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Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of


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Peter M Hart's latest offering looks very interesting. Having sampled some of the pages on Spamazon I couldn't help myself. The chapter on Le Cateau is illuminating as it includes many long quotes from sources I have not read before. The eye-witness descriptions of the RFA on the right flank are sufficient to justify buying this book. German quotes too which is now a standard requirement (and very welcome). Quite gripping, although I think he is too kind to Headlam. MG

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By necessity he has to paint with a broad brush. 1914, if done properly would doubtless require a multi-volume history. If Peter was ever given this opportunity I am sure he would do a great job, although I can think of a few authors who would do the subject justice.

Peter has an ability to compress a lot into a single book and make it readable. He has very strong, arguably extreme views (a good thing in my view) but I would not agree with some of his points. My only criticism is the heavy emphasis long quotes that are sometimes delivered with little analysis. One might be forgiven for thinking that the quotes are always accurate assessments of events. A critic might argue they are simply offered to support a view. Many were written years after the events. The danger is that one underestimates the human propensity to confabulate or conflate. Peter has been impaled on this kind of thing before in his early Gallipoli book - something he has acknowledged. Having researched this period (1914) to some extent I could take issue with many of the quotes. Smith-Dorrien is quoted extensively (understandably) on Le Cateau, but critics of SD are not. Ditto Headlam, but there are a dozen survivors who thought Headlam's tactics were suicidal. None are quoted. In Peter's defence, his assessment is that Headlam 'blundered'. He is too kind. personally I think he should have been Court Marshaled (sic) for incompetence, but there we differ. It would be useful to point out that Headlam wrote the RA's definitive history on this period and has had few objective critics. Becke (RA), the main contemporary author as a serving officer was vulnerable to suasion, so we don't know if we have objective analysis on this aspect.

I suspect the publisher's restrictions on pages was a major factor. I wish Peter would write on more narrow subjects because I think his insight gets diluted when he writes on strategy and campaigns. At the very least Peter's books makes one think, and to his great credit he is not shy of having controversial views.

The book is a compulsory purchase.

MG

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My copy arrived on Monday, only skimmed so far, but on the to-do pile - I'm prioritising my unread 1914 books. My copy has the spine title on upside down, a bit disconcerting. Perhaps it's a clue that Mr Hart will turn my preconceptions upside down.

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I'm still waiting for my copy. Hopefully any day now

Keith

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I think Peter is objective above all else and prepared to challenge accepted opinions. But you are right - to complete the task of evaluating 1914 anew and the operations of the BEF and it's commanders as a whole! would require a number of volumes and be done without the level of information available to the official historian. It would also require a brave publisher. All one can do, and like you Martin, I have a particular interest and some knowledge of the army of 1914 and it's conduct during the first year of the war, is contrast and compare the many publications on the subject to build one's own views from that which is published or found in records. As an example I quote my own belief that the use of forward slopes by BEF commanders was an unofficial doctrine and broadly accepted as the best use of of expert musketry. And of course one's opinions are constantly challenged by those of others. Nevertheless I look forward to the book with keen anticipation.

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I am about half way through the book. It is very well written and easy to read.

The first part of the books explains British tactical doctrine developed after the Boer War and focuses on the main arms of Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry and their equipment, as well as the backgrounds of key commanders and the structure of the staff. By necessity this part of the book is a compressed version of the ground covered in Spencer Jones' "From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army 1902-1914" which lays out doctrine and reform of the same arms in greater detail. An appreciation of the changes made during the inter-war period is critical to understanding how the British conducted the war in 1914 and Peter's book does this very well.

The rest of the book is written in a well established style that weaves first-hand accounts into the author's objective narrative. Thorny issues such as the alleged (tactically naive) massed attacks by the Germans at Mons and exaggerated German casualties claimed by the British OH are dealt with, although the word 'myth' appears too many times for my liking. The publisher's notes (see below) claims the book is 'revisionary' and 'strips away the myth' (there is a danger this word is going to be worn out) and gives 'a more accurate portrait of the German Army'. For anyone familiar with the substantial literature on this period, many of these alleged 'myths' have been dealt with some time ago by other authors. As for the revisionary part, it does not really expand on any ideas already aired by the likes of Gardner (Trial by Fire) and others. This period has attracted a number of excellent authors and it is difficult to introduce new insights.The book is critical of the BEF in a constructive way, but is not the first to do this. That aside, it flows beautifully and as a single volume account of the BEF in 1914 it will be hard to beat. MG

Here are the publisher's notes;

"The dramatic opening weeks of the Great War passed into legend long before the conflict ended. The British Expeditionary Force fought a mesmerizing campaign, outnumbered and outflanked but courageous and skillful, holding the line against impossible odds, sacrificing themselves to stop the last great German offensive of 1914. A remarkable story of high hopes and crushing disappointment, the campaign contains moments of sheer horror and nerve-shattering excitement; pathos and comic relief; occasional cowardice and much selfless courage—all culminating in the climax of the First Battle of Ypres.

And yet, as Peter Hart shows in this gripping and revisionary look at the war's first year, for too long the British part in the 1914 campaigns has been veiled in layers of self-congratulatory myth: a tale of poor unprepared Britain, reliant on the peerless class of her regular soldiers to bolster the rabble of the unreliable French Army and defeat the teeming hordes of German troops. But the reality of those early months is in fact far more complex—and ultimately, Hart argues, far more powerful than the standard triumphalist narrative.

Fire and Movement places the British role in 1914 into a proper historical context, incorporating the personal experiences of the men who were present on the front lines. The British regulars were indeed skillful soldiers, but as Hart reveals, they also lacked practice in many of the required disciplines of modern warfare, and the inexperience of officers led to severe mistakes. Hart also provides a more accurate portrait of the German Army they faced—not the caricature of hordes of automatons, but the reality of a well-trained and superlatively equipped force that outfought the BEF in the early battles—and allows readers to come to a full appreciation of the role of the French Army, without whom the Marne never would have been won.

Ultimately Fire and Movement shows the story of the 1914 campaigns to be an epic tale, and one which needs no embellishment. Through the voices and recollections of the soldiers who were there, Hart strips away the myth to offer a clear-eyed account of the remarkable early days of the Great War."

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Interesting to read these observations. Peter is giving a talk at my local WFA branch in December so will treat myself to a signed copy there .

I rate Peter's work highly . I particularly like the way he can make a reader think about a subject in a totally different light:

For example in the 'Gallipoli' book , the question of why Britain and the Ottoman Empire ever ended up going to the war in the first place is raised, which seems a useful starting point.

I also have a massive interest in war poetry, but agreed that quite a number of Peter's observations re the interpretation of Great War poetry are justified.

Regards

Michael Bully

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I also have a massive interest in war poetry, but agreed that quite a number of Peter's observations re the interpretation of Great War poetry are justified.

Regards

Michael Bully

Lewis-Stempel in the introduction to his book Six Weeks states;

The trenches of the First World War are now almost impossible to reach. It is not just that those excavations on the plains of Flanders and the Somme are buried under the plough of the farmer and the grass o time, it is that they are surrounded by a moat deep with the pitying tears of the war poets.

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If incompetence were to be a Court Martial offence [which it is not] then I, as a weather forecaster subject to Air Force Law whilst holding a Dormant Commission] would still be inside, 17 years after knocking off!

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If incompetence were to be a Court Martial offence [which it is not] then I, as a weather forecaster subject to Air Force Law whilst holding a Dormant Commission] would still be inside, 17 years after knocking off!

OK. Negligence then.

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Hello Jim, Sussex WFA Friday 12th December Lewes Town Hall. 7.30- will post more details soon.

Hi Michael,

Where will this be, Sussex?

Cheers Jim

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  • 2 weeks later...

At the risk of being thick, and at the risk of taking the thread off topic (which is not the intention), is the Headlam you talk about the same one who wrote SS135 (Cuthbert Headlam)?

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No. Sir John Headlam was CRA 5th Div in 1914...also the author of The History of the Royal Artillery from the Indian Mutiny to the Great War (published 1934). It covers RA tactical doctrine (or lack of it) between the Boer War and the Great War - arguably the main swing factor of Le Cateau - whether deploying the RFA on forward slopes was the right thing to do. Post the Colenso debacle where the RA were severely punished for tactical naivity, theories on RA doctrine bifurcated. Headlam's papers are in the IWM. He was the Colonel Commandant of the RA so a difficult man to challenge on RA tactics and doctrine, especially with regards to Le Cateau. The 5th Div lost more than half its artillery at Le Cateau, which was not replaced until after the crossing of the Aisne according to Becke. Becke's account of the RA at Le Catueau reads like a eulogy.

On topic - the technical and tactical developments between the Boer War and the Great War were manifold. A number of books deal with this in detail and Peter Hart's book covers this well. It is difficult to understand 1914 without this context. MG

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My copy arrived today. Looks very good and is in the 'pending' pile...

Bernard

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  • 1 month later...

Into it now; an excellent read so far! Ripe with prime source material...what those blokes went through! Phew!

Bernard

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Just finished reading it. Thought it very good. The chapters on Ypres particularly good. The chapter titled Bedlam, mainly about the fighting around Gheluvelt, brings home the hellish intensity of the struggle better than anything else i have read.

Also one clearly sees where Haig gets his later determination to keep pushing right to the bitter end because if the Germans had been able to keep going then our lines would have been broken and the war take a very different turn. This was a lesson Haig obviously took on board.

Len

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