Review: Leeds Rifles: written in letters of gold

For all so much of my research has been about the Leeds Pals, I have a closer link to another of the Leeds battalions – the Rifles. My Great-Uncle William was a rifleman with the battalion and when Pen & Sword offered this book for review, I jumped at the chance to read it, in the hopes of finding out a little more about the men and indeed, the very experience, that my relative had. He left us with no diary or papers and all we have left of him are two photographs and a letter he wrote to his niece.

Andrew Kirk’s book Leeds Rifles: Written in Letters of Gold tells the story of the Rifles from their formation as a battalion in the mid 1800s to the last 100 days of the First World War and then beyond that to their legacy.

The whole book is extraordinarily detailed and draws on many different sources, from photographs to first hand accounts of the battles undertaken by the Rifles. Kirk does not neglect the less experienced reader of military history and he readily explains the makeup of the battalion early on, in a way that is clear and easy to understand. In the first half of the book, the way in which the Rifles were a key part of the peacetime Leeds community is accurately drawn. Kirk recounts the rugby matches played in Armley and the two weeks ‘holiday’ (annual camp) at Scarborough.

As war was declared, Kirk manages to give clear context and just about shoehorns all the myriad of reasons for the beginning of the war into a few paragraphs – not overly detailed, but then this is not a book about the reasons for the escalation of the July/August crisis of 1914. The change between peacetime volunteering for the Rifles and the apparent sudden slide to mobilisation is neatly handled – contrasting the vibrancy of the annual Scarborough camp with the sudden orders to return to Leeds. However, the Leeds Rifles first Christmas of the war was to be spent in York awaiting orders after the shelling of Scarborough coast earlier in December.

The book takes us along the journey with the Rifles to France from Folkestone and it is from here that the book truly gets into its stride with quotations from the Riflemen themselves, communicating everything from the joy of some working class men to be out of England for the first time in their lives to the sheer noise that accompanied the opening of the Aubers Ridge Battle.

The attention to detail continues through the whole book – movements are described in detail from the Corps to the Battalion. The fighting at the Ypres Salient is given colour with quotation from the battalion diary, describing the dire weather conditions, but the moments of reprieve are noted too – especially a visit to a small theatre behind the lines, considered by some of the men to be ‘an incredible luxury.’

Alongside quoting and referencing from the battalion diary, Kirk also uses the unofficial ‘other war diary’ kept by a succession of different officers wherein the roll call of officer casualties was kept. This makes for sobering reading and the short eulogies of the men bring them ever more to life, even beside the loss of their comrades.

Kirk places each of the movements of the Rifles in the wider context of the war, and when the clock turns to 1918 and the Battle of the Lys, he references Haig’s now famous ‘backs to the wall’ order. With this, and the additional information from the orders provided by the Major Generals, the movements and battles are placed within their key context and are thus clearer and easier to understand.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book if you have an interest in the Leeds Rifles and want to know more about their war and the people within the battalion!

(Thanks to Pen & Sword for my review copy of Leeds Rifles)

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