A draft review of Mark Connelly’s new book for the Journal for Army Historical Research. Full disclosure – I count Mark as a friend, as well as esteeming him as a scholar. But this is a good book that you should read if you’re interested in the British army in the twentieth century.
We will all have in our minds an image of what we expect a regimental history to be like. Produced by approved authors to honour the dead and protect the guilty, they track long gone battalions in and out of battle, laying out simple narratives that perpetuate proud traditions. Squat, broad shouldered volumes, bound in deep red, green or brown, they were often written for and sold to the veterans who knew how to decipher the more obscure references. Even when they have spent their lives on the library shelf, these volumes retain the aroma of the second hand bookshop.
Mark Connelly’s book, whilst billed as a regimental history, is something rather different. Steady the Buffs uses a detailed study of four battalions (one regular, three New Army) of the East Kent Regiment to explore, illuminate and revise current historical understanding of the British Army on the Western Front. Connelly has plainly developed considerable pride in the regiment, but this does not overwhelm his critical faculties (although this might be suggested by the emotional Preface). Instead, this book makes a significant contribution to the history of the BEF by testing out more general theories against specific experience.
In chronologically and thematically organised chapters, Connelly examines the formation and make-up of the Buffs battalions, their adjustment to the particular tactical and technological conditions of the Western Front, the process by which they learned from their experiences in 1916, and the way these lessons were applied in 1917 and reached their apogee (at least in offence) in 1918. He also supplies an extremely useful set of statistics, both in his conclusion and appendices, detailing casualties, enlistment details and actions. These should be a model against which other scholars should find material for comparison.
Whilst the experience of each battalion varied, certain key points stand out. Contrary to a popular image of the First World War as one drawn out charnel house, the most intense combat was comparatively rare. Most battalions could have pointed to a small number of days of success or disaster: a point which itself raises interesting points for historians of learning and of unit commemoration. When things went wrong, as they did for 6th and 8th Buffs at Loos in 1915, modern weapons could inflict devastating casualties in a matter of minutes. The unfortunate 6th suffered again when they were thrown into a misconceived attack on Ovillers on 3 July 1916. Yet when they attacked again, precisely a month later, towards Mouquet Farm near Thiepval, better planning and preparation allowed them reasonable success. The battalion’s use of patrols and bombers on this occasion is just one example of the unit-level learning that took place on the Somme – indeed, for all the Buffs battalions Connelly examines, that long campaign stands out as the key moment for grasping the essential pre-requisites for tactical triumph on the Western Front. The speed of learning was sometimes remarkable – for example, between 15 and 25 September 1916 1st Buffs greatly improved their use of machine guns. Not all the factors required for victory were, of course, within the control of individual units. In some ways, therefore, the latter half of the war reads here as a struggle between battalion commanders and the vagaries of the tasks they were assigned, the artillery support they were allocated, the weapons and supplies available to them, and the weather, as well as the enemy.
Despite the losses they occasionally suffered, the Buffs succeeded in maintaining considerable continuity in approach and ethos, even when they had to deal with a large influx of raw recruits in 1918. Amongst the means by which this was achieved were the exchange of regular officers and the commissioning of NCOs between battalions. Connelly’s research bears out the idea that as the war went on, responsibility increasingly devolved to more junior commanders. They proved well able to use the growing range of technology available to them to solve the tactical impasse of early twentieth century warfare. Whilst the Buffs generally depended on decent artillery support to ensure tactical success, by the end of the war they were on occasion able to achieve local victories with their own weapons systems. The automatic firepower available to them by the end of the war was immense: the attack order for 1st Buffs on 8 October 1918 specified the use of fifty Lewis guns per company (a figure which caused me to check with the author, and which suggests that the companies can have carried little other equipment). A side effect of this tactical responsibility was that, although average daily casualties for Buffs Other Ranks reduced over the course of the war, those for junior officers increased.
Connelly’s writing is clear and precise. He does not hold back from condemning more senior officers and command structures when they were plainly at fault, but he is sensitive to the pressures afflicting battlefield commanders. The analysis he provides rescues him on those occasions when – almost inevitably – he risks falling into the syntax of the war diary. His ability to summarise not only the passage of the war, but a mass of secondary historical literature, is enormously impressive. Steady the Buffs is therefore accessible to a wide audience, including non-specialists, and I would feel happy using it with undergraduates as well as recommending it very strongly to all First World War, well, buffs.
If faults are to be found, they are generally in scope and format. Despite its sub-title, this is not really a book about the region of Kent during the Great War. Connelly’s focus is, quite rightly, on the battlefields of France and Flanders, rather than back in Britain. The reaction of Kentish society to the shock of the First World War, and whether this affected the experience and attitudes of the soldiers who fought in their county regiment, is not covered in depth. To include this would, however, have made this a different book, a much larger and perhaps less immediately useful one. A similar justification can be applied to the restriction to the Western Front. Even so, it would be good to see a regimental study that applied the ideas we have developed about the BEF to other Expeditionary Forces, and to those battalions which spent the world war at home.
A final criticism relates to a matter over which the author can have had little control and which must cause him no small irritation. For a hardback volume under three hundred pages, with good maps but with only seven, non-glossy, illustrations, a price of £55.00 is too high. Given the popular market surrounding the First World War, it is hard to understand. It would be a real shame if this price point restricted the dissemination of what is, by any measure, an excellent book.