‘With the Tanks 1916-1918’ by W.H.L Watson
Published by Pen & Sword
Reviewed by Steve Earles
One of the side-effects of the centenary of the Great War is the proliferation of superb books on the war’s history. Some of these books are new, and others are much-desired reprints of books written after the war by the men who were there. There are some superb books from the period still out of print, ‘Tattered Banners’ by Paul Rodzianko for instance, something I’d love to see an innovative publishing hose rectify.
‘With the Tanks’ is just such a book, part of Pen & Sword’s fine ‘Eyewitnesses from TheGreat War’ series. William Watson was youthful Oxford post-graduate when the First World War broke out in 1914. Like so many, he enlisted with his friends, probably almost in a hurry, expecting the war would be over well before Christmas. He had no way of seeing what the war would become, years of the bloody stalemate of trench warfare and massive death and suffering for all involved. Yet, ironically, William’s war would be a rare one of mobility. He began his service as a British Army motorcycle despatch rider, seeing active service through the key battles of 1914 and 1915 (remember, this was a hundred years ago, communications were primitive, and despatch riders were of paramount importance). He was then commissioned and became a tank commander. He saw active service with the tanks, including the famous Battle of Cambrai. It’s worth noting that Winston Churchill believed that the tank was the weapon that would end the Great War but his conviction was not shared by the majority of British generals and so the carnage of trench warfare continued. This was a mistake the German Army would not make in World War 2 where it used tanks to devastating effect.
As an aside, there is a marvellous depiction of the Battle of Cambrai in Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s timeless series of graphic novels, Charley’s War. Reading this book and looking at the superb photographs, I can really appreciate how well Pat and Joe captured the battle in Charley’s War.
A lot of reprinted memoirs are hard work to read, the writing can be very dry as, understandably the authors were soldiers not professional writers. But William Watson is a fine writer so the book works on two levels. It has a myriad of detail for the military enthusiast but is a fine story in its own right. William was a humane man. At the war’s end he writes on seeing a group of prisoners that he ‘could have cried for the pity of it.’ His affection for his men is obvious and one senses his regret as the book ends when he returns to the monotony of civilian life.
Pen & Sword have done a beautiful job with this reissue. The illustrations are superb. I cannot understand why there have not been more films, TV drama, or documentaries about Cambrai. There is a fine introduction from Emmy Award winning film maker Bob Carruthers (a man who could surely do justice to his subject if were he to make a film about Cambrai). I’ll leave the final words to Bob: ‘A vivid writer, Watson documents the awful conditions which prevailed inside the tanks, and encapsulates the sense of extreme discomfort caused by heat, petrol fumes, noise, flying splinters of metal and captures the frequent sense of confusion which was endured by these early tank men on the battlefield.’