The Death of Glory

The Western Front, 1915

 

Robin Neillands

London: John Murray, 2006

Paperback 298pp   RRP: $39.95

 

Reviewer:  Mike O’Brien, February 2021

 

 This book was posthumously published. Like many of this author’s books it is notable for its lucid clarity and careful analysis.

There are two dominant analyses of British leadership of that war on the Western Front: one has the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theme while the other is much kinder to the generals and to Douglas Haig in particular. The first school was led by Alan Clark (The Donkeys) and the braying was echoed by many including John Laffin and the play Oh What a Lovely War. The echoes persist. More recent scholarship, led notably by Gary Sheffield, has been kinder to the generals.

1915 provides a good deal of fodder for the ‘donkeys’ school. Field Marshal French commanded the British Expeditionary Force in uneasy cooperation with his French allies. The predominant theatre of operations was the Aubers Ridge standing between the British and Lille, in whose vicinity the (now) lesser remembered battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert were fought. In sad summary, the attacking troops suffered great casualties, gained little or no ground and inflicted lesser losses on their opponents. So – donkeys?

Neillands convincingly argues that the British did not have the tools to break through in 1915. They had too little artillery of the wrong sort and calibre with the wrong fuses. No wave of a tactical magic wand would remediate this imbalance – only time could supply the deficit. A machine was needed to break through the wire entanglements – the tank – and it would not be developed mechanically and tactically until 1917. And the last chief deficit was intercommunication – the enabler of follow-ups of the few successes. Wire & telephones could not do this task. Radio could – to some extent – later in the war – but not in 1915.

The author exculpates the British commanders from the generalised charge of being donkeys but applies it judiciously to several of them in particular circumstances. His judgement is clinical and well-based.

It is ironic that the first Australian experience on the Western Front, Fromelles in 1916, has so much in common with the Aubers Ridge battles of 1915 – location (the ridge itself), the corps commander, the artillery deficit and a plan more asinine than most. I suspect that few Australians, now more familiar with Fromelles than earlier, can see the echoes of 1915 and the British and Indian sacrifices therein.

This book does far more than lucidly examine 1915: it is a tactical primer for the First World War and deserves to be read as such. It is a great pity that it will not be followed by his analysis of the later war years.

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