North Wales Western Front Association

Fire and Movement

The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914

Peter Hart

Oxford University Press 2015

Peter Hart works at the Imperial War Museum where he is the oral historian. His eclectic verbal presentation style is well known but, if you can get past that, the information he comes up with is excellent. With this book, Peter continues to debunk both myths and pompous nationalistic nonsense.

The period of the war dealt with is the “battle of the frontiers” from August 1914, from Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and first Ypres. It was for the first few months, a war of movement. This is the war of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) which set out for continental Europe at the start of August 1914, and precious few of whom remained in the field by the end of 1914.

To quote Peter, the mythical version of the events of 1914 is as follows:

The British part of the 1914 campaign has long been veiled in self-congratulatory myth, which have become accepted as the “truth”. This version of events supposes an unprepared Britain, reliant on the peerless class of her regular soldiers to bolster the rabble of the unreliable French army. At the Battle of Mons on 23rd August, these “old sweats” slaughtered the teeming hordes of Germans – firing at such a speed that the Germans imagined they were being fired on by massed machine guns. The BEF had been forced to retreat only by the “collapse” of the French forces on their flank. Next, a further glorious stand at Le Cateau, which gave the hapless Germans such a bloody nose that they never again pursued the British so closely. Then, the “great retreat”, before a stunning reversal of fortunes at the “Miracle of the Marne” when – for apparently inexplicable reasons – a gap suddenly opened up between the onrushing German armies into which the British poured, forcing the Germans into a chaotic retreat. After a valiant pursuit by the British, the Germans turned and finally stood firm on the Aisne. Thwarted, both armies engaged in the tumultuous “race to the sea” before the final drama on the battlefields of Ypres ending on 22 November. Here the BEF held back the tide and ensured that Germany could not win the war in 1914. As far as this fairy tale version of 1914 is concerned, Britain’s sacrifice and military prowess were second to none.

Peter does use the recollections of veterans to portray what actually happened, and is also in a unique position to know what exists in the oral testimony records of the IWM.

The BEF was indeed “contemptibly-little”, the correct translation for the Kaiser’s jibe, numbering just 120,000 at the start of fighting. It was caught up in a vast continental war where armies numbered millions. Both the ordinary soldiers and their commanders lacked practice in the disciplines of modern warfare. It was, after all, 99 years since the British army had been involved in a war in continental Europe, and then they were led by Wellington. However, he would have recognised some of the tactics used at Mons and Le Cateau. Some of the commanders did learn lessons by the time of the Battle of the Marne in September. This was followed by the first battle of Ypres in October which can hardly be seen as a victory but the British and the French stopped a German victory being achieved before the end of 1914.

Peter uses the memoires of Lt Cuthbert Rabagliati and Lt Colonel George Barrow to show that at Mons the top brass chose to ignore the, accurate, intelligence reports both from air reconnaissance and from talking to the Belgians, so they were not well-prepared for the German attack at 6am on the 23rd August. Bridges had not been blown. The line of defence along the canal was thought to be inadequate and a second line was being recced when the Germans attacked. From one personal memoire, Lt George Ropell recalls that peacetime “fire orders” could simply not be heard in the din of battle, so he had to hit his men on the backside with the flat of his sword – yes, a sword – and shout at them to fire low as they were shooting above the heads of the advancing German infantry.

The positioning of the machine gun on the railway bridge at Nimy over the canal is an example of not understanding the use of modern weapons, as it was set up in an exposed and vulnerable position facing the enemy, instead of being hidden and in a position to give enfilade fire.

The British casualties at Mons were about 1,600 in total. The equivalent supposed German figures, inflated by British historians and which seem baseless, have been corrected by Peter from work done by historians researching the German archives to be between 1,900 and 2,000. Hardly, the 10,000 plus that has been bandied about.

Peter shows that Le Cateau is again a battle plagued by myths. Smith-Dorrien made a brave decision to stand and fight, and was lucky to get away with it. BEF II Corps did in fact manage to escape. (I Corps were not involved at Le Cateau). The Germans only pressed home their attacks on the flanks, in an attempt to encircle the BEF, and they actually suffered fewer casualties than the BEF – about 2,000 as against 7,812 for the BEF. The previous assumption of huge German losses is simply not true. The BEF artillery lost 38 guns, a sizeable proportion of their total complement.

As regards the Battle of the Marne, it was a French battle fought on a plan drawn up by Marechal Joffre, French generals lead the way and French troops did most of the fighting. The BEF commander, Sir John French, had had to be called to a meeting with war minister Lord Kitchener in the British Embassy in Paris beforehand in order to have the law laid down to him, ie the BEF would take part in the battle to support the French and not retire to Le Mans as Sir John had suggested. Peter refers to this meeting using the modern military expression of “an interview without coffee”.

Similarly with the Race to the Sea and the first Battle of Ypres, Peter intersperses the narrative with extracts from the personal accounts of those who were there, both British and German, and in doing so throws light on situations clouded by myth and exaggeration. For example, Sergeant James Bell of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders was at Gheluvelt at first Ypres:

After taking bearings, I told the men to keep under cover and detailed one man, “Ginger” Bain, as look out. After what seemed ages, “Ginger” excitedly asked, “How strong is the German army?” I replied, “Seven million!” “Well”, said Ginger “here is the whole bloody lot of them making for us!” We were driven from the trench, and those of us who were unscathed joined Lieutenant Brooke, who had come up with the cooks, transport men, and men who had been wounded but could still use a rifle. Lieutenant Brooke was (outwardly) quite unperturbed, walking about the firing line issuing orders as if on the barrack square. I had served under him for nine years, and seeing him such a target for the enemy riflemen, I asked him to lie down, as I felt if he was hit his loss at that particular time would be disastrous. He told me we must retake the trench I had been driven from, and to pick twenty men to do so. All the men were alike to me – men I had known for years – so I told ten men on my right and ten on my left to get ready to rush the trench. We succeeded in this. No artist or poet can depict a trench after fighting in all its stark hellishness. If we could not be driven out of the trench, it seemed certain that we would be blown out of it. Shells kept landing near enough in front or behind the trench to shake us almost out of it. Many got killed by rifle fire, “Ginger” Bain being the first, then “Big Bruce” whom I boxed in competition before going to France. I passed a message to Lieutenant Brooke, informing him our numbers were so reduced that if attacked we could not hold the trench, and received back word that he had just been killed.

Lieutenant James Brooke was awarded a VC for his actions in leading the counterattack and organising the resistance to the German attacks. He was killed 29th October 1914 and is buried at Zandvoorde CWGC cemetery. Private Bain is also buried at Zandvoorde, both sets of remains having been “concentrated” there in 1920.

Overall, the only negative thing I can say about the book is that it is rather long at well over 400 pages. The chapter on life in the trenches is rather superfluous to the topic and could have been dropped at the proof stage, which would have helped.

However, this is a very good book and is very readable. If you manage to catch Peter at a talk where he has copies with him, you will pay a lot less than the cover price and even get it signed.