early in the war and later, on training, staff work, technology (especially firepower) and morale.  The book is certainly judgemental, but it does not indulge in a blame game.  When the division failed or did badly Hodgkinson says so, but he also explains why it failed or did badly in the context of the state of the war at the time, of the BEF at the time and of the task with which it was faced.  The result is a book that is deeply convincing and not only learned but also wise.  It is an outstanding contribution to the evolving historiography of the British Army in the Great War.

J.M. Bourne

University of Wolverhampton