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Remembered Today:

Fire and Movement - Revisited


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I know that a review of Peter Hart’s “Fire and Movement - The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914” was posted at the end of last year, but much as I agreed with much of what was in it, I thought I could offer some further comments which people might find useful as, despite initial reservations, I ended up admiring the book considerably.

My reservations stemmed from one or two early passages of purple prose and a few old chestnuts (such as an exception ‘proving’ a rule, when all it can do is show that rule not to be universal) and the occasional factual error (the 1911 crisis in Morocco was named after the port of Agadir, and not the name of the German gunboat sent there – that was the Panther). But these didn’t detract from a well presented introduction, describing the events prior to 1914, especially the development of the BEF after the Boer War, and in particular its deficiencies in artillery.

This was followed by the main actions of the 1914 campaign, which are well covered, but some cherished memories are badly bruised along the way. Mr. Hart takes the edge off the image of The Great Retreat by reminding readers that the adjacent French Fifth Army was forced to retreat in similar circumstances, and that the British benefited from one major misjudgement by the Germans - they thought the BEF was heading in another direction.

Of the British and French commanders, unsurprisingly Sir John French comes in for the most criticism, a man well out of his depth in the scale and character of this war, but doing the best he could in the circumstances. Haig comes in for particular praise, especially for his organisation of the defence at Ypres, while his fellow Corps commander Smith-Dorrien is portrayed at one point as having an uneasy grasp of the situation along II Corps’s line at Mons, his only real tactical role being to decide when to withdraw, but then later Mr. Hart admires his courage in making a decision to stand and fight at Le Cateau and trusting to his luck. Their French counterparts come in for more fulsome praise; Foch being the first truly allied commander, and Joffre being the real saviour of the allies with his coolness in exceptionally difficult circumstances and his organisation of the check to the Germans on the Marne. There is also an interesting sketch of Sir James Grierson, who has often been overlooked in similar accounts, since he died before the BEF’s opening shots, but who was quick to realise the possibilities of aerial reconnaissance in warfare during pre-war manoeuvres (an aspect of the conflict well covered in later chapters, especially noting how swiftly the RFC adapted to its new role in artillery spotting).

The quotes from diaries and transcripts (Mr. Hart is the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, and so has perhaps has had access to documents overlooked by other writers), are both numerous (at times perhaps too much so, the author’s text seeming to be little more than a link between the quotes) and apposite. From my own research in connection with my recent novel set in this period I was rather surprised that so many of the quotes were unfamiliar, letters home from Rupert Brooke describing the RND’s abortive attempt to relieve Antwerp among them. More than any other book on the subject I have read, I felt that the reminiscences blended particularly well with the historical narrative to create a vivid description of a particular action. Excellent quotes from French, and particularly German soldiers fighting at the same time, and often, remarkably, in the same action, show that the horrors of the new warfare were no respecters of national boundaries. The contributions by the Territorials and the Indian Corps are rightly acknowledged, although in the latter case the voices heard are only those of the British officers.

But Mr. Hart does subscribe to the oft-repeated view that the Battle of the Marne dramatically saved the Allies from defeat. Of course this battle, largely fought by the French, was indeed important, even if not quite “one of the great battles of the 20th century, one that truly changed the fate of the world”. However, my own view is that the real turning point came at Ypres in November, when the line very nearly cracked, and only the most stubborn resistance against all the odds, in which the BEF played a major part, prevented a German breakthrough and an almost inevitable armistice in favour of the Germans.

Mr. Hart sets out to debunk the fairytale story of the BEF stemming the tide of the German advance in 1914 almost single-handed, which he claims has been “veiled in layers of self-congratulatory myth, which have become accepted as the ‘truth’”. The author considers that the story has a greater resonance if the real truth is told about the “manifest deficiencies of the small numbers of the BEF”. They played a “full and splendid part” in the campaign of 1914, and there is no need for “vainglorious embellishment”.

Mr. Hart is concerned that the British have mythologized the BEF in 1914 as representing a peace-loving country unprepared for war, but bedevilled by the unreliability of their allies. In actual fact, he opines, Britain had actively prepared for war for many years, although this was mainly directed at the navy, leaving the army lacking in men and equipment. As a result, the generals who effectively presided over the chaos which engulfed Belgium and northern France were German and French, not British. The German army, often lampooned in cartoons, proved to be a formidable opponent highly trained and well equipped, the result of long-planned preparations. Yet despite their obvious advantages, the Germans missed their greatest opportunity to win the war in those early days, through a combination of fatal flaws in the original Schlieffen plan, and serious tactical errors during the fighting itself.

The author rightly reminds readers that the bedrock of Allied resistance to the German onslaught was the French army. In particular, the BEF’s performance, and casualties, in relation to those of the French army makes sober reading. Even at Ypres, the Germans could well have broken through without the timely arrival of French reinforcements, despite the truly heroic resistance of the BEF. The Belgian army, although similarly small in size, also played its part.

The contribution of the BEF in 1914 is portrayed by Mr. Hart as “tokenistic” but no less valuable for that, as its presence was greatly valued by the French, and the crucial foundation for the effective allied waging of war had been laid, and would eventually lead to the defeat of Germany. By failing to win the1914 campaign, the Germans had the odds against winning the war heavily stacked against them, and they could never reduce those odds.

Mr. Hart’s final comments on the soldiers of the BEF are that although they had been sent to war in inadequate numbers, untrained and inexperienced in the requirements of modern war, they still conducted themselves with exceptional courage and great adaptability, earning the grudging respect of the Germans in the process.

In my view the men of 1914 were a breed apart from those who followed in the months and years to come. But they were men, and not supermen, and if they didn’t all, from commanding officer to lowliest private, always live up to the standards attributed to them later, that doesn’t detract from an appreciation of what remarkable soldiers, and men, they were.

For all those interested in this most interesting period of the war (for me the most fascinating period), this book is highly recommended.

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Very nice review, I'm just finishing up the book and I think Mr. Hart did an excellent job of cutting through a lot of wartime propaganda about the B.E.F.; so often their performance is viewed in complete isolation from the "big picture". I'm not so sure Haig should have totally escaped criticism for some of his actions during the retreat but other than that can't think of any of the author's other points that didn't ring true.


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