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Crunchy

The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War: Engine of Destruction Colin Campbell

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Crunchy

The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War: Engine of Destruction. Colin Campbell, Pen & Sword, 2018

 

 

This book provides a very detailed narrative of the 51st (Highland) Division's experiences during the Great War, from the mobilisation of the territorial 1st/1st Highland Division, renamed the 51st (Highland) in May 1915, through to its disbandment in March 1919.  More accurately, it is the story of the division's constituent battalions and the soldiers who served in them, told in great detail, laced with liberal doses of first hand accounts, recounting its early failures and its development into a first class fighting formation that was respected by friend and foe alike.

 

In some ways this is a disappointing book. The detail of the battle narratives at battalion level often loses the thread of the overall action, as do the many of the lengthy first hand accounts that punctuate the narrative on almost every page. While the latter certainly provide a real sense of what the troops experienced, both in battle and during stints holding the line or out of it in 'rest' areas, they tend to be overdone, although some readers will relish this aspect of the book. What analysis that is attempted is shallow, cursory and parochial. Furthermore, the book could have been improved with a better structure of some of the chapters. For example, at times we are thrust into the action of an attack, without having a sense of what was to be achieved, until part way through the action, and at times in relating the actions of adjoining divisions the narrative can be confusing. Nor do the inadequate maps help explain the situation.  A good editor providing a second eye over the manuscript could have improved the book considerably, for there is a good story here and Campbell has assembled the necessary information.

 

Clearly Campbell is a proud Scot, and justifiably so, of the 51st Division, its achievements, and its men. It would seem, also, that he is quick to take offence at any perceived slight on the division or any questioning of the Scottish makeup of this fine formation. For example, in defending the divisional commander's report to a V Corps inquiry into the failure of one the battalions, Campbell denounces the Corps response as pompous, although in this reviewer's opinion it was reasonable, and then churlishly questions the veracity of the Corps comments. He takes umbrage at other authors' questioning aspects of the division's reputation and Scottishness, and goes to unnecessary lengths to prove otherwise, all of which detracts from the story being told.

 

Nonetheless, this is a heartfelt tribute to the men who fought with the division. In his own words the 'book was designed to be read both by those drawn to it by an ancestor's service in the 51st, and by those with a desire to learn more about the division, as well as appealing to a military historian's  interest in the issues revealed by the division's experiences.' He has certainly achieved the first two objectives.' In telling this story Campbell has provided a narrative that will appeal to those who wish to delve into the detail, and certainly Scottish readers whose ancestors served in the 51st. However, a first class study of this very fine division still awaits to be written.

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Steven Broomfield

Chris, this is a reprint of a relatively limited publication in 2013; Pen & Sword have added The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War to the original Engine of Destruction title. Apart from a new Introduction (welcome) and some nice colour pictures (very welcome), this production seems to be identical. I have recently written a brief review for Stand To! (not yet appeared). The RRP is £25.00.

 

I tend to agree with your assessment; indeed, this and Friends are Good on the Day of Battle (Craig French, Helion 2017) try too hard to defend/promote the division, its record, its Scottishness and its reputation. If I were to recommend one above the other I would go for Campbell if only because, like quite a lot of Helion's books, French's volume shows its academic paper background. 

 

It seems a shame that no-one has written an objective history of the 51st (or the 9th and 15th Divisions). A recent Helion publication, Those Bloody Kilts, attempted this and wasn't particularly successful, I'm afraid.

 

That blasted 'Most Feared' list has a lot to answer for ... if it ever existed.

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Crunchy

Hi Steven,

 

Nice to hear from you, and I trust you are in good fettle. Yes it is a reprint, and the watercolour paintings in it are quite delightful. Other than that I was quite disappointed in the book, and found myself starting to skip over what, after a while, was repetitious narrative of yet another battle. The division deserves a sound study, as do the 9th and 15th divisions, or perhaps one that looks at all three divisions.

 

Take care my friend and please say hello to Mrs Broomers from me.

 

Warmest regards

Chris

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Steven Broomfield
5 hours ago, Crunchy said:

Hi Steven,

 

 

Take care my friend and please say hello to Mrs Broomers from me.

 

Warmest regards

Chris

 

She's says Hello back.

 

You're right. I am afraid much of the recent printed matter on the 51st Division falls only a little short of hagiography but there's obviously a market.

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