I'll read this book again because the account of the retreat from Mons in the opening months of The Great War is excellent and deserves further study if, as I am, one is in the process of becoming a battlefields guide. Despite this book not being intended as an exhaustive account of the period August-September 1914, it is a very good primer for the retreat - in fact it's probably detailed enough for the majority of readers with a general interest in WW1. As usual with Richard Holmes, he adds colour to the picture with descriptions of earlier conflicts and events associated with the terrain he's traversing, from Roman times, through The Knights Templar to Marlborough & Wellington's campaigns.
One thing surprised me. In the preface to this 2007 edition he acknowledges ["mea maxima culpa"] the grave error of attributing the storming of Le Quesnoy to the Canadians rather than the Kiwis but the error is uncorrected in the text. If you know the setting for the 'escalade' and how the Kiwis managed it, you might well imagine Kiwis sticking pins into a wax model of the author, to this day.
Sadly, one thing that did not surprise me, because I find it all to prevelent in books of military history, where clear mapping is vital, was the poor quality of the maps. I'll wager that the originals have been substantially reduced down to fit the page and thus have become cramped and, in some cases, well nigh illegible. Place names and names of combat units are in an attractive but wholly unsuitable calligraphic script. The map of 'Mons. 23rd August 1914' looks like a spider's web that has been sprayed with ink - and then walked over by the spider. These maps are by Elizabeth Holmes.
Prof Holmes could do with some tuition in photography, too. The pix of his party on the trip are woeful. The great war photographer Robert Capa famously said, "If your pictures are not good enough, you're not close enough." He was talking about battlefield reportage but the maxim holds good for everyone else, too.
One of the things I'll be looking out for and making a note of - just for fun, rather than in pursuit of widening my own knowlwdge of WW1 - is how many times the phrase "as the champagne flowed.." occurs in this book.
I mention this because there is sizeable element of "what we did on our holidays" in Holmes's narrative. It's true to say that the account of the journey Holmes and his saddle-mates undertook is part of the story but I was just a tad uncomfortable with the extent of the quotidien details - the endless fettling required to keep a horse roadworthy, what he had for dinner, from aperitif to eau-de-vie and cigars, at various restaurants and gracious chateaux and country estates along the way. Despite being in the land of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, there are repeated mentions of "Syvaner", clearly a Holmes favourite [at the time], which surprised me because it is the principle grape of the notorious Liebfraumilch, of which the less drunk the better.
Talking of drunk, there were also an alarming number of occasions on which the brigadier [as he now is] could not remember going to bed/who drove home/whether he was talking nonsense all night, followed by an equal number of regrettable hangovers next morning.
As for the horses - Holmes and pals definitely did it the hard way. Holmes's horse is terrified of dustbins and plastic bags caught in hedges. A gust of wind in trees makes one of the horses spook, rip the top rail off a fence and escape, dragging the rail with it accompanied by Holmes's horse, which was also tethered to the same rail. On another occasion the same horse ran off with a sizable stable door in tow. Another horse spooked in the roadway, threw its rider and pitched itself upside down into a ditch where it thrashed about on its back with its legs in the air. As Holmes so rightly says, "there's no fathoming the equine mind."
However, the account of the BEF's fighting march south is classic Holmes, full of strategic, tactical and personal detail. I've always found Holmes's writing shot through with compassion and sympathy when describing individuals in the actions he describes and this gives his account a generous humanity, whether dealing with the British or the German troops.
I've been poking a little fun at Prof Holmes's account of his ride through Belgium and France because it was on many occasions an equine version of "Three Men In A Boat" but there's no mistaking the quality and solidity of the military history in this eminently enjoyable book.