Thursday 15 August 2019

Book Review “Supplying the British Army in the First World War” Janet MacDonald (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019)

This is a remarkable and extremely important book.  I have read many books about WW1 over the years but this is the first time I have come across so much detail about the supplies and logistics involved that were vital to the success of the British and Allied armies involved in the conflict.

It is hard for those of us brought up with the Internet, satellite communication, mobile phones, apps, television and radio programes, global travel with roll-on roll-off ferry boats, jumbo jets and so on, to imagine what life was like in Europe in 1914 when none of those facilities existed. “Supplying the British Army in the First World War” is a real eye-opener and will definitely set you on the right track to a greater understanding of the problems encountered during the conflict.

The book highlights the problems involved in getting all manner of supplies to the British and Allied armies in the various theatres of The First World War - and what a headache that caused!   Information is clearly set out in two sections – I. The Western Front and II Beyond the Western Front.

The first section has 12 chapters dealing with Money, Control and Contracts; Supply Depots; Horses; Animal Transport; Mechanised Transport; Railways, Inland Water Transport and Docks; Munitions; Engineering; Food and Drink; Uniforms and Other Supplies; Medicine and Other Supply Activities.

Janet MacDonald’s painstaking and extensive research is truly amazing and there is so much detailed information in the book that it is extremely difficult to pick out just a few snippets for a review.  For instance, I never realised that horses were sent to Gallipoli or that supplies were transported separately to the transport of troops. It is incredible just how much building work had to be undertaken in France in order to unload, store and get all manner of supplies to the front lines.

Another thing I never thought much about was how getting private letters and parcels to the fighting troops was organised: “In the first week of October 1914 1,616 bags of letters, 8,249 registered letters and 8,249 parcels were sent to the Western Front.  Four years later, in the first week of October 1918, those numbers were 44,648 bags of letters, 118,121 registered letters and 479,667 parcels.  By the first week of April 1919 there were still 30,816 bags of letters, 36,268 registered letters and 202,951 parcels.” (p. 116)

Section Two has chapters on supplying Gallipoli, Salonika, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, East Africa, Italy and Russia - the other theatres of conflict during The First World War.  There is a section containing photographs, a Glossary, an Appendix with information about Weights and Measures, a Bibliography and a comprehensive index.

I would suggest that anyone studying WW1, as well as anyone with an interest in the conflict, really needs to read this book because, otherwise, it is impossible to understand the problems encountered by those in the front line.   If Janet MacDonald has not received an award for this book, to my mind, that should be put right at once.

"Supplying the British Army in the First World War” Janet MacDonald (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019). For further information please visit the Pen & Sword website

Lucy London, August 2019