Book Review - Landrecies to Cambrai
Case studies of German offensive and defensive operations on the Western Front 1914-17
By Captain G.C. Wynne
Helion, Solihull, 2011, 216pp, Images : c 40 b/w photos, 19 maps
9781906033767 - Paperback
9781909384033 - Hardback
9781907677915 - ebook
Reviewed by Mr Albert Palazzo
Within the English-speaking historiography of the Great War, the emphasis is largely from the British perspective, with only brief mention of the enemy’s action. In this admirable series of battle narratives, Wynne counters this trend by providing a rounded view from ‘both sides of the wire.’ Primarily focusing on selected German offensive and defensive actions, he also outlines the British activities. Wynne’s narratives originally appeared as articles in the British Army Quarterly from 1924 to 1939, when the outbreak of the Second World War precluded the author from writing further on the subject. In this book, Helion has packaged the collection as a complete set under one cover.
Wynne was a junior infantry officer when he was captured at Le Cateau in August 1914, spending the rest of the war as a prisoner of war - using that time to master the German language. This allowed him to read and translate the many German regimental histories, official accounts, and memoirs that emerged following the Great War. He drew on these extensively to write his subsequent battle studies.
Altogether there are seventeen studies in this book, commencing with the night clash at Landrecies in August 1914, and ending with an account of the German 107th Division’s experience in countering the succesful British attack at Cambrai in November 1917. Three chapters are concerned with 1915 (Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and the fight for Hill 70 during the Battle of Loos), and one with a little-known German attack on Vimy Ridge in May 1916. The battle that receives the most attention is the Somme where seven chapters are devoted to a number of actions that made up that momentous engagement between July and November 1916. The remaining five chapters consider 1917 - two on the Battle of Arras, two on the Third Battle of Ypres - and one on the aforementioned action at Cambrai.
Of the series of narratives contained in this book, the night action at Landrecies (being an encounter battle at the beginning of the war) seems out of place with the remainder of the chapters. It contributes little to Wynne’s intent to highlight German defensive tactics, which included not only the layout of the defensive systems, but also their counter-attack philosophy, and the manner in which they changed over the period under discussion. Wynne largely adopts a narrative approach, and chapters often lack a conclusion to draw out the key points of the tactics employed at each successive stage of development. Nonetheless, within the story, he does mention the principal changes, from the rigid defence of a largely single trench line at Neuve Chappelle, through the progressive changes that culminated in the elastic defence that emerged following the Battle of the Somme. Beyond these isolated examples, however, it is largely left to the reader to discern the key points based on their assumed understanding of the location of units in defensive and counter-attack positions across the various chapters. Readers might find value in consulting the works of Stephen Bull, Robert T Foley and Jack Sheldon as accompaniments to Wynne’s observations.
Less emphasis is given to the changing British offensive tactics. Indeed, Wynne seems to dismiss them, recounting German criticisms of British tactical expertise. This is problematic, as Plumer implemented the highly successful ‘bite and hold’ tactics at Messines and during the middle stages of the Third Battle of Ypres which not only broke into the German defences quickly, but also defeated the successive German counter-attacks. The Germans had no counter to these developments. In focusing on the German counter-attacks, in a few instances Wynne fails to mention they were often unsuccessful or that the British had already reached their final objectives, presenting the impression that German tactical nous had successfully stopped any further exploitation.
Irrespective of these criticisms, Landrecies to Cambrai is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the Great War. Its real value is twofold: it provides a clearer understanding of the German participation and experiences in each of the battles covered, while also outlining the evolution of German defensive tactics as they implemented previous lessons and adapted accordingly. The book also contains gems that current military officers would do well to take notice of. These include the folly of an overly centralised control over actions at too high a level (as seen at Neuve Chapelle) and the need to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. The narratives flow smoothly, each chapter is accompanied by a sketch map. Though the book contains an extensive bibliography, most of the referenced sources are written in German.
For those wishing to delve deeper into this particular subject, Wynne produced a fuller study in what is regarded as a classic - If Germany Attacks: The Battle in Depth in the West (1915-17) published in 1940, and which has recently been republished.
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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