Daily Telegraph – Monday, 3rd August 1914

One hundred years ago, it was a bank holiday Monday – but the clouds were gathering.

“Germany has drawn the sword. On Saturday night, she formally declared war on Russia.”

“Germany has deliberately commenced war with France without a formal declaration.”

“The Germans have seized the roads and railways of Luxembourg.”

“German troops in Switzerland.”

Our response – “Cheering crowds at Buckingham Palace.”

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Loos, 25th September 1915

1518179_10152455948219073_7134580376713875590_oA very short update on my next project – a divisional comparison between Regular and New Army divisions in the opening days of the Battle of Loos in September 1915. A change from my work on Henry Wilson as this will focus on the pre-battle planning and look at the evolution of the plans as they migrated from First Army, down through I Corps to the two divisions. 7th Division, commanded by Thompson Capper, were a Regular division while the 9th (Scottish) Division, under George Handcock Thesiger, were the first New Army division to see action. It will be interesting to see if planning and subsequent execution will differ between the two divisions.

Stemming The Tide. Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914.

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Having spent years reading military history, I have finally made it into print with a chapter in “Stemming The Tide. Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914”.

This is the first volume in the Wolverhampton Military Studies Series and is an examination of command at all levels of the BEF in 1914 through a series of biographical essays on its key officers. Having finished my MA in 2011, I was approached and asked to contribute a chapter on Henry Wilson, the Sub-Chief of Staff during the opening months of the war. Wilson is a controversial figure who provokes a wide range of views on his military effectiveness – and in particular, his political “scheming” to achieve his ends. While his role as Sub-Chief did not entirely cover him in glory, he played a vital part in readying Britain for a Continental war through his activities initially as Commandant of the Staff College (1907-1910) and then as Director of Military Operations in the War Office (1910-1914).

I am very pleased with my chapter and to be included in such august company is a real honour. If you would like to read more – the book is out this month and will be officially launched at the University of Wolverhampton on 12th December.

Book description from the Helion & Co website:

The British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was described by the official historian as “incomparably the best trained, best organised, and best equipped British Army that ever went forth to war.” The BEF proved its fighting qualities in the fierce battles of 1914 and its reputation has endured. However, the same cannot be said for many of its commanders, who have frequently been portrayed as old fashioned, incompetent, and out of touch with events on the battlefield.

Yet the officers who led the BEF to war were every bit as professional and hard-bitten as the soldiers they commanded. These officers had learned their craft in the unforgiving school of colonial warfare and honed their understanding of conflict in the period of reform that reshaped the army between 1902 and 1914. As this book reveals, when faced with the realities of modern combat, the officers of the BEF were prepared for the challenge.

This collection offers a broad picture of command at all levels of the BEF through a series of biographical essays on key officers. Drawing upon much original research, each chapter explores the pre-war background and experience of the officer and assesses his performance in combat in the opening months of the First World War. The book features insightful reappraisals of famous figures including John French and Douglas Haig, fresh studies of staff officers such as William Robertson and Henry Wilson, and a thorough discussion of officers at the sharp end, with chapters covering divisional, brigade, battalion and company commanders.

The essays reveal an officer class that, despite certain weaknesses, provided highly effective leadership during the chaotic fighting of August to November 1914. Without their influence it is unlikely that the BEF would have been able to survive the difficulties of the Great Retreat, much less halt the German invasions of France and Belgium.

This book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the First World War, and of particular value to those who seek a greater understanding of the British Army of the era.

Book contents
List of illustrations
List of maps
Abbreviations
Notes on Contributors
Series Preface
Acknowledgements
Introduction by Spencer Jones

GHQ

1 Sir John French and Command of the BEF by Stephen Badsey

2 Major-General Sir Archibald Murray by J.M. Bourne

3 Henry Wilson’s War by Brian Curragh

4 ‘The big brain in the army’: Sir William Robertson as Quartermaster-General by John Spencer

Corps Command

5 The Making of a Corps Commander: Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig by Gary Sheffield

6 Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson by Mark Connelly

7 ‘A Commander of Rare and Unusual Coolness’: General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien by Spencer Jones and Steven J. Corvi

Divisional Command

8 The Bull and the Fox Terrier: Edmund Allenby and Command in the BEF in 1914 by Simon Robbins

9 An Inspirational Warrior: Major-General Sir Thompson Capper by Richard Olsen

Brigade Command

10 ‘A Tower of Strength’: Brigadier-General Edward Bulfin by Michael LoCicero

11 ‘The Demon’: Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence V.C. by Spencer Jones

12 David Henderson and Command of the Royal Flying Corps by James Pugh

Command at the Sharp End

13 The Infantry Battalion Commanding Officers of the BEF by Peter Hodgkinson

14 The Company Commander by John Mason Sneddon

15 ‘Amateurs at a professional game’: The Despatch Rider Corps in 1914 by Michael Carragher

Appendix: British Expeditionary Force Order of Battle 1914

Index

All you need to know about Robert Fisk & Remembrance

appalled … those bloody poppies again … this obscene fashion appendage … demands yet further human sacrifice … sacrifice … Passchendaele … this wretched flower … butcher Haig … these sickly and fake petals … hypocrisy… “sepulchre of crime” … “Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end” … this monstrous crime against humanity … The pity of war… the flower of youth cut short … Dead soldiers … generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment … soldiery were simply dumped into mass graves … remains of the dead were shipped off…to be used as manure … this preposterous poppy … fake flowers … blood-red soil of the Flanders dead … war was ultimately devoid of meaning … “just one great waste” … cast poppies aside….that terrible, almost orgiastic poem … “In Flanders fields” … our duty to kill more human beings … A bloody poppy! … Passchendaele…

The above is a distillation of an article Robert Fisk posted on the Independent’s website on 7th November 2013 – “Poppycock – or why remembrance rituals make me see red” – as part of that paper’s run up to Armistice Day.

There is really little to be said about it. The author is a respected journalist, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent for more than twenty years, but this is not the first time he has used the paper to repeat his tired and increasingly challenged views. Sadly he is not alone, there was an article the following day in the Guardian that follows a similar line – “This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time”.

As the Centenary looms, there will be an increasing need to get the message out that these hackneyed views do not portray a true picture of the Great War. But it is not going to be easy…

PS – note to Robert, you forgot to include the word futile.

PPS – the measure of how difficult it is going to be to correct this attitude is shown by the 2,400+ who either “strongly agree” or “agree” with Fisk which compares to the 991 who “strongly disagree” or “disagree” with him. But then this is the Independent.
(Results as at 12:30 Saturday 9th November.)

Review – Peter Hart’s “The Great War: 1914-1918”

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With the Centenary of the Great War fast approaching, together with the inevitable avalanche of books that will accompany it over the next six years, the challenge for the student of this conflict will be to sift out the books that add to the body of knowledge & steer clear of those that regurgitate old, sometimes out of date or discredited views. This is particularly relevant when it comes to looking at single volume histories of the war – whose success will come from supplying a concise explanation of the key issues and events that still engages and informs the reader.

Peter Hart’s “The Great War: 1914-1918”, published by Profile Books in April 2013 is the latest entry to the field and comes at a particularly timely moment.

Hart is well known not only through the numerous books he has already written on the conflict but also in his role as Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum – and it is this latter experience that enables him to add a level of personal connection with the combatants through their reminiscences and thereby bring a new perspective to global events.

While the actual sequence of events that lead to war are still the subject of debate, the case is clear in this book for the inevitability of war in August 1914 after decades of inconclusive conflicts and unresolved geopolitical ambitions. With none of the participants prepared to accept a reduction in their national “economic, political, military and imperial ambitions”, the slide towards war was unavoidable.

Hart deserves credit for highlighting the often neglected role of the French in the early years of the war – their losses of 27,000 dead on one day in August 1914 in the Battle of the Frontiers is not widely known but should be to place British losses on the 1st July 1916 into context. The time bought by the French nation in the opening two years of the war at an appalling cost should not be under recognised – without that blood sacrifice, the war would have taken a very different course.

While Hart does focus on the major fronts with reduced emphasis on the more peripheral sideshows, this is entirely in line with his view that these had the greatest potential to win the war and therefore demand the bulk of the attention. A central tenet of his argument is that the war was only going to be won by defeating the main enemy, Germany, on the main front, the Western Front. Hart is correspondingly scathing in his criticism of those “Easterners” such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill for diverting scarce resources to what were essentially sideshows. Having said that, the book does not neglect the other fronts with Gallipoli (unsurprisingly bearing in mind Hart’s previous two works on this fascinating campaign), Salonika, Palestine and Italy all receiving good coverage as does the war in the air and at sea. Coverage of the African fighting is missing but this omission is understandable given the ambition of covering the entire war in one volume.

The book provides a detailed narrative of the ways in which technology and tactics improved and adapted throughout the war leading initially to the successes of the opening day of the Cambrai offensive in November 1917 before coming to a logical conclusion in the form of the “all arms battle” of the Hundred Days campaign that began on 8th August 1918 and lead to the surrender of the German forces on 11th November.

Hart does belong to the “revisionist” school of military history – or possibly even post-revisionist – in that he generally holds the achievements of the senior commanders in higher regard than the discredited “butchers and bunglers” fraternity of historians – but, while acknowledging the concept of a “learning curve”, Hart is clear that the opposition had their own learning curve and hence stresses the importance of who was learning quicker at any particular time. The learning curve was far from being a smooth one.

The book’s illustrations are helpful in providing visual context, the maps are clear and concise and the notes and index are extensive. The lack of a bibliography with archival sources is unsurprising given the range of the book’s coverage in terms of theatres and years.

Peter Hart’s achievement in this volume is not only in providing a clear description of the war combined with a detailed examination of the significance of key events, but doing this while maintaining a very personal level of contact with the participants – and this goes from the individual soldier in the front line all the way through to those who were directing the conflict. Professor Gary Sheffield has described Hart as the “master of anecdotal history” – he is – but he is also a damn fine historian.

Highly recommended for all those interested in increasing their knowledge and understanding of the Twentieth Century’s greatest conflict.

Disquieting news from Fromelles

This disturbing report from Victoria Burbidge, representing the British Memorial Association, Fromelles, via Chris Baker’s Long Long Trail, deserves wider circulation.

National interests from the French & Australian authorities appear to be attempting to airbrush out the entire British contribution to the war in this area as it does not fit within the “scenography” of the new Pheasant Wood Cemetery’s visitor centre.

A very disappointing development – the British Memorial Association, Fromelles deserves all the support it can get to resist this.

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