Book review - The 48th (South Midland) Division 1908-1919
Helion, Solihull, 2017, 290pp, c 20 b/w photos, 8pp colour maps
9781911512547 - Hardback
Reviewed by BRIG Chris Roberts AM, CSC (Retd.)
In this comprehensive and very informative account, Mitchinson delivers a pragmatic and balanced study of a solid, yet unremarkable 48th (South Midland) Division that had its origins in the creation of the Territorial Force (TF) in 1908. Mitchinson has written extensively on the TF, and this book meets his previous high standards of research, based largely on operational reports and the war diaries of the Division and its various units. While many divisional histories focus on the formation’s infantry units, this book casts the net wider, embracing the artillery, engineer, medical and other support units as well as the infantry battalions. Furthermore, Mitchinson’s study covers all aspects of the Division’s story from its raising in 1908 as a reserve division, to its incorporation within the regular Army, through its service on the Western Front and in Italy, to the demobilisation of its members in 1919. In doing so, it considers aspects of training, development, geographical makeup and performance throughout the periods under discussion. The book’s excellent conclusion is a model of what one should expect in a historical analysis of this type.
The book begins by relating the difficulties the Division and its units experienced during the pre-war years due to the disdain the War Office had for the TF, and a less than satisfactory mobilisation and training period in England. Beyond this, the volume is concerned predominantly with the 48th’s service during the Great War. Deploying to France in April 1915, the Division was spared the trauma of participating in any of the disastrous battles of that year. Initially undertaking trench acclimatisation south of Ypres, it was then employed in holding the line around Hebuterne and Gommecourt north of the River Ancre. Mitchinson renders an extensive account of the activities conducted during this time. In doing so he provides a sound understanding of what was involved in the mundane yet dangerous work conducted by various combat and support units that made a low but regular contribution to the Division’s casualty list.
Despite being regarded as an experienced division that had an extensive knowledge of the area, except for two of its battalions, the 48th was not chosen to participate in the initial attack of the Battle of the Somme, or the disastrous feint at Gommecourt. Consequently, the Division saw its first offensive action in late July 1916. Specifically, alongside the Australians of I ANZAC it conducted a series of attacks against Pozieres, and along the high ground towards Thiepval, before relieving a French division south of the Somme. From there, the South Midland followed-up the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, and later fought throughout the Third Battle of Ypres.
In recounting the 48th’s efforts, Mitchinson provides a detailed narrative of the various actions it undertook blended with analysis of its performance, not only covering the infantry fighting but also the work undertaken by the rest of the Division’s units. While he writes in an easily read style, on occasion it is not always easy to follow the flow of the Division’s activities and locations, and one needs a good knowledge of the areas it operated in order to place the actions in context. For example, the lay reader would not know that, in the relief of the French division mentioned above, the 48th moved from well north of the River Somme to south of it. Additionally, the narratives covering the combat and support units, and between combat and training periods, tend to move abruptly from one to the next. An introductory sentence or two to help shift the focus, or the use of sub-headings, would have assisted the reader to orientate from one subject to another.
In November 1917, the 48th was transferred to Italy. Here the Division was again primarily involved in holding the line, and countering an Austrian attack that briefly broke into its defensive position at Asiago before being ejected. Mitchinson delivers a complete account of the Division’s campaign that ended with the final advance in November 1918. He also provides a sound and detailed analysis of the action at Asiago and the controversial removal of the Division’s long standing, competent, and popular commander immediately following the battle. As mentioned earlier, Mitchinson concludes with a fulsome appraisal of the 48th’s service between 1908 and 1919. The text is accompanied by ten simple, coloured maps that are adequate, although several of them could have contained overlays indicating the direction of advance and where on the ground the Division was fighting. Moreover, too often a place is mentioned that is central to the narrative, but is not shown on the maps.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, this is a valuable history that provides a real feel for what the 48th (South Midland) Division experienced during its service, and gives a very good insight into the components and nature of the Division itself. While the 48th didn’t receive the accolades that some other divisions did, it proved to be a solid division that performed well. This is a very worthy history of that effort that will appeal to those with an interest in the Great War.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
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