FIRE AND MOVEMENT – Review by Wayne Osborne

It is my Royal and Imperial Command … that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers, to exterminate first, the treacherous English, walk over General French’s contemptible little Army. Said the Kaiser on 19 August 1914, says Peter Hart on page 435.This was quoted in the BEF orders of 24 September but no evidence of such an order by the Kaiser has ever been found. It would seem to have been well-judged British propaganda to inspire their own soldiers to even greater efforts.This is an end-note to a sentence in the second paragraph of the first page of the Preface.  The die for this book is cast.

Fire And Movement is simply a great read, Peter Hart’s boundless energy and enthusiasm for his subject makes this volume extremely readable.  The book, based upon interviews and memoirs, many of which are stored at the Imperial War Museum and are at the heart of the text, has good pace and is thoroughly accessible.It is a Revisionist work to add to the growing list and like them this book is seeking to examine the Great War in a new light;to strip away and challenge the myths and misconceptions that have become entrenched in the popular psyche and that are, in some cases, reinforced yearly.

While it is a book about the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 it brings the Belgian, French and German forces into focus and treats them as the participants they were rather than the ‘bit part players’ that they appear as in some British history books.  The military leaders, French, Joffre, Von Kluck, Falkenhayen, Haig, Smith-Dorrien, Foch and their colleagues are all under scrutiny, as are the actions of the Belgian, British, French and German armies.  In true Peter Hart style the eyewitnesses help to tell the story and leave us the readers in no doubt as to what it was like to be there.  At times the approach is forceful but it needs to be when dealing with the old views and such forcefulness is vital if those crumbling edifices are to be pulled down.

Peter Hart’s ‘voice’ is louder in this book than his previous ones as he puts across his message that chimes very much with my own and that of other modern historians. The war was not a pretty ‘game of two halves’ played out on a flat field with neat trenches at either end like goal lines.  Nor wasit all aboutpeople writing poetry, pausing to play football with the enemy before getting on with the noble fight.  While there were undoubtable acts of humanity and kindness, truces and, as trench warfare took hold, live and let live sectors, the Great War was vicious, evil and ruinous, calamitous, confused and murderous and bewildering.The Campaign of 1914was no different from the rest of the war in that respect and it was no less lethal.

The Old Contemptibles, The Mad Minute, The Retreat from Mons, The Christmas Truce, all are laid open to examination and the question is asked and answered, were these stories really as the British have perceived them for so many years?Each salient part of the 1914 campaign has a chapter or chapters to itself that can be read in isolation or as a part of the whole.  Particularly useful if one is researching certain elements of the campaign in detail. Mons, Le Cateau, The Retreat from Mons, they are all reviewed.  The Battle of the Marne, one of my favourite chapters, is eye opening and thought provoking.The Battle of the Aisne is grinding, seemingly unending and grim.The Ypres chapters convey the desperation of the fighting that ebbed and flowed around the old city.

The Christmas Truce chapter is excellent, the episode is a favourite of many who wish to over sentimentalise the Great War.  That there was a pause at Christmas is hardly surprising seeing as that festival was and is important to large sections of the Belgian, French, British and German nations.  Indeed Peter Hart gleefully tells us that the trappings of Christmas that arenow taken for granted had been introduced to Britain by the German Prince Albert.  The intense fighting could not go on without rest and by the time December and the cold weather arrived the armies had been at it hammer and tongs for nearly five gruelling, killing months.  Therefore, the static war of the siege line trenches, the onset of cold winter and the festival of Christmas provided a natural, if un-planned, break. Nonetheless, Peter Hart starkly reminds us that Christmas 1914 on the Western Front was not all carols, football, presents and chocolate bars.  Both sides used subterfuge under cover of the localised truces to gain advantages and gather intelligence.  Both sides still killed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Presents and offers of friendship were used to lure the unwary to their deaths.In some parts of the line there were no truces.  Sentimental this chapter is not.

I can’t say that this book takes us into territory that has not been trodden before.  There are many Revisionist historians now working in similar ways, seeking to re-evaluate the Great War by examining primary source material.  What is so good about this book, apart from the fact that it has been written by an excellent historian, is its accessibility, clarity and the convictionof the arguments it puts forward,which are backed up by the words of the people who were there.  It is impeccably referenced.  Peter Hart’s bookoffers a revised assessment of the 1914 Campaign in a compelling way that reveals some of the preconceived ideas about the war for what they are; sentimental myths.  I’ve learned things by reading this work and for me that is key; we never stop learning.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, it is highly recommended to those who enjoy reading about the Great War and if you are a fan of Peter Hart’s work then you must read it. Great stuff.

Reviewed by Dr.Wayne Osborne for War History Online.

The British Expeditionary Force And The Campaign Of 1914
By Peter Hart
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978 0 19 998927 0

Wayne Osborne

Wayne Osborne is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE