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Book Review - The Darkest Year

The British Army on the Western Front 1917

Cover of The Darkest Year

By Ed Spencer Jones

Helion, Warwick, 2022, 514pp, Images: 87 b/w photos, 21 maps

9781914059858 - Paperback

Reviewed by BRIG Chris Roberts AM. CSC (Retd.)


This is the fourth in the series of splendid books edited by Dr Spencer Jones which provide insights into the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front.  Each volume covers a year of the war and this one delivers the same high standards of scholarship as its predecessors. The books’ value lies in their consideration of subjects in more detail than more general histories are able to, thereby injecting a more comprehensive and considered view of the issues being addressed. This latest tome offers 16 chapters covering a broad range of subjects from the strategic problems facing the British in 1917, through several studies concerning aspects of the principal battles fought during the year, to consideration of group cohesion in British infantry battalions.  The book also covers issues facing the development of French and British tanks during 1917, and the Officer Cadet Battalions in the United Kingdom. While 1917 may have been the darkest year of the war for the British Army, these essays illuminate the transformation the army was going through following its experience at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The book kicks off with two studies at the strategic and political level. Jones delivers a thoroughly engaging insight into the strategic problems facing the British government during 1917, the political debates involved in addressing them, together with the widening rift between the British high command and David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, and the resulting consequences. In the second essay, John Spencer pursues a similar theme when he relates Lloyd George’s dilemma in addressing the strategic issues while attempting to reconcile his concern to avoid confronting the Germans on the Western Front. When his Chief of the Imperial Staff, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, stood up to him, the pair’s relationship consequently deteriorated leading to Robertson’s resignation in February 1918. Both essays provide insights into the difficulties of relationships at the highest level when the political and military leaders disagree on where the focus of the principal military effort should be.

As to be expected, many of the contributions address combat studies. Leading off in this genre, Michael LoCicero provides a fascinating study into a highly successful German trench raid at Loos in January 1917. Penetrating deep into the British position, it resulted in the immediate sacking of a British battalion commander. The German’s success stemmed from the detailed planning, preparation and innovative deception methods undertaken by them, which offer instructive lessons for today’s soldiers. Two chapters are devoted to the British advance in following-up the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line (the Siegfriedstellung). In the first, Nigel Dorrington challenges the generally held view that the Germans succeeded in putting the British on the back foot, both operationally and tactically, by considering the experience of the III Corps. He persuasively argues that, despite the limitations imposed on them by strategic considerations and logistical difficulties, the Corps’ divisions demonstrated they could mount effective operations, absorb new technology, and quickly learn from their experience. In the second, Andy Luck compares the performance of the British 8th Division with that of the 2nd Australian Division. While the Australians’ effort was somewhat patchier than the 8th’s, Luck acknowledges the reasons for this and concludes that both demonstrated measurable progress, readily modifying attack formations and took more care with flank protection as the advance developed.

In a wide ranging essay, Simon Innes-Jones analyses the development of the British operational art during 1917. In presenting his case, he largely focusses on General Sir Henry Horne and the British First Army from the triumph of Vimy Ridge in April to the equally successful capture of Hill 70 in August. As he relates, 1917 was a period of considerable tactical debate within the British Army, during which time the effective ‘bite and hold’ tactics advocated by Generals Rawlinson, Plumer and Horne gained ascendency over the overly optimistic breakthrough approach favoured by Field Marshall Haig and General Gough. Innes-Jones contends, with some justification, that this tactical change founded the success of the Hundred Days Offensive in the latter half of 1918.

Three chapters consider aspects of the Battle of Arras in April/May 1917. In relating the largely neglected commitments of the Royal Engineers, Alexander Falbo-Wild reminds us of the many and varied tasks the sappers carried out both prior to and during the Battle. Their contribution to the success of the initial attack involved a far greater number of missions than those that current engineers are responsible for, ranging from tunneling, mapping, chemical warfare, forward rail transportation, rear area and combat engineering, to the provision of signaling and other communications. Falbo-Wild addresses each of these aspects succinctly but with sufficient detail to grasp the magnitude of the engineering effort.

In contrast to the largely positive chapters, Meleah Hampton and Harry Sanderson offer highly critical views on two operations undertaken following the initial success of the offensive. Hampton relates the Australian experience during the advance to the Hindenburg Line and at the two battles of Bullecourt. While one can readily agree with her overall criticisms and conclusions of the Bullecourt operations, others are less convincing. For example, having quoted an instruction that “[s]trong fighting patrols will be sent out and the enemy cleared out of no man’s land … to enable our attacking force to form up unobserved” she goes on to say “the belief that these ‘strong patrols’ would be able to effect an advance in place of a larger force was never entirely abandoned.” She reiterates this point elsewhere and, in doing so, misconstrues both the context and the rationale for the employment of those patrols, and one senses that she seeks to criticise rather than to understand. Sanderson analyses the reasons behind the disastrous Third Battle of the Scarpe that saw the British First and Third Armies fail to either gain or hold any their objectives. Having detailed the deteriorating state and numbers of the British infantry and artillery as the Battle of Arras progressed, he then considers the planning and preparations for the attack at Third Scarpe, and outlines the subsequent disaster that befell the British infantry. Quite rightly, Sanderson sheets responsibility for the shambolic result to an overoptimistic high command.  Specifically, the commanders failed to recognise that the culminating point of the offensive had been reached, and in its planning, preparations and execution was overly ambitious and hasty, committing troops who were inadequately supported and ill-prepared for the task. Sadly, there was no imperative to fight either Second Bullecourt or Third Scarpe as the reason for the Arras offensive had passed. Both of these chapters offer sobering lessons for senior commanders regarding the consequences of failing to properly analyse the conditions facing them, the reasons for conducting battle, and the necessity to plan and prepare accordingly.

Turning to the Third Battle of Ypres, in an absorbing study Simon Shephard considers the performance of the artillery against the principles of war devised by the then Colonel J.F.C. Fuller in 1916. Choosing three of the several sub-battles that made up the offensive, Shephard details the artillery plans devised to support General Gough’s overly ambitious objectives at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, and the step by step approach employed by General Plumer at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, and the Second Battle of Passchendaele. Each demonstrates the high level of sophistication that British artillery tactics had achieved by mid-1917, including multiple and deceptive barrages, their ability to completely dominate the opposing German artillery, and to quickly adapt to changing German defensive tactics. It is a chapter that illuminates a rarely discussed and highly successful aspect of this controversial and horrendous offensive.

In a thoroughly convincing chapter, James Tubb challenges Australian criticism of the British 33rd Division’s performance at the Battle of Polygon Wood during Third Ypres. Struck by a German counter attack having just entered the front line on the eve of the battle which overran a portion of their line (and in which they suffered substantial casualties and disorganisation), he demonstrates how quickly the 33rd Division reacted and was able to participate in the Second Army’s attack alongside the 5th Australian Division the next morning. While the British struggled to achieve all of their objectives, their performance was highly creditable given the considerable disruption experienced the previous day.

Rounding out the battle studies, Richard Hendry narrates the performance of the 47th (2nd London) Division at the Battle of Messines in June and its defence of Bourlon Wood and fighting withdrawal during the latter stages of the Battle of Cambrai in November. Although the division earned some criticisms in both instances, Hendry provides ample evidence that it deserved its sound pre-1917 reputation as a good fighting formation.

The remaining chapters cover an eclectic range of topics. Jim Beach relates the contributions of a somewhat shadowy intelligence major on Haig’s headquarters, comparing his analysis of German operational intentions with what actually transpired. Tom Thorpe considers the effects of group cohesion in the battalions of the 56th (London) Division, and highlights it could have both a positive and a rebellious impact in differing circumstances. Charles Fair discusses the selection and training of junior temporary officers, arguing that by mid-1917 a highly professionalised system of Officer Cadet Battalions had evolved. He contends it produced officers of sufficient quality and quantity which made a vital contribution to the success of the BEF in 1918. However, he offers no evidence for this claim, noting that further research will determine the extent to which the graduates of the system contributed to the final victory. Finally, Tim Gale provides a very useful contribution concerning the problems facing the development of British and French tanks following their inauspicious start in 1916 and early 1917. Central to their development were attempts to coordinate efforts between the two Allies, debates on how they should be employed, the types of tanks required to meet differing roles, and the success of the British at Cambrai and the French at Malmaison in late 1917.

The Darkest Year offers penetrating insights into the conduct of the war and the performance of the BEF when it bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front. It shows how quickly the British Army learned from its previous experience on the Somme, and while there were inconsistencies, especially at the higher command level, its development during 1917 set the foundation for victory in 1918. In doing so, there are lessons contained in several of the chapters that officers in today’s armies would do well to consider. Highly recommended.

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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