21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

Call To Arms..The British Army 1914-18


by Charles Messenger    ISBN 0-297-84695-7

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Books can be very much a personal thing, from the topic, to the way someone writes, to the small parts that make up the whole. Then there are books that stand alone solely because of the immense content and work that an author puts into it.

So when a book comes along that not only covers an area of the Great War that gets little analysis but is both readable and well researched it deserves a roaring mention. It comes as no surprise to know that the author spent five years in the preparation and writing of this work.

Charles Messenger has written such a book with his ‘Call to Arms’ which charts not the popular command and control or unit histories we see in more abundance than others but the much unappreciated aspects of Administration (A) that carry an army to war.

With its obvious remit it rightly tries to ignore in the main what the army did once on the battlefield, though occasionally it strays from the path into the two other military branches, those of Operations (G) and Logistics (Q). This subject of Administration has the potential of being the reading equivalent of eating cardboard but is however expertly done and at the end I was left feeling I had read far more than the five hundred pages within.

We are taken on a journey through the deployment of the regulars and the reserves, to the anguish of the territorial associations as they were virtually superseded by the New Army units and then finally as all three were supplemented by conscription.

This raising of new army units is followed logically to the study of officer selection as the army struggled to rebuild after the casualties of 1914 and the obvious void of turning what in effect was a Colonial Police Force into a Major European Army. How this was done, the pool it drew from and the schools and battalions that aided this, sometimes greatly and sometimes badly, are also covered. Logically the book then steps forward to Camberley and other training schools for the staff officer and how this critical area was developed and expanded during the war.

This enlargement of the army was also accompanied by new concepts of warfare and ways of training the troops, the new units, technological and tactical innovations are analysed with a good section covering the use and raising of units such as , Cyclist units, Machine Gun Corps, Tanks, Mortars, Gas and the rise of Bombing units. The schools raised to promote these new areas of warfare coupled with how commanders were reluctant to send their best men to join these new units is also given a mention. The use of tunnelling is also discussed, its recruitment, formation and the impact they were to have particularly on the western front.

With the rush of initial recruitment many skilled and semi skilled workers volunteered and the nation was stripped of the essential labour required to keep an army at war for four years. As an example we see that such as Army Agricultural Companies helped out at harvest time. In other theatres of war local labour was used to help and release men to other duties, however with France and Belgium requiring all its men, local labour was far harder to come by and Chinese men came in force to help, there was even some fifteen thousand Egyptians who spent time on the Western Front, though as we see, even this could not help with the manpower shortages of 1918 and the part it played in the near crushing defeats of March and April.

If you have an opinion, and most do on S.A.D., then the chapter dealing with Welfare and Moral, an important yet vastly uncovered area in print, is covered and the issues of discipline are explored. Shell shock affected the fabric of the army so greatly as it struggled to come to terms with a condition it seemed to feel it could not accept. In some instances resulting in Shot at Dawn problems and this is also discussed. Countering this the book also deals with honours and rewards, showing not just the way it went to war but how it managed to stay there and how the men were acknowledged for the efforts and bravery shown.

The use of medical personnel, the adhoc civilian nursing units raised by some female volunteers and then the eventual use of as the title says, ‘Women in Khaki‘, charts the progress as the whole ethos of Edwardian society changed to adapt to the industrialised war, as more and more females were recruited into helping at home and abroad, in medical, army and civilian uses.

All of these chapters are adequately backed up with accounts of veterans who were involved, some of these, sparingly used so as not to pad out the text, add a refreshing difference in there content to the normal narrative of the front line usually covered in first hand accounts so often seen, ala Lyn Macdonald or Max Arthur.

You get it all, the struggle and rivalry of the differing opinions and camps as fledgling units try to survive. The clash of society with the need of the country. The Politicians trying to provide the ways and means. The Generals attempting to administer an army they had never envisaged the size of and yet through all this the book does not seek to court controversy, but to chart the progress and quiet simply to be a book to read and then pick up every so often when you need to dip into it to find an answer to a question. The clearly defined lay out and chapter headings make this an ease and means that the pages will I am sure become well thumbed.

All of this is supported by an appendix that holds sections such as Army acronyms of over 14 pages, which begs the question who invented the use of buzz words we use in today’s society. Medical categories show how the men were defined. There is also a section on infantry units and a short descriptions of their role, like ‘Young soldiers battalions’ or ‘Supernumery Companies TF’. Then there is the usual bibliography and text source so critical to any work, and as you would expect the index rounding it all off.

At the books conclusion I was left with a better understanding why things happened as they did. I have always been amazed at what the army achieved in four years in the field, now I realise that it was as much a learning curve for those who administrated the structure of the men it sent. Truly it was an army built as it went, though not necessarily from the ground up.

This book is a must in hardback and a steal at its face price of £30 (around £20 on Amazon) but with the recent paperback release it should now join the ranks as an even more affordable book to adorn the shelves as a reference of immense depth.

If this is already in your pile to read, then move it to the top, If you do not own it then get yourself a copy and put it at the top.