Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Book Review: The Forgotten Front 1914-18 by Ross Anderson

I was kindly sent The Forgotten Front by Dave from a giveaway at One Man and his Brushes and it is probably not one that I'd have read otherwise. WWI isn't a period that I game and the East African campaign is something that I would have confessed to knowing little about. Well, I'm much better informed having read this thorough history.

The book starts with a strategic overview of the relevance of the campaign, touching on some of the key political aspects, logistical matters, the main forces at the start of the campaign and their equipment. This is succinct, interesting and useful. It then ploughs straight into a campaign-by-campaign narrative, which is understandably the bulk of the book.

The text is well written and easy to read, especially considering that this is quite a heavy and detailed history, though there is fair use of acronyms. Aiming to be the first full history of the conflict, the campaigns are covered in depth, but definitely have a strategic focus. This is not a book that gives much insight into the engagements themselves, which is done so well in books such as Michael Asher's Khartoum. This is understandable due to the length of the campaign and as few of the engagements seem to stand out as worthy of such treatment. So it doesn't provide much of a tactical view of any engagements that can be so inspiring and proved such food for designing scenarios.

The effect of political changes on the conduct of the campaign both in terms of pressure ob the commanders and logistical support are well covered for the British, though less so for the German, Belgian and Portuguese. The book contains plenty of analysis and seems to present a relatively balanced view of the British and German sides, which is refreshing. The author clearly has a high opinion of the Schutztruppe and their commander, Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck. The terrain and climate presented numerous challenges to all sides and this is well emphasised. In fact, the issues caused by disease, rough terrain, lack of infrastructure, logistical difficulties, the tsetse fly and ravages of the rainy season become almost a mantra, as the are repeated so many times throughout. But these doubtless had a massive impact on the results of the campaign and of course heaped miseries on the participants.

Schutztruppe C-in-C Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck at a parade in Berlin, 1919. Image credit

Curiously, the conclusions and epilogue that end the text are tiny in comparison to the detailed account of the campaigns - just five pages in total from 300. This gives the impression the end is rushed and it just reiterates many of the points previously made. I'd have appreciated more thorough closing thoughts, perhaps drawing out  impact in the immediate aftermath and into the post-colonial period. The book ends with 50 pages of bibliography, notes and an index that one may find useful. This is testament to the thorough research that has clearly gone into the book and would of course be very useful to those with a more serious or academic interest.

As you may have gathered from previous reviews, I like maps and pictures. Well, The Forgotten Front is well-served on the latter, with a centre section of 16 pages of black and white photographs covering key protagonists, units and small engagements. I'd have preferred these spread through the book in two or three sections rather than coming across them all in one go, but they are welcome and very useful, nonetheless. Despite being black and white, they give a good idea of the uniforms of the various contingents as well as the terrain, both of which would be very useful for the wargamer.

Lt Gen J L van Deventer (centre), General Officer Commanding Imperial Forces, 1917-1918. Image credit

There are quite a few maps scattered throughout the book too. However, these are quite small, sometimes just half a page, black and white and don't have particularly strong design or definition. I struggled at times to decipher the maps and match the movements of the forces shown with the narrative, I'm not entirely convinced they were placed in the right points in the text. Also the place names that are used in the text often aren't used on the maps. Some knowledge of the region or other reference material would come in useful. It is likely that the problem stems from the size of the area of operations over the campaigns. I think some higher quality, full page maps in colour would have been good.

An example of one of the maps

For a wargamer, the book certainly provides plenty of material and would definitely be useful if you wanted to campaign it. I can't imagine there is much more material available in print - the author's foreword touches on this and provides some further reading. I imagine gaming the campaigns in East Africa would be quite interesting, similar to Darkest Africa but with more technologically balanced forces as well as more scope to use artillery, mortars, light machineguns and aerial assets on the table. Certainly different to the trench warfare of the Western Front and the East African campaign would also have the distinct benefit of having considerably smaller forces! Two Fat Lardies' Through the Mud and the Blood would be an ideal ruleset.

Despite the niggles, I did think the book is a very worthy read of an otherwise neglected campaign and I'm very glad that I got the opportunity to read it as we enter the centenary period.

The book will soon be winging its way to that devil Mr Rousell - enjoy!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Must learn spelling one of these days... second try with the comment

    Thanks for the review, very useful.
    I actually started playing WWI with an eye on the obscure African Front although I switched after a short period into Europe.I even bought the book, but it was quicly buried within my pile of pending reading materials,
    Time now to start an archeological excavation and recovering this lost treasure?

  3. I'm really interested in the Great War in North Africa.... there are loads of great scenarios that can be put together and it's one of those theatres of war that wasn't bogged down in any steadfast trench warfare. interesting troop types too.



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