Book Review – British Army Handbook, 1914-1918

Andrew Rawson, British Army Handbook, 1914-1918. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006. 376 pp. £25

Considering the high level of both popular and academic interest in the First World War, it is perhaps surprising that there has been relatively little effort to compile an up-to-date and comprehensive font of information on the British Army of 1914-18. It is pleasing to announce, therefore, that Andrew Rawson’s British Army Handbook is that font of information.

The British Army Handbook provides a logical and coherent explanation of why, when and how the British Army conducted operations during the First World War. The account is split into thirteen helpful chapters: Background; Mobilization and Training; the Higher Direction of the War; Army, Corps and Regiments; the Arms; the Services; Divisional Organisation and History; the Soldier; Weapons; Tactics; Mapping; Behind the Lines; and Legacy. It contains a wealth of detailed information, timelines, diagrams and maps that readers will find most useful. It will certainly help to answer those small, niggling and, in many cases, difficult to solve, questions about the muzzle velocity of a Webley revolver, the daily ration of a British ‘tommy’, and the staffing structure of a division.

Of particular importance is Chapter 3, which deals with the ‘Higher Direction of the War’, an extremely useful piece on how the British Army was organised and administered. Although popular perceptions of how the army worked are dominated by the actions of a handful of senior commanders, Rawson’s work shows how large and complex an organisation the British Expeditionary Force was by 1918.  As well as providing important clarification on the roles and responsibilities of many of the key positions at GHQ, Army and Corps, from the Major-General General Staff to the Chief Engineer, Rawson provides details on the plethora of other, oft-forgotten, positions such as the Director of Army Postal Services and the Director of Docks. The British Army was not simply run by Field-Marshal Sir John French or Sir Douglas Haig, but by thousands of civilians and soldiers.

One of the most interesting chapters concerns the issue of mapping, which has often been neglected in studies of operations on the Western Front. As Rawson notes, when the BEF went to war in August 1914 it left behind its three survey sections and relied on French maps, which were quickly found wanting. In the new scientific warfare of the Western Front, in which the ability to place shellfire on small targets, often out-of-sight, was absolutely central to the success of operations, new and more detailed maps were urgently required. By the end of the war over 34 million maps had been produced on the Western Front by a small army of surveyors, which provided both artillery and infantry units with accurate and up-to-date information on topographical features, trenches and possible enemy defences.

The British Army Handbook does not offer any radical or ground-breaking new interpretations of the British Army of the First World War, but it is an important source of factual information on a range of topics. However, it does contain some disappointing, although understandable, omissions. The Western Front dominates the British Army Handbook. Although the fighting in France and Flanders undoubtedly consumed the greater part of the British Army’s endeavours during the First World War, the heavy fighting in other parts of the world, from northern Italy, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia to eastern Africa, merits relatively little attention. There is also little on the controversial issue of casualties. Rawson summarises the main totals of killed and wounded, but it would have been helpful to have discussed the figures at greater length. Nevertheless, these are only minor points and do not undermine the value of this work. The British Army Handbook will undoubtedly find a very welcome home in the collections of occasional and serious students of the First World War.

By Dr Nick Lloyd, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

A printable version of this review can be downloaded here.

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