Nearly a century on, the operational performance of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front during the First World War is still a hotly debated subject. The dominant perception is one of a conflict characterised by mud, trenches and futility, presided over by incompetent commanders. But over the last thirty years a different view has emerged and gained increasing prominence. Many historians have argued that the BEF deserves more credit for the wartime learning curve it underwent in evolving from a small professional force into a mass citizen army, which helped it to end the war victorious. The BEF has become the subject of ever more detailed research, as historians have sought to investigate all aspects of its operational practice.
This book enters into this debate by taking a detailed look at a single infantry division, one of the BEF's vital constituent parts. It focuses on the 56th (London) Division, a first-line Territorial division that served continuously on the Western Front between February 1916 and November 1918. By focusing on and comparing three key battles in the Division's service - the Battle of Gommecourt on 1 July 1916, the Battle of Arras on 9 April 1917 and the Battle of Albert on 23 August 1918 - this study provides detailed insight into 56th Division's tactical development. It suggests that by the last year of the war, 56th Division had developed sophisticated offensive tactics borne out of years of hard-fought experience.
This study utilises a range of archival sources, including the official documents of war diaries, operational orders and battle reports. But it also references the private papers of the officers and men who served in 56th Division, gaining the insight of individuals who witnessed and took part in these events at first hand. The voices that emerge from these sources are a testament to the dedication of many of the men who served with the Division and who helped it to develop increasingly effective fighting methods, as was also the case with the BEF as a whole. The 56th (London) Division therefore deserves to be remembered for its contribution to a painful, but ultimately victorious war effort.
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