Review of “Chasing the Great Retreat”

Chasing the Great Retreat: the German cavalry pursuit of the British Expeditionary Force before the Battle of the Marne August 1914
By Colonel (Ret) Joe Robinson, Sabine Declercq and Randal Gilbert
Published by Helion & Co, 2022
Paperback ISBN 978 1 915070 83 8
178 pages plus short appendix, bilbiography, index. Illustrated. 15 maps.
Cover price not stated.

I have enjoyed Joe Robinson’s previous works, and with this coming on the heels of his award-winning “German failure in Belgium, August 1914” looked forward to reading this one. It has always puzzled me that the long, hot withdrawal of the BEF from the fighting at Mons all the way south across the Aisne and Marne was not harried and cut to pieces by mobile German forces in the form of cavalry. After all, the much-vaunted and feared Uhlans feature in many a memoir, newspaper article and other work on this period yet they only pop up occasionally in British descriptions of the retreat. “Chasing the Great Retreat” goes some way to explaining why this was so, but it left me a little frustrated.

There are two sources of my frustration. The first is that the book has an air of bring rushed into publication: it could certainly have benefited from some editorial attention, in correcting the numerous typographical errors and in places sharpening the narrative. The second is a question of balance: a great deal of page-space is devoted to the broad context of German manoeuvring and combat against not only the British, but the French and Belgian forces, leaving much less focus on those times when German cavalry did come to grips with the BEF. But neither of my gripes make this a bad book by any means, and overall it is a valuable addition to the subject.

What “Chasing the Great Retreat” does well (as did Robinson’s earlier works) is to expose the flaws and fragilities of the German war machine of the time. Key to them was a complex command structure in which some cavalry was under divisional command, while other elements formed two corps-like formations known as Höhere Kavallerie-Kommandeur (or Kommando). The evident mis-positioning of one of these HKK, and a belated move across the Entente front to take a position on the German right, was a factor in ensuring that the BEF was not seriously outflanked as it lined the canal north of Mons. A strong German cavalry force positioned to do that may well have changed the course of history. Command was made no easier by slow communications (despite the use of wireless in places) and differences of opinion and approach by the key army-level commanders. The German cavalry also had some odd elements of doctrine, often breaking off what may have been valuable pursuit or reconnaissance in order to go into bivouac.

The book largely covers the period 22 August to 1 September 1914 (and includes the action of Nery), after which the BEF had essentially disengaged and the opportunities that may have been presented by effective German cavalry had been squandered.

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