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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

Cover of "Forgotten Victory: The First Wo...

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Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack – detailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue – thougtfully – that a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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70 years ago: Blitzkrieg

On 10 May 1940 the phoney war came to an abrupt end when the German Panzers rolled into Holland, Belgium and France in the west. In accordance with the plan agreed with the French, the British Expeditionary Force moved up into Belgium to the line of the Dyle River, after the Germans invaded Belgium.

Private Louis Ayling, 21 and from Eastney, was killed on the first day of the campaign. Serving with the 1st/6th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, he was killed on 10 May 1940 and is buried in Avelgem, Belgium. A territorial unit, the 1/6 East Surrey’s were undergoing training and labour duties under 12 Infantry Division.

The attack further north in Belgium was not the main thrust, however. The main attack came further south through the Ardennes. As the German Panzers advanced west there was a serious risk that the BEF would be cut off. The run to the coast at Dunkirk was already falling into place.

The RAF contingent serving alongside the BEF was called into action almost immediately in an attempt to stem the advance. On the first day of the battle Sergeant (Pilot) Alfred Robertson was killed over Holland. 26 and from Southsea, he had taken off from Wyton in England. He was flying a Bristol Blenheim with 40 Squadron, and is buried in Voorburg, Holland.

Sergeant (Observer) Herbert Trescothic was serving with 142 Squadron, who were flying Fairey Battles. Taking off from Berry-au-Bac on 14 May, they were targetting bridges and roads around Sedan. His aircraft crashed at Cherey, where he is buried. He was 25 and from Southsea.

Also killed on 14 May was Flight Lieutenant Harold Sammells. 24 and from North End, he was serving with 105 Squadron, a unit operating Fairey Battles in France. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

Leading Aircraftman (Air Gunner) Walter Lawes, 21 and from Copnor, was killed on 16 May 1940. He was serving with 13 Squadron, a Westland Lysander unit. Lawes is buried at Vieux-Conde in France. Westland Lysanders were often used for dropping off and picking up special agents behind enemy lines.

Private Albert Voysey, 21 and from Mile End, was serving with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was killed on 18 May 1940 and is buried in Abbeville, France. The 7th Royal Sussex were also serving under 12 Infantry Division.

Sapper Leslie Parsonage, 26 and from Eastney, was also killed on 18 May. He was serving with 17th Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and is buried in Aaigem, Belgium. 17th Field Company were serving under Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Infantry Division.

Sergeant William Northey, 22, was serving with 5 Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery when he was killed on 19 May. He is buried in Le Doulieu, France. 5 Medium Regiment were a Corps Artillery unit attached to I Corps.

Sapper Henry Ward, of Cosham, was killed on 20 May 1940. He was serving with 263 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, and is buried in Pont-de-Metz, France. 263 Field Company were performing labour duties under 12 Infantry Division.

Private Alfred Williams of the Royal Army Service Corps was also killed on 20 May. Aged 24, he is buried at Candas in France.

2nd Lieutenant Reginald Stevens, 19 and from Southsea, was serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers when he was killed on 22 May. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkik Memorial. The 2nd Lancs were serving in the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, II Corps.

Even by the 22nd of May, however, the BEF was already fighting a stiff rearguard action towards the coast. Its noticeable from the losses in the opening stages of the battle that it was not just the infantry who were caught in the front line – due to the manner in which the BEF was outflanked and almost cut-off, gunners and sappers were also casualties. And as desribed in Tim Lynch’s Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown, many territorial units still undergoing training were thrown into the battle.

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