ARMAGEDDON’S WALLS – British Pill Boxes 1914-1918. Review by Phil Hodges

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The parcel had barely hit the floor. When this book arrived such was the anticipation I couldn’t wait to devour it from cover to cover and that’s exactly what I did and even then I chewed on the bones, so to speak, when I’d finished it.

That’s the great thing about books written in this way. If like me you live a fairly hectic life you can pick and put down this book at will and whether you read a passage a chapter or half the book you don’t miss a thing.

So, how did it taste? Well, if Michelin gave books stars, I’d give it a glowing three.

It’s a huge passion of mine, concretion. Boring? Not at all. There isn’t a military buff among us who hasn’t wandered through the British countryside and stood and marvelled at a pill box or walked along at least part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall that ran for hundreds of miles across the coast of mainland Europe. We all like to explore the gun emplacements and dugouts used by armies in conflicts, be it in the Pacific battlefields or even on the training grounds where we live.

Geographically speaking, I’m very lucky where to live less than thirty miles from the French coast and near WW1 and WW2 RAF bases and a radar station. I’m seconds from the beach and minutes from the countryside. I can wake up and fall over WW2 defensive positions and the like, but what of other conflicts?

What of the WW1 battlefields that I visit so often in France and Belgium and the pillboxes there? Surely they’re French or German built, aren’t they? Well actually no. As the title of the book suggests, the British designed and built hundreds of machine-gun nests, pill boxes to give them their common title; up and down the entire Western Front during the First World War,  and damned fine we were at it too by all accounts. As the author explains the British were by no means the inventors of such concrete monsters, in fact we were relative newcomers to the game, but then being an island nation did we have to be?

We were, however, the eventual winners in the race and most nations by the end of WW1, be it the French, Belgian, American or German armies all followed our recipes.

The book is extremely well laid out, covering all the major sectors on the front from the Somme to Ypres. It is packed with photos, many in a then and now style format. The book is loaded with dozens of maps and original Royal Engineers drawings andsketches.  Mr Oldham clearly has hugeknowledge on the subject and obviously delights in sharing it with the reader rather than patronising them or over complicating the subject matter. He clearly describes the different types and methods of building British pill boxes in WW1 and goes some way to dispel the myths about them too! The term pill box wasn’t used until 1917 and very few actually had firing apertures!

However you look at these concrete shelters and observation posts you have to marvel at their construction and design. Often built in extreme conditions, sometimes even under fire, battling rainwater and the mud and shells. The sites chosen for these life saving oasis where of geographic and military importance on a lunar landscape which often meant they were miles away from the nearest road or railway line. It was a logistical nightmare. Just concrete and iron? I think not!

If you’re hungry for a new read this book is well worth the look.

Bon appetite!

Review by Phil Hodges for War History Online

ARMAGEDDON’S WALLS

British Pill Boxes 1914-1918

By Peter Oldham

Pen and Sword

ISBN: 978 178303 300 3