Death of a Division – Eight Days in March and the Untold Story of the 66th Division

Author: David E. Martin

Publisher: Pen & Sword (Frontline Books), 236 pages, 24 Photographs, 12 maps

Published: May 2018

Price: £19.99

ISBN: 9781473844728

The publishers blurb … The war had dragged on towards its fourth year. There seemed little prospect of any immediate end to the ceaseless slaughter. Field Marshal Haig saw the war as a continual battle of attrition until the Germans were finally battered into submission. In Germany the economic blockade that had been imposed upon it, enforced by the Royal Navy, was slowly strangling the country. The Kaiser and his generals knew that the longer the war dragged on the greater was the prospect of an Allied victory. At 09.35 hours on Thursday, 21 March 1918, one million German soldiers left their trenches to attack the British Expeditionary Force along a front of nearly fifty miles. It was Germany s last major effort to win the war, and it very nearly succeeded. Facing the onslaught from more than forty German divisions stood just a dozen British divisions. Though overwhelmed and compelled to retreat, the British fought a tenacious rear-guard action which hampered the German attack, allowing other BEF and Allied units to take up new defensive positions. During the retreat three British divisions bore the brunt of the fighting, suffering crippling casualties. One of those was the 66th (East Lancashire) Division which lost more than 7,000 men. Effectively destroyed, the division had to be withdrawn from the line to be rebuilt. The loss of so many men had a devastating effect on the lives and economy of cotton-manufacturing towns of East Lancashire. Illuminated with the dramatic recollections of those Lancashire lads who survived the disaster, _Death of a Division_ is one of the most stirring stories of the First World War.

REVIEW: Written by David Martin, who has an MA in Heritage Studies specialising in battlefield interpretation, museums and memorials, this book is a culmination of meticulous research on one of the lessor written about divisions of the British Army. His previous book on the 58th Division is another example, and welcome to my book shelf of 1914-18 divisions. Published in 2018, Death of a Division is timely for the Great War centenary, one of many books that have been published these last few years.

The book itself is well researched, which is needed for division’s like the 66th (2/1st East Lancashire) Division which have previously received little attention. The 66th was raised from the mill towns of Lancashire later in the war, and did not go overseas until 1917 when it became involved in the closing stages of the Third Battle of Ypres. Interestingly the Passchendaele church has a memorial window to this division, a place chosen to commemorate the time they spent in mud-filled and waterlogged ground between November 1917 and January 1918. The story Martin tells is not that of the Third Battle of Ypres, but of the divisions exploits in March 1918. After Passcendalele the division was repositioned in what was thought a quiet area of the line, which changed during the early morning of 23 March when the German Spring Offensive was launched.  This action saw the 66th reduced to a cadre following its enormous losses during the battle. It took eight days to stop the German steamroller. The confused and tough fighting the 66th were exposed to is well described from a wide variety of sources, something to credit the author for. Any divisional history is not going to mention all its units in any great detail, or contain numerous first-hand accounts, but what has been included is well-balanced and easy to follow. In summary I did enjoy the book, a work that tells the eight days in March 1918 that destroyed a division. Whilst the 66th did not cease to exist, and like others were reconstituted as a fighting formation later in the war, it does highlight the enormous losses in 1918 that people often forget. To support the detailed and well researched text the maps and photos are also very good. For anyone interested in the 1918 fighting, in particular the Spring offensive, or the contribution of those East Lancashire men, this book is a must buy.

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