Fire and movement

Fire and movement
The British Expeditionary Force and the campaign of 1914
by Peter Hart
published by Oxford University Press, 2014
ISBN 978 0 19 998927 0
cover price – my review copy says $34.95
Hardback, 434pp plus notes and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker

I have often wondered why the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 has attracted so much attention from historians. There is a touch of “creation myth” about it all. The Official Historian dedicated two full volumes to it, yet there are battles of a greater size and fought by a technically much superior BEF in 1918 that barely merit a few pages. This is understandable to a degree, for there is a certain heroism to 1914 and the army was still small enough that the contribution of individual officers and men is not yet subsumed into a war-fighting machine. We have been told over the decades that the BEF – “Sir John French’s contemptible little army” according to the Kaiser – was brilliantly equipped and trained and it played the part of the hero at Mons, Le Cateau and Ypres. The BEF was dogged in retreat and defence; dashing in the offence; and fought to the last. Indeed the Official Historian would have us believe that the old army had died by the end of the First Battle of Ypres. It is a terrific and inspiring story.

As time has passed and documentary evidence has become increasingly available to researchers who had no personal involvement in these affairs, are more objective view is emerging. There have been several works that take this line in recent years. It is not so long ago that I reviewed Adrian Gilbert’s “Challenge of battle”, a good example of the trend. Peter Hart’s “Fire and movement” falls into this category, revealing a strong approach to research, sympathetic and adult analysis, and expression of opinion in ways in which Hart’s readers will be familiar from his previous body of work.

Drawing mainly on personal memoirs and papers (the end notes reveal few instances in which primary operational records are quoted), Hart takes us through the story from the pre-war decisions that shaped the BEF and took it to France; the key clashes during the retreat from Mons, the entrenched fighting on the Aisne and the move to the climactic battle in Flanders. He rounds off with a skate through the Christmas Truce. Weaknesses in command, battlefield control and tactics are exposed, but Hart remains conscious of the difficulties and is not shy of praise for men who found themselves in unexpected situations and facing a determined enemy. It makes for a good read and a balanced counterpoint to the creation mythology. There are plenty of endnotes for those who wish to find the original sources that the author has used.

The books is very nicely produced with good quality materials, and is rather heavy – a point to watch if you are paying for postage! For once the font used is not one guaranteed to cause eye strain and overall it is a book that will stand re-reading and reference without falling to bits. This is not the case with many books these days and OUP are to be congratulated upon it. My only comment in terms of production relates to the maps, which are reproductions of those in the British Official History and are in colour. They are good maps: so why squeeze them into about two-thirds of the page, leaving wide white margins?

Overall, whether you are new to the subject or a hardened 1914 devotee “Fire and movement” is well worth reading.