Atter’s book covers the story of a battalion going first into action in the Battle of Loos, France in 1915. The Lincoln’s (Lincolnshire County’s) 8 Battalion is an example of what was even then being called Kitchener’s Army. This was the first nationwide enlisting effort in Britain, personified by Lord Kitchener in his personal appeal for more men, in reaction to the fact that the original BEF was all but gone by 1914’s end. There was a critical shortage of manpower on the British front facing the German trenches from Ypres snaking southwards to Artois.
Enlistment, Training, Transport, and Deployment are all covered in this pithy book of only 144 pages. Both bird’s eye and worm’s eye view are well mentioned as diary entries from Sir John French, Gen. Douglas Haig and all ranks down to personal letters from Lincolnshire privates are showcased throughout. Atter’s book is an elegant if tragic account of a small corner during the opening days of Britain’s hastily conceived Loos Campaign in 1915, a battle hardly mentioned in the usual timeline of events of the First World War, Western Front: Mons-Marne-Ypres-Verdun-Somme-Passchendaele-Cambrai-Kaiserschlacht-100 Days.
“Paucity” is a word that keeps coming up describing the short shrift given the enormous effort to train and deploy this band of men that heard the call of their country’s need. There were shortages in every phase of their handling. Poor logistics, mistaken orders, lack of communication, ineffective artillery too sparse to amass an effect, tired and hungry after two days and one night’s march, sans food & water, and then told to take German bulwarks (their second line of trenches) studded with machine guns providing enfilading fire–well, the perfect storm for massive disaster! It is heartbreaking the level of neglect shown to these proud men by French & Haig’s general staff.
Yet, they held their unit cohesion through most of it and even managed sustained attacks for hours on 26 of September only to have to retire with irrevocable losses. The official report dismissed them as having cut and run, even leaving their rifles behind in their wake.
Atter shows the lies and scapegoating that these men were judged by. Here is a clear example of generals blaming the men for their own lack of understanding, planning or willingness to learn from some earlier battles that should have shown them that a sustained, creeping barrage was vital for any frontal attack; that the German reserve system discouraged a “breakout” mentality with the cavalry “leading the way;” that men need to be fed and watered during long marches. The British were still two years away from knowing that “bite & hold” was more feasible than “breakout” but the former lessons should have been learned by 1915. The general staff was not listening to subordinates and learning, fighting past wars. (Similar to American Chief of Staff’s failure to innovate after the Tet Offensive in ’68 Southeast Asia; they were still fighting the Japanese.)
If you don’t hold that remembering the sacrifices of past generation who safeguarded your civil liberties is an honorable pastime (and I do), then you will agree that righting a historical wrong is of vital interest to all of us today. Contemporary historians in 1915 were wrong to have characterized 8 Battalion’s epic efforts & gallantry to simply saying that “they [had] bolted,” as Atter’s ending reminds us.
What does this say to us in our time of purported “fake news” and hyper-information? Perhaps that historiography should become the prime purpose of today’s historians.
Nigel Atter is a former student of Professor Gary Sheffield and Dr Spencer Jones, and is an independent scholar of the Great War (his primary area of interest being the Western Front in 1915 – particularly the Battle of Loos). He is, perhaps, unique in his interest related to the 8th (Service) Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment. Nigel was a founding member of the Leicestershire and Rutland Branch of the Western Front Association and has presented papers on a range of diverse topics, such as the Indian Corps, Lord Kitchener and the Battle of Loos. As military history advisor and secretary to the ‘Oadby Remembers 1914-1918’ project, Nigel undertakes research on individual soldiers and oversees all the published research from the wider team. He has delivered research findings on topics as diverse as the Leicestershire Regiment in Mesopotamia and papers on individual battles and biographies of local soldiers. His recent publications includenbsp;’Their name Liveth for Evermore: a military history of the men from Oadby Baptist Church’ andnbsp;’A Difficult Year: Offensive Operations on the Western Front in 1915′, which was published in Stand To! (the journal of The Western Front Association).