Review of “Last stand at Zandvoorde 1914”

Last stand at Zandvoorde 1914: Lord Hugh Grosvenor’s noble sacrifice
by Mike McBride
published by Pen & Sword Military 2016
ISBN 978 1 47389 157 9
Hardback 226 pages plus bibliography, index. Illustrated.
Cover price £19.99

The “last stand” of this book was made by diminished regiments of the Household Brigade, notably the 1st Life Guards, on 30-31 October 1914 during the climatic period of the First Battle of Ypres. It centres on the life and death of the commander of the regiment’s “C” Squadron, Captain Lord Hugh William Grosvenor, son of the 1st Duke of Westminster. Virtually all of the British units deployed at Ypres had been in constant action against an overwhelmingly larger German force for more than a week by the time of this affair. The cavalry, whose mobility had been useful for quickly sending them piecemeal to dismount and fight in the trenches, was no exception. By 29-30 October the Household Brigade was exhausted and holding on grimly to a gentle but key rise in the ground; the eastern edge of the Gheluvelt plateau from which Ypres could be dominated. There are few records of what happened to Grosvenor and his men in the end, for few at Zandvoorde lived to tell the tale. “Last stand at Zandvoorde 1914” is of interest not least as it draws upon Grosvenor’s own correspondence, right up until his last battle.

This is a fairly short work, for once the many (large and many very good photographs) and long orders of battle and casualty lists are taken out and the widely-spaced type is taken into account it perhaps amounts to about 170 pages. Of that, much is contextual in setting the scene. We begin with Grosvenor’s own background: as with many of his fellow officers of the Household Brigade he was of the aristocracy and from a world of wealth and privilege unimaginable by most of the soldiers fighting at Ypres. Eton educated, he would follow or join many other members of his family into a military life. As so many of his class would find, social rank gave them no greater protection against a bullet. Letters reveal that he was probably not a bad leader of men: he was thoughtful, concerned for the situation and the well being of his men and horses. Over the few weeks of First Ypres his squadron is moved around, deployed into scratch trenches with barely adequate equipment and exposed to the unkind elements as well as to endless enemy fire. A desperate situation with some controversy thrown in, for at Zandvoorde the British dug in on a “forward slope” and their trenches were easily under enemy observation and direct fire: it was not an approach admired at the time and one that by 1915 would be regarded as foolhardy in the extreme. For any reader with an interest in this battle or the cavalry in the Great War, “Last stand” is well worth reading.

For me, there are some niggles. Spellings are rather innovative in places; I’m never sure of the value of quoting secondary sources or the pronouncements of latter-day academic historians; and there are several “they would have” rather than “they did” – but that is perhaps to some extent due to the gaps in documented knowledge of the situation at Zandvoorde. The pedant in me balks at the information that Corporal of Horse Leggatt, the first of the 1st Life Guards to die, was buried at Harlebeke New British Cemetery: he is now, but that was not where he was first buried and information about this is but a few clicks away.

Nonetheless, “Last stand” is an interesting work and one that may tempt a few more battlefield visitors away from the main sites in the area and to venture down a modest footpath between houses in Zandvoorde to pay their respects at the Household Brigade memorial. It is pretty well on the spot when Grosvenor and his men fought their last.

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