THE OLD WEST COUNTRY REGIMENTS
From Plassey to the Somme (11th, 39th & 54th)
By Jeremy Archer
Published Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 84884 512 1
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
The Somme battlefield is a place close to my heart filled with abiding memories of great trips with my family and friends. I’d been reading about it for years before I could visit, but when I finally got there one of the important stop offs was Devonshire Trench. I can see myself there now on a nondescript grey day much like the one when I’m writing this – not much traffic on the Albert-Peronne road and a tractor grinding by noisily towing something important to somebody. The view up on to the ridge where the Brits were heading on the 1st of July is clear and the old cemetery where the Germans had their machine gun is so close it seems such a silly distance away and yet it proved disastrous. The place has that sort of allure that brings people out to battlefields – the back story of the faithful officer worried how his men will survive the attack; the war poet writing those final lines and then the attack itself. The cemetery at Mansel Copse is full of Devons. The old wooden sign telling us “The Devonshires held this Trench. The Devonshires hold it still” has long since been replaced by a permanent stone copy. The place is on all the guided coach party stops. They come to see the graves of Captain Martin and the poet William Noel Hodgson. One time my gang drove right up onto the ridge behind the cemetery and had a picnic up there looking across that part of the battlefield. It was a classic day, never to be forgotten.
Pen & Sword sent me this book a while ago and while I’ve taken a bit of time getting to it I was surprised to see it was actually out a year or so back, but there is no sense in ignoring what is a beautiful piece of work. One of the PR folks told me they aren’t particularly bothered how long it takes to get some of their books reviewed. That’s good because I hope they will be happy with what I have to say. The author reminds us this is not an official history, but it is clearly a labour of love. It follows the lives of personalities of the regiments, the great and the good across several centuries of soldiering, hardship and conflict. The research, and therefore the detail, is immense. The illustrations are beautiful and the writing is sublime. But, it is important to stress that the flow of the book is all carefully themed. It fits together from the age of redcoats to the Great War; but the book quite correctly finds the power to bring some of the history up to date in the modern era of the Devonshire and Dorsetshire Regiment’s amalgamation into The Rifles. The British Army is shrinking before our eyes and these days old soldiers don’t just fade away, they stand up and heckle defence ministers about it and bloody good job! Books like this maintain the spirit and love of the regimental family that passes down through a collective history and survives amalgamations. The Devons and the Dorsets came together in 1958, the year before I was born, it must have been a painful experience – but at least they survived in name for a considerable period.
There are some wonderful characters in this book – so many in fact, I’ll be honest and say I have more to read. It has over five hundred large format pages of text and illustrations to absorb and this is another of those gems you can pick up and enjoy as individual chapters on rainy afternoons or when there’s nothing on the telly – but it isn’t a commuter book you can stick in your bag, it weighs a ton! It is literally a solid piece of work.
I wish every regiment of the British Army had a book like this one. In my dream library I’d have the lot of and they would be used and loved. Make no mistake, this one is for keeps. Jeremy Archer is a veteran of the Devon and Dorsets, he knows it and it shows. He has produced a thing of beauty. If you’re thinking of producing something similar you need to check this one out, because it sets a very high standard – like the old regiments themselves.