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The Catastrophe of 8 August 1918

A few years ago, I co-edited this translation of the 1930 German official monograph on the first day of the battle of Amiens, Die Katastrophe des 8. August 1918. My role was to fine tune the translation and to write the editor’s introduction, which you can find here.

The book was sponsored by the Australian Army History Unit and published by Big Sky Publishing as part of the Australian Army History Collection. The Australian Army pays great attention to its history, and its interest in this book comes of course from the Australian Corps’ major role in the battle of Amiens, a significant step towards the final defeat of Germany in the First World War.

Catastrophe itself is important partly as the most detailed official or semi-official German account of the battle and partly because it’s representative of a best-selling series of popular histories about the war called Battles of the World War (Schlachten des Weltkrieges) – in fact, it was the 36th and last volume. The series was incredibly successful, with each volume selling on average 40-50,000 copies!

The published aim of the series was to explain to combatants and next of kin the context of the battles they or their relatives had fought in. The unpublished aim was to revive German pride and confidence and to counter hostile foreign writing. So the series was part of nationalist propaganda aimed at controlling the interpretation of the war.

There’s lots of good stuff in our edition:

  • dual text, with the German on the left and the translation on the right;
  • a foreword by Professor Gary Sheffield explaining the importance of the book;
  • my editor’s introduction covering the background to the Battles of the World War series, the author – retired general staff officer Major Thilo von Bose – and comments on his historical technique. I also look at the military detail, including German intelligence on the Allied attackers, the state of the defenders, the moral decay of the German high command, as well as organisation, tactical doctrine and performance on 8 August 1918;
  • a translators’ introduction by my co-editors Dave Pearson and Paul Thost on the origins of the translation and the approach they and I took to it; this is backed up by an appendix with more detailed notes on the translation;
  • an essay on the taphonomy of Catastrophe, or the differential survival of evidence. This links the book’s description of events to other surviving artefacts including guns, photographs, doctrine manuals and medals;
  • a lot of supporting material including some excellent photographs and maps with a gazetteer to help follow the action;
  • one of our aims as co-editors was to help people who want to study the German army in more detail, so as well as the notes on translation we included explanations of the German rank structure and the very numerous abbreviations used in the German text.

Big Sky did a superb job producing the book, a real plus point:

  • the jacket illustration is Australian artist Will Longstaff’s painting 8th August, 1918.
  • the striking end paper images are photos of wooden boards mounted with German regimental shoulder straps collected by Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, the Australian Corps commander; many of them were captured on 8-9 August 1918.

One of the unique selling points of the original book was the number of illustrations. 18 of them are line drawings by the war artist Franz Hanel, placed at the beginning and end of each section as commentary on the text; and one is an oil painting of a soldier throwing a concentrated explosive charge at a tank. When I wrote the editor’s introduction, I didn’t know who the second artist was but I’ve since identified him as Erich Mattschaß. I still don’t know anything about him or Hanel, so if anyone out there does, please get in touch.

Sadly, the book is now out of print, and nor is it widely available here in Britain.  To help remedy this, Dave Pearson and I have donated copies to several libraries here, so you can now read it at the British Library, Imperial War Museum, London Library, King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department, Trinity College Oxford and the Bovington Tank Museum. 

This is me handing a copy to Marjolijn Verbrugge, Archive & Supporting Collections Manager at the Bovington Tank Museum. We’re standing in front of the Whippet or Medium Mark A tank Caesar II in which Lieutenant Cecil Sewell won the Victoria Cross on 29 August 1918. Whippet tanks like this one played a prominent role in the battle of Amiens and are mentioned in Catastrophe, so this seemed an appropriate backdrop!

Finally, full details of the book are: Thilo von Bose, The Catastrophe of 8 August 1918 (trans. and ed. David Pearson, Paul Thost and Tony Cowan) (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2019); originally published as Die Katastrophe des 8. August 1918 (Schlachten des Weltkrieges 36) (Oldenburg: Druck und Verlag von Gerhard Stalling, 1930).

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