Book Review – The Public Schools Battalion in the Great War

Steve Hurst, The Public Schools Battalion in the Great War. Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2007. 224 pp. £25

This story of the 16th (Service) Battalion (Public Schools), Middlesex Regiment, follows the now familiar format of the Pen & Sword ‘Pals’ histories. It has numerous illustrations, many of which have not previously been published, it has useful appendices of the names of those killed, a description of the area in which the battalion fought and of the archaeological material found there in the years since the war ended. It is very well written, with at times some especially evocative prose, and relates some of the wartime activities of the unit largely through the diaries and reminiscences of those who served in it. It also contains an essay (of which more later) on how Goodbye To All That allegedly libelled the battalion. However, as an example of a genuine battalion history, similar, for example to the quality of Jill Knight’s All Bloody Gentlemen, (which was produced by the same publishers three years ago), it fails to fulfil certain of what are now the expected criteria.

John Lee’s widely accepted recipe for a thorough unit history requires an examination of the social composition of the battalion and the society from which it was drawn, well detailed accounts of the battles it fought and how its training was adapted to take on the board the lessons learned from experience, how the unit fitted into its brigade and division, and an assessment of how morale and performance was affected as the war progressed. Hurst’s history of the 16th Middlesex addresses these factors but with the exception of an examination of the unit’s early and mid-term social composition, never really does anything more than that.

The early months of the battalion are discussed fully, explaining how the unit was not, unlike many of the Pals battalions, a mixture of men from all trades and professions, but a unit drawn exclusively from those men and boys who had attended a public school. The usual tales of shortages of equipment, problems with catering and accommodation, of a lack of experienced officers and NCOs capable of supervising the early training and the problems created by the loss of so many of the men for commissions, are all covered, often through the words of the soldiers themselves. However, and although there are frequent references to the ‘originals’, a more extensive analysis of the type of man who enlisted, as well as the effect the constant drain of men to other units had upon the battalion’s efficiency and morale would have built up a more detailed picture of the unit when it went overseas.

The battalion was originally part of the 33rd Division but soon after it landed in France it served as GHQ Troops for two months before then joining 86 Brigade of the 29th Division. It remained with this famous formation until the battalion was disbanded in the reorganizations of February 1918. The battalion had its own history written by Wallace-Grain and there is also Wyrall’s divisional history; Hurst makes use of these two volumes and of Cruttwell’s, The Great War 1914-1918. However, as most of the detail comes from contemporary diaries and reminiscences by survivors, there are the common and obvious problems associated with recollections of distant times. Furthermore, the bibliography is a little strange. There are titles that you might expect to find in most accounts of the war, some of which seem to have a rather tenuous connection to the topic under consideration, but there are very few listed which have been published in the last ten years. The only real concession to what we might call ‘modern thought’ is Prior and Wilson’s Command on the Western Front. Consequently, some of the contextual sections are somewhat vague and unconvincing and rather too reliant on older ideas and explanations about the war. The book has apparently been in progress since the 1970s and has clearly been a labour of love but, well written as it is, some of the comments and explanations do appear dated.

The battalion’s experience in La Bassee sector is covered well and so, too, is the description of the impact on the battalion of a drumhead court martial. The bulk of the book is, however, like so many of the Pals volumes, taken up with the events of 1 July 1916. As part of the 29th Division, the battalion attacked towards Beamont Hamel and suffered on the exposed slopes from fire coming from the Redan and Hawthorn Ridge. Its casualties were very heavy and the battalion, which was already only a shadow of its original self, was shattered. The experiences of several of the wounded on their way down the line are well recorded and there is an attempt to describe the state of the unit when it was withdrawn to lick its wounds and rebuild. But, there is no real analysis of the composition of the pre and post-attack battalion and the later activities of the unit during the Battles of the Scarpe, Menin Road and Polygon Wood are covered only very sketchily. So, too, are the events of routine trench tours in the post-Somme period. Similarly, the account of the disbanding of the battalion, and what it meant for the surviving originals and the later arrivals, is very brief and unsatisfactory. The author is concerned more with the experiences of those few men for whom he has the primary evidence rather than attempting to link those remembrances to the battalion as a whole. Although the unit could not, of course, take part in the battles of 1918, there is no attempt to describe how the training during 1917 was adapted to accommodate the changing style and method of warfare developed as a consequence of the Somme fighting. Hurst does not shirk from pointing the finger of blame, for example, describing the Loos fatalities as ‘victims of Sir John French’s incompetence’ but there is frequently not enough dispassionate analysis of what actually happened for the book to be any better than the run-of-the-mill type of often emotive battalion history.

Hurst does pay considerable attention to the relationship the battalion had with its brigade. Unfortunately, this is all done from a false premise. The author explains how when he was writing the book one of the veterans phoned him to complain of Robert Graves’ condemnation of the ‘Public Schools Battalion’ during its attack on High Wood. Hurst investigated the accusations and, adopting some of Paul Fussell’s arguments about not taking Graves’ writing too seriously, believed that Graves’ attack on the ‘Public Schools Battalion’ was explained by the author’s two phobias about his own public school background. Hurst quite rightly points out that the 16th Middlesex was nowhere near High Wood at the time of the attack by 2nd RWF but has, of course, been confused by the Public Schools Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. He discovered the existence of the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st RF Battalions but believes that all except one of them had been converted to officer training units before they landed in France. This was true of the 19th and 21st and, indeed of the 18th after it had gone overseas, but from late 1915, the 20th Battalion served in the same brigade as Graves’ 2nd RWF and was the unit to which he was referring in Goodbye To All That. The whole essay on the alleged libel of the 16th Middlesex is therefore, because the author has failed fully to investigate the comings and goings of battalions and brigades, misguided and unnecessary.

Like most Pen & Sword books, the production is generally sound. The paper is of good quality, the photos well reproduced and the maps useful and relevant. There are the seemingly inevitable punctuation errors that should have been spotted by the proofreader or corrected by the typesetter (or whatever his counterpart in these PC days is actually called), and there are inconsistencies in some spellings and footnotes. There is the odd factual error, for example, the Hampshire Regiment was not ‘Royal’, the boundary between 3rd and 4th Armies on 1st July 1916 was not at Gommecourt, and I have not before seen the Battle of Coronel referred to as the Battle of Coramandel.

The book’s particular use comes in its 1915 descriptions of trench life in the area immediately north and south of La Bassee Canal. Historians have recently been paying this zone greater attention but usually in connection with its several battles rather than normal trench routine. The book offers another contribution to our understanding of the Pals phenomenon but, apart from publishing a few more personal papers and recollections, does not really advance the genre of battalion histories. This was probably not the author’s intent but if his main aim was to tell the story of one battalion, unfortunately he has related only part of it.

By Dr Bill Mitchinson, Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Printable version is downloadable here.

One response to “Book Review – The Public Schools Battalion in the Great War

  1. Pingback: Get your Book Reviewed! « Birmingham "On War"·

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