The Complete Guide to How the Armies Fought for Four Devastating Years, 1914-1918.
By Mark Adkin
Published by Aurum Press Ltd
ISBN: 978 1 84513 710 6

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

I was party to some debates on Facebook about the Great War. They were a bit of a hotchpotch – someone complaining that to wear a poppy is to revel in war. Another one was convinced that only being a direct relative of people to have fought in it gives the right of a valid opinion. War is hell, war is this and war is that. Lions and donkeys were escaping from a persistently bonkers menagerie. There was some notion that the TV comedy Blackadder serves as a window on the futility of the war. It doesn’t – unless you like your glass frosted. One thing I did learn in the army was Bullshit baffles brains.

I’m not going to propel myself into a typically Barnesian rant on the meaning of the Great War. I’ll stitch you up with slices of it in other reviews. This time round we’re here to look at this monster of a book by Mark Adkin. It is a book for the practicalities of the conflict – how things worked and what made the armies tick. .  I didn’t find any poetry but I did see Harry Patch.  It is like an old fashioned encyclopaedia, with all the style, assurance and warmth we used to get from books in the age before Wikiwotsit. It’s nice to see that some people are still trying to maintain that sense of depth and quality in print in these days when the mouse is mightier than the sword.

This huge project takes us right across the vista of the war on the Western Front. In fourteen chapters we get Why the World Went to War; A Western Front Timeline; The Western Front Armies; Commanders and Staff; Infantry and Their Weapons; Artillery; Cavalry, Engineers; Supply and Transport; Medical, Chaplains, Veterinary; Tanks; Aviation; Trench Warfare; Cambrai and an Epilogue.  Did the author miss anything out? I list these because I want to impress upon you the scale of the book. Why Cambrai? Simple, it is a battle which epitomises the huge growth in experience and technology to create a true all arms assault on the imposing Hindenburg Line.

What does the book do?

The author takes a serious look at all these aspects of fighting on the Western Front – you’re not numpties, you don’t need me to fill in the details of the all the chapters to see it is a comprehensive exercise… I would almost say exhaustive. Take one chapter – Artillery which we get to on page 222 out of 528. In this you get a bit of history of the Royal Artillery, a précis on the pleasures of being under German bombardment, an exposition on gun types and ammunition. We have a lesson in the application of artillery fire – trajectories etc – and plans of how a British 18 pounder battery worked in action. How about Factors Affecting the Firing of Shrapnel Shells or The Effect of High-explosive Shells with Varying Fuses on Different Targets? Have you a yearning for a diagram explaining Artillery Ammunition Supply for a Division during the years 1914-16?

Having explained the delights of the Stokes mortar the chapter progresses to a description of a famous artillery action – this time at Néry on 1st September, 1914. We get solid appraisals of all the effort to implement artillery warfare from planning to logistics, hardware and horses. There is reference to the mysteries of wire cutting. There are all manner of barrages – you might choose creeping barrages or piled up and standing or protective barrages and all that really noisy, scary stuff that actually did most of the killing during the conflict.  We have a table giving us the Fourth Army Programme of Preliminary Bombardment, 5 June 1916 on the Somme. How about an explanation of the Criss-Cross Barrage Supporting 2nd Middlesex at Blache-St-Vaast 7 October 1918? All this comes with maps, diagrams and photographs. You go away with a full appreciation of artillery and its impact on the fighting. This is one chapter.

What does the book achieve?

The book brings us vignettes of heroes and much more on the details and impedimenta of a war and the overall effect is at the point of crushing the reader with knowledge and quite separately; understanding. It seems to me that Mr Adkin has left no stone unturned to make this book. It brings it all home in a large format which might overwhelm, but hey! It wasn’t a trivial war. It wasn’t simple by anybody’s imagination, not even a sitcom writer, but it was big and it was clever. All this intelligence, the science and the progress, directed at the destruction of an enemy needs explaining. How they fought and lived provides you with a proper sense of what it was like and after that you can skip away into the land of the poets and other merchants to your hearts content.

This is a stunning book. The maps and diagrams are fantastic and as said, the feel of an old style encyclopaedia makes the whole thing so accessible. I’ll be honest I am not a great fan of the illustrations and would always favour photographs, but I can see how they work in the package as a whole. It is a genuine reference work with entertaining text you can use any time someone asks one of those flipping awkward questions where you need solid back up to get the right answer. Who knows? Your wireless router may be on the blink.

The internet is wonderful and I wouldn’t be here boring the sweet cheeks off you without it, but it can’t do this stuff. It belongs in books. This one isn’t cheap, with a cover price of sixty of your English pounds, but I’m sure you’ll find it for less out there on the ether. You will use it time and again. Add it to the masterful Great War photographic narrative I reviewed earlier and a volume like Dick Read’s Of Those We Loved and you will have the Western Front done and dusted. But please don’t stop there.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.