The British Army’s Experience on the Western Front 1916-1918
By Peter Simkins
Pen & Sword, 2014
In this collection of essays Peter Simkins looks at the performance of the New Armies between 1916 and 1918, exploring the ‘learning curve’ and the shift of command effectively downwards as the war progressed.
The book starts with a brief but useful and insightful examination of the historiography of the war. It then moves on to focus on the changing perspectives towards the Somme campaign, from the publication of unit histories that began in the 1920s, to the anti-war literature of the 1920s and 1930s, Official Histories, and work of commentators and authors such as Liddell-Hart, Churchill, and Lloyd George, feelings that extended to the anti-war works of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Simkins challenges the view that the ‘New Army’ divisions on the Somme were untrained and not ready for the offensive, by attempting an objective assessment of all the battles and actions that they were involved in. He reminds us that some of the Kitchener men had in fact been serving overseas for over a year and had combat experience, and argues that the inclusion of regular brigades in some of the New Army divisions did not appear to have a great deal of positive impact in terms of their success.
Simkins then goes on to examine a variety of variables that could have impacted on their success, such as their time in the line, the rotation between corps, and the capability of the commanders. In particular he highlights the relative inexperience of many of the corps and division commanders who were in charge on 1st July or were appointed during the campaign.
A chapter examines the success of the 18th Division at Thiepval, Simkins concluding that the attack showed the importance of the leadership of junior officers at battalion level. As a Somme footnote a chapter acknowledges that not all lessons learned were applied uniformly, singling out the failure of the final attacks north of the Ancre in November 1916. For this Simkins puts the blame on Gough and other senior commanders.
He then moves on to examine the British defence of Villers-Bretonneux in 1918; was Australian criticism of British performance justified? Simkins concludes it was partially justified, a complex chain of command not helping.
In the last chapter Simkins looks at the 12th Division in the 100 days and the impact of effective brigade and battalion leadership and ongoing training supported by the junior officers and NCOs. Whilst this is a shorter chapter and lacks some of the in-depth analysis of previous chapters, it rounds the book off nicely.
Overall this is an interesting and rigorous analysis and one which deserves recognition.
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From the Somme to Victory: The British Army’s Experience on the Western Front 1916-1918