Read Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914 by Peter Hart Online

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The dramatic opening weeks of the Great War passed into legend long before the conflict ended. The British Expeditionary Force fought a mesmerizing campaign, outnumbered and outflanked but courageous and skillful, holding the line against impossible odds, sacrificing themselves to stop the last great German offensive of 1914. A remarkable story of high hopes and crushing dThe dramatic opening weeks of the Great War passed into legend long before the conflict ended. The British Expeditionary Force fought a mesmerizing campaign, outnumbered and outflanked but courageous and skillful, holding the line against impossible odds, sacrificing themselves to stop the last great German offensive of 1914. A remarkable story of high hopes and crushing disappointment, the campaign contains moments of sheer horror and nerve-shattering excitement; pathos and comic relief; occasional cowardice and much selfless courage--all culminating in the climax of the First Battle of Ypres.And yet, as Peter Hart shows in this gripping and revisionary look at the war's first year, for too long the British part in the 1914 campaigns has been veiled in layers of self-congratulatory myth: a tale of poor unprepared Britain, reliant on the peerless class of her regular soldiers to bolster the rabble of the unreliable French Army and defeat the teeming hordes of German troops. But the reality of those early months is in fact far more complex--and ultimately, Hart argues, far more powerful than the standard triumphalist narrative.Fire and Movement places the British role in 1914 into a proper historical context, incorporating the personal experiences of the men who were present on the front lines. The British regulars were indeed skillful soldiers, but as Hart reveals, they also lacked practice in many of the required disciplines of modern warfare, and the inexperience of officers led to severe mistakes. Hart also provides a more accurate portrait of the German Army they faced--not the caricature of hordes of automatons, but the reality of a well-trained and superlatively equipped force that outfought the BEF in the early battles--and allows readers to come to a full appreciation of the role of the French Army, without whom the Marne never would have been won.Ultimately Fire and Movement shows the story of the 1914 campaigns to be an epic tale, and one which needs no embellishment. Through the voices and recollections of the soldiers who were there, Hart strips away the myth to offer a clear-eyed account of the remarkable early days of the Great War....

Title : Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
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ISBN : 9780199989270
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 480 Pages
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Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914 Reviews

  • Matt
    2019-01-04 01:01

    I still remember the moment I decided it was time to learn about World War I. It was in a Barnes & Noble, on a Saturday afternoon, with my wife pregnant with our first child. I was browsing the history section in a meditative state of mind, trying to imagine how my life was about to change. Like any first-time parent-to-be, I had no idea what to expect. Outwardly, I was fine; inwardly, I kept having to suppress the urge to run, run, run. In this unstable mental condition, I began to ponder the books as though it was the last time I’d have the luxury. Intuitively, I knew that I’d read again, child or no, but I indulged a hypothetical: If I only had time to choose one more subject to learn, what would that be.(Side note: Children have only increased my reading. It is the only thing I’m allowed to do any more. Goodbye, violent and/or sexy movies, television shows, or videogames). It was 2011. The centenary of the Great War was fast approaching. I knew nothing about the topic, save that it preceded World War II and involved barbed wire, somehow. Now was as good a time as ever. Question answered, I picked A World Undone by G.J. Meyer off the shelf, and decided to embark upon a WWI reading project. I left that store with a sense of purpose. There was reading to be done, and not a moment to lose. Flash forward to now. My WWI reading project is not quite the towering edifice I’d mentally constructed six years earlier. We are almost done with the centenary celebrations, and my reading has not progressed much beyond 1914. If you ask me anything about the second or third years of World War I, I’m just going to shrug my shoulders and say “Lusitania.” I have excuses, to be sure (children one, two, and three; the fact that I have other interests; the fact that I drink), but they’re not important. Suffice to say, I haven’t gotten quite as far as I’d hoped. Reading Peter Hart’s Fire and Movement was a way to kick-start my moribund project. It didn't move me much along the timeline (it begins with the outbreak of war and ends with the Christmas Truce in December 1914), but it did represent a deeper and more focused look at a particular aspect of the war than I’ve attempted before. That particular aspect is the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. The BEF has become a legend, mostly because the British are excellent at spinning the “epic of defeat.” Even when they lose, they win, because their undersized forces are brave, and plucky, and will rise again. (See, e.g., Dunkirk). The battle of Mons, the battle of Le Cateau, and the Great Retreat were not triumphal moments for English arms, yet they have become immortalized as examples of grit and perseverance under adversity. (And as an example of fine musketry; one of the legends of the BEF rifleman is that he fired so quickly the Germans thought they were facing machine guns). Hart, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, is here to revise that notion, and bring the BEF’s reputation back down to earth. (He is simultaneously bullish on the French Army). Fire and Movement is not a book for WWI amateurs. If I had picked this up in 2011, back when I’d barely read a word about World War I, I would have quit my project immediately. Hart is assuming that you have some kind of background, because overall, non-British context is mostly ignored. His locus of inquiry is on the BEF and he seldom strays far from it. When he describes the battle of the Marne, for instance, in which the BEF played a small role, you had better have an idea of how it unfolded, because Hart spends little time filling you in. Hart begins with an overview of the BEF itself, including its leadership, composition, and training. I liked this opening section for Hart’s ability to lucidly explain the role of the BEF in the British Empire. At the time, Great Britain was a preeminent naval power. It did not have the budget to simultaneously field a large standing army. Thus, when Germany invaded Belgium, as part of her grand wheel into France, the BEF was at a distinct disadvantage. The German Army had 2,292,000 men; the French had 2,944,000. As these millions collided, the BEF embarked with 120,000 soldiers. They were more symbol than anything, earnest money for a blood contract. The large middle section of Fire and Movement is devoted to the BEF’s 1914 battles. These included the aforementioned Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne, and Ypres. (Part of the joy of learning about WWI is being unable to pronounce 30% of the place-names). In all honesty, the battles dragged for me. This is a function of Hart’s writing style. He is an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum. Thus, unsurprisingly, he prefers to structure Fire and Movement as an oral history. Instead of taking his research and threading it into a seamless narrative, he quotes big chunks of eyewitness reminisces. His prose is bare, and serves mostly to stitch together excerpts. Hart will briefly introduce a soldier or officer, and then block-quote their description of the battle. Depending on your preference, this might be exactly what you want. Some readers enjoy getting the first-person descriptions without having that filtered through an author-middleman. I’m not here to judge, only to say that it’s not to my taste. For one, it provides a very pointillist view of the battle. You seldom know where on the field the participant is located, meaning that whatever he is saying is abstracted to the point of worthlessness. Yes, you get – depending on the witness’s literary skills, which vary – visceral descriptions of combat. What you don’t get is the overall sense of how the combat unfolded. The maps don’t help. They are all old military maps, blurry and indistinct, and often spread across two pages, so that you can’t see important information that is lost in the crease. I assume these maps were free, since they are public domain material; they are also frustratingly useless in supporting the oral histories. I partially solved this problem by having Arthur Banks’ A Military Atlas of the First World War open beside me. The reliance on uncut first-person accounts also tends to get repetitive. You get constant variations on the same theme. Moreover, Hart seldom undertakes to corroborate the oral reports, meaning you have to take it on faith that the witness is accurately relating events. I would have preferred Hart to have imposed more order on this book. He is an expert in the field, and a master of this material. It felt almost like an abdication to leave most of the writing to others. I also wanted more analysis. Hart tends to write in a rather conclusory manner, expecting us – I suppose – to bend to his learned judgment. I’m willing to be swayed, but I need some kind of argument. For example, Hart tends to be rather sanguine with regards to the British generals, including the confusingly-named John French, Douglas Haig, and Horace Smith-Dorrien. This is a somewhat contrary view (the old conception is that the soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”) that required a bit more explanation than Hart provides. If you think French (the general, not the people) did a great job, tell me why. Fire and Movement concludes strongly, with a fascinating chapter on life in the trenches (here, the first-person accounts are excellent), and another on the fabled Christmas Truce, which Hart tries to puncture with bewildering glee. This is a contrarian’s view of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, and worthwhile for that reason. It provides a welcome counterbalance to prior accounts that give the BEF disproportionate credit for stemming the German onslaught.Fire and Movement is probably closer to graduate level than survey course. To that end, it will be of limited interest to those who have not fully embraced the First World War as an subject to be consumed. For those, like me, who are attempting to do just that (however slowly), this is an indispensable look at the first crucial year of the war that changed the world.

  • Jerome
    2018-12-25 06:59

    A rich, accessible history of the BEF. Hart refrains from hyperbole and he portrays its story in a fair, balanced fashion. While it doesn’t include anything new, it’s definitely worth a read.Hart challenges some assumptions about the BEF, such as its use of artillery and horses, and how British commanders expected to use them in the field. The book starts out with a discussion of this, and then moves on to the the lead-up to Mons, where the narrative gets much more lively, and Hart does a great job fleshing out the chaos of the retreat.Hart concludes that the BEF’s contribution to the 1914 campaigns was token; while it won respect from the Germans and proved courageous and flexible in the face of battle, it very likely could have been destroyed if it weren’t for sheer French manpower, German fumbling, and a good deal of luck. Hart emphasizes that many British historians fail to give the French their due when discussing the 1914 campaign. And while Mons and Le Cateau are often portrayed as fine demonstrations of fighting ability by plucky Englishmen, Hart treats them more like lucky escapes from the jaws of defeat.Hart’s chapter on the Christmas truce is also interesting. While this episode has been popular with those who like to sentimentalize the war or blast it as a futile, meaningless slaughter fought for no morally defensible reasons by stupid higher-ups, the truce was basically a result of weather conditions and the static nature of the trenches. And while the truce was “in effect” both sides still took the time to fool the enemy, ambush enemy well-wishers, mount raids, collect intelligence, and basically keep killing each other, with their sentimentality often stripped away by months of hard fighting.Not a quick read, but clear, engaging, well-organized, evenhanded and readable. As usual, Hart includes a good deal of first-hand recollections that are both well-chosen and pretty lengthy, often filling more than a page, which some readers may find a bit of a chore to slog through. Still, the narrative is energetic and Hart demonstrates a passion for his subject.

  • Steven Peterson
    2019-01-19 22:53

    This volume focuses on the British Expeditionary Force's (BEF) role in the desperate battle against the Germans in France in 1914. It is the story of a somewhat prickly alliance between French and English forces. The book also represents a corrective against the standard view of the English that the BEF played a mighty role in stalling the German juggernaut.First, the BEF started out as a miniscule part of the allied forces. At the outset, there were more Belgian divisions than the four divisions in the two corps of the BEF. The Belgians had 7 as the Battle of Mons. The French had 75 divisions and the Germans 79 at the outset. Simply, there weren't enough British troops to make much of a difference. However, the fact that there were such troops was positive for the allies, suggesting that a greater presence would develop in the future. Some had not been certain that Great Britain would enter the war at all, from a variety of sources.Second, the BEF fought hard. The commanding general had some clear limitations, but, overall, the British forces cooperated with the French (with some grousing).Third, the book considers the BEF's involvement in a number of battles--from Mons to La Cateau to the Marne to Aisne and, ultimately, to the killing fields of Ypres.Fourth, we get a sense of the evolution of tactics and strategy. Many thought that the war would be brief. Obviously, this was not the case. Generals learned the limitations of cavalry, the importance of artillery and machine guns, and so on. But the learning often included large losses of life among the troops.Fifth, the book is filled with quotations by various combatants--from generals to the lower ranks. I rather enjoy this, giving a personal element to the narrative. Some may find that the quotations are excessive.All in all, a very nice work on one aspect of World War I.

  • Bob H
    2019-01-16 07:12

    This is first-rate history, in its meticulous research, in its use of first-person accounts of that terrible period, and in its clear and often-moving prose. Just in time for the centennial, this book covers the BEF's part in the first months of the Great War, from its landing in France in August 1914 to the end of the year.Mr. Hart does succeed in dispelling some misconceptions about the BEF: its seven initial divisions were but a tiny presence in a campaign involving hundreds of French and German divisions, and the BEF's first experience of battle was more difficult and muddled than a century of retelling has made it. We learn that the pre-war mutiny over Irish home rule still left some bitterness among BEF senior officers during the campaign in France. We find that the Germans were very effective at a tactical level -- at least until they started sending untrained reservists into the October battle at Ypres -- and that the British had to improvise, particularly with field artillery. We learn that British aircraft, even at that primitive stage, became important in reconnaissance and artillery direction. We find that the Allied line at Ypres held, in large part, because of French reinforcements under Foch. And we learn much on the origins and improvisation of trench warfare, once the line held and the war stalemated.We even learn that the Christmas truce was less complete and more troublesome than the legend makes out -- that it didn't take place in some sectors and broke down in gunfire in others. He tells us that the truce "was a break from reality, not the dawn of some brave new peaceful world."In all, this book gives us a clearer and more lucid view of the BEF. If anything, it gives us a greater appreciation for the men who took part a century ago, and a greater sense of their challenges and striving. Highest recommendation.

  • Mark
    2019-01-06 07:13

    This is an excellent book. It is well researched, as is every book by Hart I have read.It details the history of the campaign of 1914 from both the Entente and German sides on the Western Front. What gives this book it's readability is the inclusion of the quotes from Veterans, they highlight the horror of war, in action and in the trenches. A must read for all those interested in 1914.NOTE: The book clearly wasn't read well by a proof reader, so many silly mistakes in spelling and grammar.

  • Steve Switzer
    2019-01-11 00:50

    Not read this author before will certainly will hunt out his other books after this one. Excellent first hand accounts of all ranks of the BEFs experiences in 1914 , gets to the truth behind the myths of the mons and ypres battles without being irritating. First rate readMons ... the germans using fire and movement may have caused the british to think they were inflicting more casualties than they were, whereas the poorly trained masses at ypres really were mown down in droves by the BEF s accurate fire.

  • Douglas Graham
    2018-12-22 06:14

    Great book about the British Expeditionary Force in 1914! Tons of personal accounts that transport the reader to battles that are now over 100 years in the past. Hart does a great job of telling the story of a small professional army and its stand against the juggernaut of the German Army. Though the heavy lifting was done by the French, the BEF held their own when it mattered. An enlightening read.

  • Mariner77
    2018-12-30 00:50

    Outstanding military history.

  • Bijan Omrani
    2019-01-11 23:54

    Regardless of whether the Angel of Mons legend was actually cooked up by senior British officers to boost morale at home, it is what the legend tells us about British attitudes towards the contribution of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front in 1914 that is perhaps of greatest interest. The legend implied that the BEF’s involvement in the conflict was on a near-cosmic scale, vastly augmenting its importance in the actual context of fighting between the French, Belgian and German armies. What really mattered, the legend suggested, was the BEF, and the doings of the French and Belgians were little more than a side-show. This is not the only assumption which long ago became all too common among British perspectives on the BEF and Western Front from 1914 onwards. The BEF were the highly-trained and professional stiffening which put backbone into the ragtag French and Belgian armies. Their efforts were all the more heroic, given that Britain was not prepared for a continental war, that it depended for survival on the efforts of the elite BEF, and that the foe they faced, the German Army, was an unstoppable machine of conquest. Peter Hart, who is Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum, with a rigorous argument firmly grounded in primary sources, challenges many of these assumptions in this new work. He assesses the contribution which was made by the BEF throughout 1914 from Mons to the First Battle of Ypres, setting it in the much broader context of the development of the British Army from the end of the 19th century and the Boer War. He comes to a more nuanced, but no less laudatory judgement of what the BEF achieved. One commonly held belief is that the British were unprepared for war. Hart reminds us this is quite untrue. The British were well prepared for war, but the wrong war. In terms of tactics, the British Army’s doctrines had been overly influenced by the Boer War. The highly-mobile mounted Boer commandos they had encountered encouraged the British themselves to overvalue mobility. “Fire and movement” was the British approach to attack. “Fire superiority” would be established followed by flanking attacks with continued heavy supporting fire. The tactics were even adapted for the trench warfare that was seen in South Africa. However, there was a misguided belief that modern weaponry with overwhelming firepower would always benefit the mobile attacker over the static defender. It was hardly contemplated that the same modern weaponry would in fact offer a devastating advantage to a well-entrenched and highly-resourced defender where flanking attacks were not possible and one could only advance over open ground. Hence, the British put too much energy into preparations for attack, and little for defence. There was little practice of trench building. Too great a preference was given to light and mobile artillery, used for close infantry support, over heavy long-range weapons, which could break down entrenched defences and restore mobility to a battlefield. It was similarly the case on a strategic level. There were a few far-sighted officials, such as Brigadier General Sir Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, who as early as 1907 foresaw the prospect of a German invasion of France via Belgium and the role which a British Expeditionary Force might play in such circumstances. However, for the most part British interest was still fixated on the naval arms race with Germany, unconcerned with developing its land forces for the continental-scale clash which was in prospect. It is a salutary corrective to contemplate the scale of the clash, and the actual level of British participation by numbers in 1914. The BEF consisted of four infantry divisions and one cavalry division: approximately 100,000 men. The French Army, mobilised, numbered 2,944,000 in 75 divisions, and the German Army 2,292,000 in 79 divisions. French casualties in the Battle of the Frontiers, made all the more vivid in Hart’s account by extracts from the young De Gaulle and other French infantrymen, were 200,000, with around 75,000 dead. This includes 27,000 on 22nd August alone. The BEF suffered losses of around 1,500 at Mons in the following days, but these facts compel us to remember that the level of British engagement was, at that time, a small part of a grand panorama. Hart likewise reminds us that it was the French commanders, Joffre and Foch, who were at the forefront of affairs. In particular, it was Joffre with his recovery of the situation after the disaster of the Battle of the Frontiers, and his strategic vision which allowed for the exploitation of the gap in the advancing German line, that made possible the victory of the Marne and the halting of the German advance. Hart critically examines the role of the BEF commander, Sir John French, observing his petulance in his relations with Joffre and his extreme reluctance to engage in offensive operations during the Marne. It took not just Joffre begging French to co-operate, but also a visit from an angry Kitchener in full Field-Marshal’s uniform to compel him to go along with plans for the Marne engagement. It was not only Sir John French’s difficult character which made difficulties for the BEF. The Staff of the General Headquarters (GHQ) had been hastily put together. They suffered from underlying tensions, some of which went back to the deployments made to deal with the proposed Home Rule of Ireland earlier in the year. Haig himself could hardly bear to be led by French – a relationship which Hart explores fully. The communication difficulties which were inherent in the chaos of war were exacerbated by the reluctance of French and his staff to disseminate, or even pay attention to, intelligence (his early distrust of aerial reconnaissance is startling), and French’s own apparent lassitude in coming to or broadcasting decisions. Hart’s defence of General Smith-Dorrien’s decision to make the stand at Le Cateau contrary to GHQ’s orders is especially insightful, as is his discussion of the enduring value of the cavalry at this point in the campaign. For all the excellent discussion of the wider context, the greater part of the work is given to the experience of the soldiers, from the point of mobilisation – we follow, for example, Private Edward Roe, an Irishman with a group of fellow reservists summoned for service, watching a number of his fellows barefooted, tatter-coated, reeling from liquor and singing raucously – to the engagements on the front. Hart is assiduous in covering all sides of the battlefield, and he draws from German material to elucidate the effect that British action had on their lines. Particularly likely to cause comment, especially following the Sainsbury’s Christmas TV advertising campaign set during the Christmas truce on the western front, is his chapter-long treatment of this episode, in which he asserts that “for the vast majority of the participants, the truce was a matter of convenience and maudlin sentiment. It did not mark some deep flowering of the human spirit, or signify political anti-war emotions taking root amongst the ranks.” It is this combination of strongly expressed opinion, nuance, rigorous argument and research, which makes the book an excellent read, as much for the beginner as those with previous knowledge. All in all, Hart reminds us that even if the BEF were certainly not centre-stage, and limited by their doctrines, tactics and equipment, their actions as soldiers lost nothing in gallantry.