Annual Booklist 2018-2019 : Lt. Col. Geoffrey Vesey Holt MBE

Geoffrey was educated at the Lycée Français de Londres and is a graduate of Durham University with a BA (Hons) Upper 2:1 Class in Modern History. He was commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) in 1974. He served in 1 RTR during the Cold War in Germany as an armoured reconnaissance troop leader, Regimental Signals Officer and as an Armoured (Chieftain) Squadron Leader and Squadron Second in Command. He was also an instructor at the Royal Armoured Corps Signals School and a Mechanised Infantry Brigade Operations Officer. He is a graduate of the French Army Staff College. Since 1990 he has specialised in the Weapons Acquisition Stream and, not surprisingly, the acquisition of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs). Somewhat to his surprise he has been part of three successful (albeit that one was only a successful if you were German or Dutch) major AFV programmes. The first was the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank (MBT), the current in service MBT. He served during this programme as a Staff Officer Grade 2 (SO2) at the Armoured Trials and Development Unit where he took part in the Challenger 2 Trials and SO2 Challenger 2 at HQ Director Royal Armoured Corps. He was awarded the MBE for his effort in the later appointment. The second was the multi national Manager Multi Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) programme; he served as the UK trials and subsequently technical and trials manager. His last appointment was as SO1 Fighting System at the Defence Scientific and Technical Laboratories (dstl) where his major task was to support to the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) programme. This convoluted programme eventually resulted in a development contract just after he retired in 2010. He currently working on the preparations for the RTR’s commemorations of the 100th anniversary of World War 1 (the first tanks were used in 1916 and first tank to tank action was in 1918); writing two volumes of the history of the Tank Corps covering 1918; running pro bono battlefield tours and giving lectures; improving his French and walking hills in the Sussex Weald and other places.

Inevitably the 1918 commemorations and my slow writing of two volumes on the Tank Corps in 1918 affect my choices. One of the problems of such books is that they have to address the strategic and operational level as well as the tactical because tanks took part in many of the key battles of the British Army in 1918. One of my standbys is Cyril Fall’s The First World War, (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2014 – first published in 1960). Cyril Falls served in the First World War; was the military correspondent for The Times 1939-53 and Chichele Professor of Military History at All Souls College, Oxford from 1946 to 1953. His book is clear, concise and sensible. He provides an enjoyable overview with a grasp of the detail that you would expect from the author of several of the best British official histories.

One of the other major problems of the Tank Corps in 1918 was the failure to keep Tank Corps units up to strength and to equip six medium tank battalions (only two were equipped) in 1918. The problem was so serious that the only way that 301st US Tank Battalion was fully equipped in September 1918 was by taking on 2 September 10th Tank Battalion’s 11 remaining Mark V tanks (it had 36 on 7 August). It took until 11 October to bring 10th Tank Battalion’s tank strength back to 22 and that was only achieved by taking 12 tanks from 4th Tank Battalion which did take part in any further actions until the end of the war. The search for an explanation, an extremely difficult one to unravel due the number of different committees and documents, led me back to John Glanfield’s invaluable The Devils’ Chariots – The Birth and Secret Battles of the First Tanks, (Sutton: Thrupp, 2011). This book is an admirably clear and well researched history of the successes (e.g. the concept, design and procurement of the first tank, Mother) and failures (e.g. the failure to build enough Mark V tanks in 1918 and the procurement fiasco of the Medium tank) of British tank procurement in 1918.

As “relaxation” from the First World War I run battlefield tours on other subjects. This year I took a group of friends to continue our travels with Wellington in the Peninsular and we looked at the Battle of Vitoria. As always I turned to Fortescue then, for the critical context, to Charles Oman’s A History of the Peninsular War Volume VI September 1, 1812 – August 5, 1813, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922 and available for free on the internet). As always Oman provides the key information including maps and orders of battle with precision and panache. The ground, plans and battle are presented with great clarity. His analysis of the failing of French planning and command are particularly useful. His descriptions of combat are clear and with a well chosen level of detail; for example his description of Wellington’s decision to exploit the undefended bridge at Tres Puentes, Kemp’s capture and exploitation with his Light Division brigade moving towards it “in by threes at a rapid pace along a very uneven and circuitous path” to seize a small hill in the middle of the French lines.

That “coup d’œil” can also be seen in Montrose’s campaign in Scotland, an extraordinary if ultimately futile set of victories. David Stephenson’s Highland Warrrior – Alasdair Maccola and the Civil Wars, (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2003) makes best use of the limited primary sources to write not only the first full biography of Alasdair Maccola but also a history of this tumultuous period of British history as well as taking one through some of the beautifully countryside in the world. Alasdair Maccola, otherwise known as Alistair MacDonald, commanded the key Irish contingent in Montrose’s army.

Finally I will return to 1918. Jonathan Boff’s, Winning and Losing on the Western Front – The British Third Army and the Defeat of the Germany in 1918, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) is a masterly and concise study of an often neglected, unlike Fourth Army, key army and its German opponents which has wider implications. Amongst his conclusions, supported by German and British data, is that “the British Army’s ability to adapt to the war it was fighting was less than perfect. It was however, greater than that of its opponent.” His book is thematic and deserves to be complemented by a chronological study of the BEF in Picardy from 21 August to 2 September (another biography of Byng, Third Army’s commander, would also be a good idea). This book would cover mainly Third Army’s battles but also the Canadian Corps’ successful but gruelling advance from Arras to, and through, the Drocourt – Quéant Line, a crucial precursor to the second breaching of the Hindenburg Line later in the month.