Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The German Army at Cambrai', Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon (British Army, Retired) has done a lot to redress the balance of historical perspective on the events of the First World War. His command of the German language, combined with thirty five years of military service and an astute analytical mind, have allowed him to delve into the extant German military records of the time to offer the missing German perspective on the events of the time.

This account of the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 is comprehensive in its use of primary source documents ranging from personal accounts and letters to unit war diaries and official histories as it chronicles the battle. Gone is much of the 'mystique' of the battle as it might have been portrayed in our largely anglo-centric accounts. Now we have a superbly masterminded attack in which the British army shows its ability to employ new technologies to break the western front deadlock. We also see a superb effort by the German commanders to engineer a massive counter attack in a limited space of time as they struggle to muster the forces and logistical support to stabilise the front line and try to take back territory.

In the German post battle analyses we see the basis for the German spring offensives of 1918. We also see the lie to the claims of incompetence laid against the British High Command for in their counter attacks we see German troops too taking terrible casualties in their counter offensives.

Of particular interest are the descriptions of troops in the counter attack. There is in post combat accounts frequent reference to short and long tactical bounds, and the use of smoke screens, as both British and German troops go into the assault. These are not the pointless assaults of which popular literature is so full (perhaps best epitomised by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder as if this were a reputable historical source), infantry marching across no man's land shoulders hunched against machine gun bullets as if walking into a rain storm. Death favoured no side as dreadful casualties mounted for Britain and German alike.

Sheldon's account is refreshing, lacking as it does in jingoism and emotional bias, based as it is on clear evidence. In all of his books Sheldon adds balance to what has for decades been a one sided debate that has pandered to what we would want to believe.

No war is nice, no war is clean. In war, men and women die. Sheldon's accounts ensure that our views of the First World War are better informed than they have been.

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