on 3 July 2013
I don't expect many people will find my review 'helpful' because it flies in the face of the 5* high praise of other all other reviewers. However, before you throw up your hands in disgust at my criticism, let me tell you that I am a battlefield guide, a member of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides and it is my job to know as much as I can - and then learn yet more - about all things concerning British involvement in armed conflict, with particular reference to WW1 & WW2.
I am going on a battlefield tour to Mons in Sept to cover the very topic of this book - 1914. I have been many times before and I have read a great deal of material on the subject. McDonald's book was one of 6 [six!] more I ordered last week to augment my knowledge of the BEF's first 6 months of WW1.
The problem with McDonald's approach is that it is written like fiction. Her anecdotal narrative and colourful descriptions, which seem so attractive to the general reader, does not lend itself to the exposition of historical events. There is far too much putting things into people's heads and mouths, making thing up that she cannot possibly know, reporting conversations that could never be recalled in any sort of detail, and reliance on hearsay and personal verbal recollection. This is the way she writes all her books - giving the soldier's view - and although there is merit in this, it is not suitable for an accurate account of historical events of any kind. How many of us could recall, many years after the event, something that happened on our holidays when aged 14, to the extent that it is suitable to include in a book of military history? Yet McDonald has the best part of a page devoted to the recollection of a 14 year old.
In case you feel inclined to argue "but the survivors told her their stories and she wrote them down" let me tell you that even Regimental Diaries, written up in the field as soon as circumstances allowed, have large gaps, contradictions with themselves and with other units' diaries and pure error.
To illustrate this point - I am to present a talk on the firing of the first BEF artillery salvo of WW1 by 3 Section, E Battery, 1st Royal Horse Artillery. There is no disagreement about the fact that it was this unit that fired the first salvo but from there on all is confusion. The date is either 22nd or 23rd of August 1914 [a historical event if ever there was one but not mentioned in this book], depending on what source you consult. As for the location, my colleague went out to Mons to recce this site 2 weeks ago, with the available evidence we could find to that point [without going to the National Archive at Kew, which we will] and the location of E Battery's position is in doubt to the tune of over 1 mile. As the maximum range of the RHA's 13 pounders was only 3.3 miles, a mile or more discrepancy in their firing position is a serious matter, in establishing this historic moment when the BEF artillery commenced hostilities.
An example of a factional conversation. 'Barry glared, scowled and barked back "I only ....Orderly Room!" He added with masterly sarcasm, "And may I remind you ..." ' This is pure fiction. This is making things up to generate colour. It makes for an enjoyable read but not as history.
How about a line like this, describing the enthusiasm of local girls in collecting British cap badges? "The progress of the [BEF] towards Mons could easily be deduced from the amount of hardware that gleamed on their generous bosoms". 'Gleamed'? Generous bosoms'? This is sheer make-believe.
She is also of the school that has swallowed the Schlieffen Plan myth hook, line and sinker. "The plan was drawn up by the German Chief of Staff, Field Marshall Count von Schieffen, with such precise attention to detail and with such clarity of logic and it seemed such an infallible blueprint for success that no attempt was ever made to revise it or even alter it in the smallest detail". This is nonsense.
Papers in the German Military Archives have 'war games' and planning analyses by Schlieffen from every year he was in post until his retirement in 1906, complete with commentaries and critiques and suggested amendments by his colleagues. Moltke the younger then continued war gaming and planning from 1906 to the outbreak of the war. German planning for the next war underwent considerable 'revisions' and 'alterations', depending on the political and intelligence assessments of the day. In addition, we must note that McDonald has Schlieffen drawing up his plan "long ago" in 1892. Wikipedia [not an authority to take as gospel, viz: "This article needs attention from an expert in Military history Wikiproject]" has it as 1905. John Terraine, in his book, "Mons: The Retreat to Victory" has it at 1902.
So if there is disagreement amongst historians about something as fundamental as the creation date of the Schlieffen Plan, the verbiage in McDonald's book about the minutiae of life and events of thousands of soldiers and others in 1914 must be regarded as entertainment based on a real historical period.
This book is of a type similar to "Shindler's Ark" by Thomas Keneally, which won the Booker Prize for Fiction: "A Historical Novel which describes actual people and events with fictional dialogue and scenes added by the author". And it is interesting to note that "Schindler's Ark" also won a non-fiction prize in Australia, though Keneally never claimed it to be other than a novel.
I have read other McDonald books. Her approach is the same but in this one she has overdone it by a large margin. I need more on 1914 but I have abandoned this book as entirely unsuitable as a cogent, accurate, historically sound account.
Read for enjoyment - I'm sure you will. But do not read it as a sound description of the BEF IN 1914.
on 23 January 2014
Having written condition reports on books and placed on Amazon for sale for nearly five years this book was not 'Very Good' as claimed. The dust cover was bleached along the spine, two corners were bumped, pages were brown stained and smelled of tobacco smoke. It only cost 1p plus postage so I did not bother to return but the description was grossly misleading.