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Stirling work on a often casually dismissed topic
on 31 May 2012
Even for those who claim to understand the Great War, dismissing cavalry as outdated in the 20th century is par of the course. It is all too easy for history buffs to use the eventual mechanization of horsemen into tank crews to imply that the cavalry was redundant on the battlefield. However, it is often overlooked that the tank, even with conciderable development and large numbers had it's limitations, even by 1918. The change from horse to tank was still a long way off. Moreover this was not mere hidebound traditionalism.
It is clear that from his deep interest the author is pro-cavalry. Nevertheless he does not let this get in the way of a balanced argument. Kenyon brings us steadily into the realm of the cavalry of the BEF. Their value in the retreat from Mons is never doubted, even by dismissive historians, who place their argument of the impotence of cavalry once trench warfare is established. As a consequence, the author makes it his business to centre his fight on this very ground of his enemy's choosing. In addition, the author does not point to other theatres where the cavalry's value was undoubtedly immesurable.
The body of the book shows how the structure of the BEF as well as the ongoing struggle conspired to hobble the cavalry as well as hoard them; how they were constrained from making their potential impact, despite sustaining equal losses to the infantry- often through dismounted trench duty alongside them.
In addition to exploring the "politics" of the cavalry's career in the BEF, Kenyon picks out all the mounted actions to explore each deftly with vivid colourful narrative, and examine the successes and strife, their frustrations and the "what ifs". Often the narrative is seamlessly populated with actual memoir that makes the events feel personal.
Best of all, and for the first time, we see the real complexities, constraints, achievements and limitations in a thoroughly accurate context. Kenyon helps us easily appreciate them; much to his credit, as other historians before him have simply given up trying and written the cavalry down.
In saying "for the first time", I suspect this will be the last ink spent on the subject. Not because it doesn't merit further debate, but simply because the author is so balanced and thorough I cannot imagine any more will be said in favour or against.
Quite simply the definitive book on the subject, and one that every self-proclaimed enthusiast of the Great War needs to read if he wishes to claim any depth to their understanding or view on the BEF on the Western Front.
Without question, it is a "must".