Posted 22 February 2012 - 08:37 pm
There are now very many Battalion histories of the British Army during the Great War. As might be expected, they begin to tell a story which is in many ways very similar: we have the description of a city or area seemingly basking in Edwardian peace, but perhaps troubled by some civic and social unrest; we have the outbreak of war, and the mass volunteers who the answer "The Call", and the return of Boer War veterans to the colours. The territorial summer camp is interrupted by mobilisation, and city councils and civic movements equip their battalions of volunteers with comforts, billets and territory for camp. We have the training of a citizen army, as white-collar volunteers are turned into Great War soldiers. Then there's the inevitable transfer to France, the march through cheering French civilians, the introduction to the grim conditions of the trenches. Then comes the sequence of names: Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai, this Spring Offensive, perhaps even these days Advance to Victory. Then the return, presentation of colours to the cathedral, and perhaps as the years go by, the bowler-hatted and cloth-capped veterans return to the battlefields in the years between the two world wars. The final pages perhaps outline memorials that stand proudly in some corner of a British city or town.
Every now and again a book comes out which reminds you why you are fascinated by the Great War, and why the story of the war and its effect on our country still, after a century, has a power to move and evoke deep feelings. Dean Marks’ excellent one volume history of the 12th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment from 1914 to 1918 is a book which evokes those very same feelings. It is, and I make no apologies repeating the phrase later on, a labour of love. It is a very handsome volume with an outstanding picture of a proud recruit against the backdrop of the Clifton suspension Bridge placing us very securely in time and place. Those with a particular affinity for the Gloucestershire Regiment will be delighted to see that this handsome front cover is matched by a "back badge" on the rear of the cover - an unnecessary but delightful touch.
Turning to the content of the volume, I have to declare a slight bias: my great-grandfather, whose service triggered my own interest in the Great War, served with the 14th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment who spent some time brigaded with the 12th Gloucesters, and served alongside them for most of the Great War in the 5th Division. The author has integrated a variety of sources, and these result in a lavishly illustrated volume that draws on photographs, poetry, advertisements from the Bristol press and an impressive range of portraits and postcards. A unique perspective is offered by the battalion’s first camp just outside Bristol, on the site of the Bristol International Exhibition Centre, which was still being used in August 1914, and was cleared use by the Battalion as a rather novel headquarters during the initial stages of their training. I particularly enjoyed the photographs of the Battalion still in civilian clothes marching through the Somerset countryside.
The author gives a thorough treatment of recruitment and training, but it is with a grim inevitability that the scene moves to France, and the first entry into the trenches at Maricourt. The Battalion, along with so many, are truly bloodied in action during the Somme, most specifically fighting a major action on the 29th – 30th July 1916 at Longueval, immediately west of Delville wood, and subsequent actions on 3 September 1916 in Guillemont (the reviewers great-grandfather was killed by shellfire during the preparation for the attack on Falfemont Farm described in this book). One of the more moving quotations from the book is by the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 14th Royal Warwickshire to his opposite number of the 12th Gloucesters who describes their attack "no troops could have carried through such a difficult attack with more dash, or indifference of consequences". Perhaps the most chilling description is of the fighting by the Battalion in May 1917 at Fresnoy, particularly the account by Cpl Harry Civil, firing 15 drums of Lewis gun ammunition point-blank at 50 yards into the advancing Germans and escaping with his life. After a brief but bloody encounter with Ypres during the Passchendaele offensive, the 5th Division moved to Italy for a brief respite to support the Italian armies. The 12th conclude their service fighting in the Spring Offensive back on the Western Front, and their fate is something of an anti-climax to the history of a fine Battalion.
Dean Marks has done them proud. There is an excellent chapter of vignettes, full portraits of more significant members of the Battalion; there is a touching account of the erection of the Memorial Cross at Longueval; full rolls of both officers and enlisted men, and of decorations won by the Battalion. Perhaps Dean's finest achievement is to give voice to veterans who he got no personally during the 25 years it took him to write this book. Their voices come through clear and true, and the reader almost feels like he's acquainted with them personally after reading this book. Criticisms are possible, but these are really limited to a bit of a weakness in proofreading, which would have had to have been considerably more severe for me not to enjoy this book a great deal.
This is a very important contribution to the history of the city of Bristol, a very necessary recruit to the ranks of Battalion histories of the British Army in the Great War, and above all a testament to a lifelong interest and commitment to the memory of some brave and very human young men who fought almost a century ago. A labour of love. Recommended.