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Book Review - Friends are Good on the Day of Battle

The 51st (Highland) Division during the First World War

Cover of Friends are Good on the Day of Battle

By Craig French

Helion, Solihull, 2017, 300pp, Images : 4 maps & 26 tables

9781911096542 - Hardback

Reviewed by BRIG Chris Roberts (Retd.)

The 51st (Highland) Division earned a high and (from their German opponents) fearsome reputation. Its exploits during the Great War have been the subject of at least four previous histories, the latest being Colin Campbell’s The 51st (Highland ) Division in the Great War: Engine of Destruction, published in 2013, which tends to brook no criticism of the division. So, what has Craig French to offer with his new publication that hasn’t already been said about the 51st?

Rather than being another narrative, French’s contribution is an analytical study, in which he seeks to evaluate the division over the course of the war, including its performance as a fighting formation. In undertaking his analysis, he considers four themes: training; recruitment and reinforcements; Esprit de Corps; and battle performance. In doing so, he offers new insights into aspects of the division that have not been addressed so thoroughly before.

Recruited in Scotland, the Highland Division was formed in 1908 with the creation of the Territorial Force as a reserve to the Regular Army, being numbered the 51st in May 1915 following the rapid expansion of the army.  This growth created three types of formations: Regular Army divisions, Territorial Force divisions, and New Army divisions - the latter being raised from the huge influx of ‘Kitchener volunteers’ in 1914 and 1915. During the early months of the war, being a Territorial division created several problems for the 51st. Members of the force had to volunteer for Imperial Service in order to serve overseas, and not everyone did so. Additionally, when sufficient numbers in a unit had volunteered, six of its infantry battalions were despatched to France between November 1914 and February 1915, which required new battalions to be inducted, including four English units from Lancashire.  It is against this background that French considers his first three themes.

Beginning with training, the journey from a low standard in 1914 is examined in some detail, including the difficulties in 1914 and early 1915 associated with a lack of suitable instructors and training grounds. Like all of the new divisions, it was largely a matter of the untrained instructing themselves. What becomes evident in French’s analysis is the role of the commander in bringing a unit or formation to a high standard of proficiency. For this, he lays much of the credit on the shoulders of Major General Sir George Harper, the 51st’s energetic second commander. In doing so, French convincingly rejects the criticism made about Harper, and highlights his innovative tactics that were adopted throughout the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Supplementing the commander’s role was the importance of centralising training programs, the establishment of training schools at divisional level and higher, and ensuring all units were trained to similar standards. Central to this were the Stationary Series of pamphlets produced by GHQ which captured lessons learned early, and pushed them out across the BEF. However, French argues that - as the war progressed - increasing casualties from over commitment in battle and undertrained reinforcements saw an eventual decline in combat performance in 1918. Overall, this is a sound analysis that offers valuable insights to contemporary unit and formation commanders.

In a fact-filled second chapter, French analyses recruitment and reinforcement, and seeks to determine to what extent this was ‘a significant influence on divisional performance’. Noting the contribution of the local Territorial Associations (which during the first couple of years of the war played a significant role, including officer appointments) he provides a very thorough discussion of the formation’s changing nature and hence the extent to which the 51st retained its highland character. French concludes that, while the percentage of men from the Scottish highlands dropped as the war progressed, and (except for the short period in 1915 when the Lancashire units provided one third of the division’s infantry) the 51st essentially retained its Scottishness. Furthermore, due to heavy losses in 1916 and 1917, he claims the quality of reinforcements declined as the war progressed, becoming most marked in 1918 which, in his opinion, affected its performance. French supports his analysis with sixteen accompanying tables and additional statistics, which add credibility to his conclusions.

In considering the division’s esprit de corps, French seeks to demonstrate that it evolved and adapted, becoming more defined as the war progressed, and was a significant contributor to its successes. In doing so, a multitude of subjects are addressed, some of which are discussed in detail, while others receive a brief mention which lack any conviction as to their contribution to esprit de corps. Among the more prominent contributors are national and territorial identity, regimental traditions, symbolism, the relationship between officers and other ranks, the attention the division received from the press, and the all-important role of the various commanders, in which Harper again played a significant part. French rounds out the chapter with comments about the division’s relationship and reputation with other nationalities, its morale and its aggression. Overall, there is little doubt the 51st had a strong esprit de corps, but whether French draws the links together to prove it contributed to the division’s success, or simply presents a number of observations, is debatable.

To assess the division’s battle performance, French chooses four battles in which it participated: Givenchy - June 1915; Beaumont Hamel in November 1916; Cambrai - November 1917; and the German March Offensive in 1918. Each is discussed in a standardised format. Following a brief narrative and analysis of the action, performance is considered against seven criteria: artillery; combined arms; training; command and control; organisation and administration; strength and casualties; and Esprit de Corps. The result is patchy and uneven, sometimes lacking coherence in its presentation of evidence to support his contentions. While several interesting and valuable points are made, French relies too much on the observations and opinions of others, rather than presenting the reader primarily with his own considered views. This reflects what appears to be his unfamiliarity with military operations. When presenting his own assessments, on occasion they are marred by contradiction, or seek too much to fit his assessments into each of the performance criteria he employs. For example, combined arms is concerned with the integration in battle of the different combat arms; infantry, artillery, cavalry/armour, engineers, and in the case of the Great War, the Royal Flying Corps. In relation to Givinchy, the consideration of combined arms is reduced to a brief discussion of the limited numbers of machine guns and bombers within the infantry battalions. On the other hand, French makes a good case in refuting the criticisms of Harper’s tactics at Cambrai, and the destruction of the tanks on the Flesquieres Ridge. Overall, this chapter is a mixed bag. Clearly the 51st improved as the war progressed, and while French offers some good insights, he often fails to link the evidence to support his assessments or assertions.

Although written in an easy to read style, Friends are Good on the Day of Battle is presented more in the form of a PhD thesis (which it was) rather than as a book which takes the reader on a journey that evaluates the division in its many facets as it progressed through the war. Nonetheless, French provides a more pragmatic assessment and deeper insights into the training, composition, and character of the 51st (Highland) Division than other histories have done, and along the way he challenges some long held views.

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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