Daily Archives: 16 February, 2010

Mons: The Retreat to Victory by John Terraine

Unlike a lot of miliary historians who have managed to make careers out of very limited expertise, John Terraine was no one-trick-pony. As well as an authorative history of the RAF in the Second World War, Terraine also authore an impressive history of the U-Boat wars between 1914 and 1945. But his specialist area does seem to have been in the First World War. As well a being a staunch defender of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, he also wrote a fascinating book on the Western Front in 1918, from the Kaiser offensive to the final victory on 11 November 1918.

Therefore this book, Mons: The Retreat to Victory, acts as an earlier bookend. It challenges many of our assumptions about the First World War, in partcular the common misconception that the whole of the period from 1914 to 1918 was spent sat in trenches. The initial phase of the war saw the British Expeditionary Force moving up into Belgium, fighting stiff battles at Mons and Le Cateau before withdrawing back in relatively good order. The Battles of Mons and Le Cateau have long been held up as disasters, but the analysis here is more balanced. Terraine suggests that the British Army gave the Germans a bloody nose indeed. Given that they were also outnumbered 3 to 1, the view of Mons as a disaster seems all the more strange/ Cavalry also played a part in the wars early battles, contrary to popular convention.

The Germans Schlieffen plan was blunted, partly by Von Moltke’s tinkering with the allocation of forces, and then by the bloody nose they received on the Marne. As Terraine argues, the German war plan needed a qick victory – anything less was a defeat. By preventing the Germans from reaching Paris the allies might have brought about stalemate for over 4 years, but they made an eventual German victory much less likely. British leadership and organisation may have wavered at times, but it is important to remember that this was an Army that was used to fighting imperial battles. The Boer war in particular provided many lessons, particulary regarding marksmanship.

As we might expect from a historian with broad interests, Terraine makes healthy comparisons with the past and the future. Mons was the first battle fought by the British Army in North West Europe since Waterloo in 1815 almost 100 years before, ironically not a million miles away. Terraine also reminds us that in 1940 another British Expeditionary Force marched into Belgium and was beated back – only in 1940 the mobility and firepower that the Wehrmacht deployed acted as a decisive force multiplier. By contrast, in 1914 the German advance was not so concentrated or as swift.

One major disappointment, however, is the lack of referencing. No matter how much of a luminary John Terraine was, it would have been useful to know what his sources were – citing your sources is one of the golden rules of writing history. Perhaps this was intended for a more general interest audience rather than acdemics, but even then a bibliography and brief endnotes would have given readers an indication of the broader context, and some ideas for further reading. This ommision lets down an otherwise brilliant book.

Mons: The Retreat to Victory is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War One