Despatches from the Front –
Western Front 1914 – 1916 Mons, La Cataeu, Loos, The Battle of the Somme
By John Grehan and Martin Mace
Pen and Sword (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk )
RRP GBP £19.99
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It is almost 100 years ago that the First World War started. It re-drew the map of Europe and many millions of combatants and non-combatants were either killed or severely injured. Numerous publications describe the causes of this conflict, individual battles (such as Mons, Marne, Ypres and the Somme), participants’ memorises, and histories of regiments and other units etc. but few of them consider the conflict from the perspective of the British Commander in Chief.
The senior generals for the British forces during the war on the Western Front were Sir John French and later Sir Douglas Haig. These officers reported to their political commanders in London on the conduct of the campaign in France and Flanders. Like commanders in previous wars and campaigns their reports on their activities and achievements were sent to the War Office. This book publishes those despatches and they make fascinating reading. They reveal how the war was conducted from the perspective of the most senior British officers.
This perspective is very different to many accounts of the war and rarely have such views ever been published. The reports are factual summaries of the activities and accomplishments of British Forces. Sometimes there are comments on the activities of the French Forces and how they interacted with the British as they fought on the flanks of the British.
Lots of previous accounts of the war consider Divisions, Brigades, Regiments and Battalions but this one looks at Armies, Corps and Divisions. Written from the angle of the most senior British commanders they do not recount how individual soldiers faired. They are references to the number of enemy killed, injured and taken prisoner, and equipment such as guns (artillery and machine guns) captured.
The one aspect that I found most upsetting whilst reading these despatches, and this has no bearing on the quality of this volume, was the attitude of Generals French and Haig towards the casualty figures for the Allies. When one reads this volume the attitude towards the ordinary soldier by these commanders was callous to say the least. They may have recorded that “casualties were in line with those anticipated” or there were only “light casualties” or similar descriptions. However these casualties were people and they were slain in their thousands only to be called “in line with expectations”!
This volume comprises of the despatches produced by Generals French and Haig in the first two years of the war. They are presented in the same format without corrections for grammar or spelling and each despatch gives a review of a different battle. It is ideal for those wishing to study the war from a senior perspective and it is an eye-opener on the conduct of the gallant men of the British Army. This volume is unique in this and it achieves its primary objective.