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Hell at the Front: Combat Voices from the First World War

Hell at the Front: Combat Voices from the First World War
By Tom Donovan
Published by Tempus  £12.99
ISBN 0 7524 3940 5

Reviewed by John lee for the Centre for First World War Studies, University of Birmingham

Tom Donovan is a prince amongst booksellers. His printed catalogues often find their way onto my permanent library shelves, thanks to the excellence of his bibliographical and historical notes.
He and/or his paperback publisher have gone for a ‘sexy’ title to appeal to the general reader. Don’t be put off by it. This is a profoundly important and useful book.

This is a new paperback edition of ‘The Hazy Red Hell’ (Spellmount H/b1999) and is a fine anthology from scarce or out-of-print books, and some never-seen-before items from the author’s own remarkable collection of First World War material. As the sub-title explains, these extracts concentrate on the actual combat experience of British troops on the Western Front from Mons to the final advance to victory. They do not shrink from the grimmer aspects of war and the writing is always powerful. But the pacifist reader – looking for ‘the horrors of war’ from the mouths of its victims – will be disappointed. This is the story of men with a job to do, and they get on and do it. They are sustained throughout by a firm faith in what they were fighting for, by the comradeship engendered by the British regimental system, and by a grim and pretty much unquenchable sense of humour.

The first chapter, ‘1914:The Contemptible Little Army’, shows us the highly trained regulars of the BEF getting a bit of a shock as they go into the first great, industrialised war. Their superb rifle skills take a terrible toll of the enemy, but the unprecedented levels of artillery fire on the battlefield cause grievous losses of irreplaceable professionals.

‘1915: The Arrival of Attrition’ takes us from Neuve Chappelle to Loos, and sees the Territorial Force and the Kitchener volunteers arriving to shoulder the burden carried by the shrinking Regular units. This was a year of terrible fighting for very little gain. I found myself warming to a young runner of 2nd Black Watch who kept apologising to his corporal for trembling when under fire. The battalion had come in from India and he insisted it was the cold that was getting to him, not his nerves. The war gets more ‘frightful’, with gas and flamethrowers joining the fray, but it is still machine-gun and artillery fire that does the most damage.

‘1916:When the New Army Bled’ starts with the fighting at Vimy Ridge in May, when British troops encountered an effective box barrage for the first time – the most graphic description of being under sustained shell fire is provided by a member of the London Regiment. We then read of the particular misery of so-called ‘diversionary’ attacks, and get several accounts from different phases of the Somme battles, tracing the improvements in artillery techniques, the ongoing problem of battle communications, and the vital importance of good officer leadership. The advent of the tank is seen as a less-than-glorious, but potentially useful, infantry support weapon.

‘1917: Year of Arras and Passchendaele’ covers a time of grim attritional warfare that puts the German Army under the most enormous pressure. We are reminded of the great successes of 9th April that saw British attackers get into the German gun lines, and discovering the underground wonders of the ‘Hindenburg Line’ for the first time. There is a real improvement in British infantry tactics, and in co-operation with artillery and tanks. The victory of Messines in June, the routine excitements of working parties and the less routine thrill of trench raids, and the problems of working with Portuguese allies are all covered. Lengthy sections cover Third Ypres and Cambrai. Through success and failure there is an enduring stoicism, sense of duty and pride in comrades.

‘1918: Darkest Before Dawn’ takes us from the shock of the German spring offensives, and the violent resumption of open warfare (in the wrong direction!), with the collapse of command structure, supply lines and communications. But the Germans run out of steam quite quickly and the French stabilise the line. From 8th August onwards the Allies press the Germans back skilfully and relentlessly. The attackers had learned their lessons well. Standard battle drills could meet all eventualities and absorb quite raw recruits into fast-moving units. Now sergeants were perfectly able to command platoons. Tanks were proving ever more useful, but were never the decisive breakthrough weapon. The last entry, by a Lieutenant Blacker of the Rifle Brigade describes a confident infantry tearing through the Germans on 4th November 1918. How he didn’t qualify for a Victoria Cross I shall never know!!

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