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.
- ‘A Contemptible Little Army’ The BEF in 1914 (warstudies.wordpress.com)
- Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- Horsemen in No Mans Land: British Cavalry in Trench Warfare 1914-1918 by David Kenyon (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- North Sea Battleground: The War at Sea 1914-18 by Bryan Perrett (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- Walking the Somme by Paul Reed (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)