“Simon Peaple’s book on the 46th (North Midland) Division is a welcome addition to the historiography of the First World War,” writes Nigel Atter – reviewing the latest of our Wolverhampton Military Studies Series titles.
Simon completed his PhD at Birmingham University and is Head of History and Politics at Princethorpe College.
The book charts the progress of the 46th Division along the “learning curve” throughout the course of the Great War. The men arrived in France mostly without combat experience and with antiqued artillery. The Midland Territorials were inducted into the art of trench warfare by regular soldiers (although Henry Wilson noted their “lack of keenness”).
Of course, by holding trenches the Division was excluded from conducting offensive operations and thereby – as Peaple’s analysis explains – lagged behind the learning curve. Whilst the men are self-reliant, the NCOs are seen as “not very bright”. Montague Stuart-Wortley is described as “cynical” and “childishly peevish and inclined to whine”. However, these perceived impediments did not stop the Division from being competent at trench holding.
The greatest test of men is what they do whilst under fire and that task was soon to come with the assault on Honhenzollern Redoubt.
Montague Stuart-Wortley actively sought out learning for more experienced officers – those who had been in action at Loos. Peaple shows that the Divisional Commander sought out practical advice and – importantly – incorporated that knowledge where he could. Unfortunately for 46th Division, Maj-Gen Richard Haking insisted on a daylight frontal assault with inadequate artillery preparation.
After the assault Haig was highly critical of 46th Division’s troops. Montague Stuart-Wortley’s poor relations with Haig and Haking did not help. Haig did not want Stuart-Wortley and this is reflected in the Division’s posting to Egypt. They were recalled and came under the command of Lt-Gen Sir T D’O. Snow who Peaple’s states also hated Stuart-Wortley. (It would have been helpful to have had a reference for this claim).
46th Division’s well-advertised assault against the strongly-held German positions at Gommecourt on 1 July 1916 was a catastrophic failure. Stuart-Wortley was degummed as early as 3 July. 46th Division suffered the indignity of an inquiry into their performance. Peaple convincingly argues that Stuart-Wortley should not have been sacked as 46th Division’s performance was not worse than a number of other Divisions on that fateful day.
Under the tutelage of Maj-Gen William Thwaites 46th Division improved. Thwaites led the North Midlanders to their first successful assault against Hill 65. However, on 1 July 1917 controversy hit 46th Division again when Horne of First Army noted their “want of initiative and absence of push”.
Maj-Gen Boyd assumed command following 46th Division’s transfer to Fourth Army. Under Boyd, the Division assaulted the Hindenburg Line. With improved combined arms operations and one the largest artillery bombardments of the war to support the infantry – success was assured.
As Peaple’s clearly shows, 46th Division had travelled the learning curve and joined the ‘fast-lane’. Indeed 46th Division’s success reflects the progress of the British Army and the learning curve in practice. I agree with Peaple convincing analysis “that 46th Division could match the highest standards in the British Army of late 1918”. There is no doubt the men showed valour, bravery and courage and this was recognised with the award of numerous VCs, DCMs and MMs.
The production of the book is up to Helion’s very high standards. The quality of the paper and printing is excellent, together with eight superb maps drawn by Barbara Taylor.
I would recommend this book to scholars of the First World War. No doubt the general reader and the good people of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire will find much of interest.
Read: An introduction to the Wolverhampton Military Studies Series from Series Editor Professor Stephen Badsey