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Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
by Peter Hart
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.39

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Major reassessment of the Great War's opening campaigns, 15 Nov. 2014
My nine-year-old son wanted to know why Peter Hart's latest book is called `Fire and Movement'. Well, I explained, this was how the British army commanders expected the war to be fought in 1914, with overwhelming fire followed up by fast infantry assault; this was the `spirit of the offensive'. What actually happened was very different. How and why it was different it is the purpose of this book to explain. By this point, my boy had wisely decided to carry out some assaults of his own on creepers and straying animals while playing Minecraft, leaving me to ponder the difficult tasks this work has to achieve. First, it has to consider the role of the British Expeditionary Force against the 1914 backdrop of the vastly greater armies of France and Germany - and against the differing reputations of those two forces. Secondly, it has to assess the quality of the BEF's achievements in their own terms, and to ask serious questions about whether the near-legendary status of the BEF in some quarters and accounts is well merited. Revisionism is a Hart forte, so the prospects were good.

The opening chapters allow Hart to challenge a number of commonly held and hindsight-driven ideas about the British army's weaponry and tactics, including the roles of cavalry, machine guns and artillery; this overview will interest all readers with an interest in how the British commanders expected any forthcoming war to be fought. It is on the road to Mons, however, that the book really hits its stride, as the BEF's 4 divisions joined the larger Belgian Army deployment (7 divisions) and the enormous French Army (75 divisions in total) against German forces of 79 divisions - not that this was just about numbers, but the statistics cannot be ignored either. The Schlieffen Plan pitted the French Third and Fourth Armies against the German forces in the Ardennes, and the resultant Battle of the Frontiers brings us to one of this book's key themes: the immense scale of French losses. It is estimated that the French army suffered 27,000 dead on 22 August alone, nearly half as much again as British fatalities on I July 1916 on the Somme. To be fair, I heard Max Hastings refer to this French sacrifice in a recent talk, but even so the scale of their losses at the Battle of the Frontiers alone should serve to challenge some modern popular myths about our ally's courage and commitment. Why is the Battle of the Frontiers so little known in Britain in 2014? By contrast, British casualties at Mons were 1600 and Zuber argues for German losses of 2000, putting into perspective the relative degree of suffering experienced in these early engagements of the Great War.

The central chapters of the book play to Hart's great strengths as a military historian, portraying the sheer chaos of the retreat from Mons in uncompromising detail straight from the first-hand accounts of the men who were there, drawn mostly from the peerless archives of the Imperial War Museum's sound archives, diaries and letters. This facility with the building blocks of history, the sources themselves, extends to Hart's account of the intensive and often heated discussions between the respective commanders. At one key encounter, Joffre appeals passionately to history and to the honour of England in requesting British assistance at the Marne. Sir John French somewhat tepidly agrees, according to Joffre's own account. Hart allows the extract to conclude: `Tea, which was already prepared, was then served.' Thus the preliminaries for a battle which, Peter Hart argues here, changed the fate of the world.
One aspect of the Great War familiar to many readers will be trench conditions, but Chapter 13 gives us a salutary reminder of the reality of 1914 trench life. Sandbags, barbed wire, duckboards and parapets were present but on nothing like the scale of later trenches: these first attempts were shallow and shocking. What had begun as a war of anticipated `Fire and Movement' had degenerated into stagnation and slaughter. Into this carnage, decisively, came the Indian Corps, and there are fascinating descriptions of the reactions their arrival provoked among British and German troops. Hart finds plenty of evidence for the Christmas truce, in some sections of the line at least, but more for practical than sentimental reasons. The dead could be buried, defences rebuilt and exercise taken, but whether that included football matches between Germans and British is very doubtful.

The BEF, concludes Hart in this timely reassessment of their influence and importance, were `a tokenistic contribution' in a battle of giants. They won the respect of their German adversaries, and none should today deny their courage and flexibility in the face of the chaos of the opening weeks of the war, especially given the poor quality of the their leadership by Sir John French. But it would be foolish to see them as the saviours of France: that role belongs to Foch, Joffre and the French armies.

If you want to know why Germany didn't win the Great War, this book will offer you a persuasive reading of events. The Battle of the Marne essentially made it near-impossible for Germany to win the war they had started. It changed history. `Fire and Movement' challenges the outdated stereotypes of retreating Frenchmen, infallible German soldiers and bungling British commanders by offering a nuanced retelling of complex engagements with clarity and sympathy. Drawn from a plethora of sources from the time and informed by the latest research, Peter Hart's latest book gives you a thought-provoking and questioning account of 1914. My nine-year-old has a treat in store when he's older.


The Great War: 1914-1918
The Great War: 1914-1918
by Peter Hart
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Magisterial Overview, 14 April 2013
At the end of Peter Hart's impressive and timely reassessment of The Great War, the author weaves together some arguments and some questions. Why is it that the events of 1914-1918 continue to exert such a powerful hold on the popular imagination? How can we really understand the scale and the breadth of the campaigns, and of the losses? For this truly was a global conflict, producing losses he estimates at 9.7 million and injuries of 21 million. If your knowledge of the war is mostly focussed on the Western Front, and on 1914-1916, Hart provides useful summaries of the conflict in Italy, Salonika and Palestine, among others. We would expect him to be excellent on Gallipoli, given his past publications, and he is; likewise he is as much at home with the Grand Fleet and the submarine menace as he is in outlining the new technologies of war, a particular strength of this book. That great Hart characteristic, a telling eye for a quotation, whether from the rich archives of the Imperial War Museum or from published accounts, is much in evidence in this book, so the human interest element is never far away. Haig calling Admiral Jellicoe an `old woman'? Right here. Mustafa Kemal ordering his troops not to attack the Anzacs, but to die? Check.

I don't think that this book is intended to provide definitive answers and unassailable opinions about 1914-1918. What it does do is to provide a glorious overview, in succinct chapters, of some strong evidence which must surely influence our opinions. As we face the forthcoming national commemoration of the centenary of the war, we surely cannot continue to accept unquestionably myths and heresies peddled for particular reasons during the last century. To take just one example, we cannot in all seriousness continue to swallow the myth of French military incompetence. Good, knock-about entertainment it may be, but The Battle of the Frontiers on 22 August 1914 saw the French suffer 27,000 killed, in one day. To readers well-versed in the terrible British losses on 1 July 1916 on the Somme, these statistics should prompt reflection. Hart is especially adept at balancing the contributions of all the Allies to the eventual victory achieved, at least in part, by the constant refinement of the `All Arms Battle' strategy formulated by Haig and others.

In the end, it was the generals what won it. Haig and Foch (there at the start, and still there at the end), Plumer and Rawlinson, these were the men who directed the victory, evidence which war poets, screenplay writers and popular fiction have ignored to their detriment. History is about sources and evidence, and it is about arguments, and Peter Hart's The Great War provides a magisterial summary of where his previous books have brought him to this point. He has woven into a rich tapestry of collective mistakes, tough lessons and dire consequences stories of individual courage and ecisive decision-taking. The resulting cloth is dense and strong, a fine fabric in which to wrap the events of 1914-1918. Not that it would have been 1918, but for the sheer bloodyminded attitude of Haig and Foch. That, perhaps, is something to reflect upon in 2018.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 11, 2013 8:19 AM BST


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