MEMOIRS OF THE BEF – Review by Wayne Osborne

Well, memoirs from a part of the BEF. The original title, while dull, does what it says on the can, the new title flatters to deceive. Edward Gleichen was the Brigadier-General of the 15th Brigade on the day the war broke out and continued to command it on the western Front until promoted to the command of 37th Division, a post he held until 1916 when he went to become the Director of the Intelligence Bureau at the Department of Information.  He was a regular Grenadier officer and had an illustrious past that included the honour of falling out with the Kaiser before the rest of the British Army did. This book was the third of his five publications and apparently initially intended as a private diary. It appeared in print in 1917 and was, by Gleichen’s own admission, altered, ostensibly to remove personal and family information.

Fortunately this diary is not the kind of work that simply records whom the general had tea with.  Such diaries are mind bogglingly boring.  This diary is far more detailed and interesting than that.  Starting with mobilisation and the early days of confusion, Gleichen writes about events as they unfolded.  He records the plight of the displaced civilians, forced to suffer as the fighting engulfed them.  He charts the everyday life and death of the Tommies under his command with the empathy of a man who shared their experiences, dangers, their rations and emotion. He does not shy away from describing the execution of a British deserter and he recalls an amusing moment when the brigade, short of maps, was forced to buy some local maps from a stationers.  This episode rings true; the BEF was poorly supplied with maps in 1914/15.

The British wounded are described in fairly graphic detail; he describes their excellent care and how they got the best treatment possible.  He notes how badly the British prisoners were treated by their German captors in stark contrast to the treatment given to German prisoners by wounded British Tommies.  He goes on to describe how in combat wounded British officers led their men, urging them on while German officers, cowardly and craven, shouted orders to their advancing men from the safety of the trenches behind them.  The descriptions of evil, thieving or doe eyed, easily led German soldiers contrast with the gentle, noble, even-handed, smart Tommies…

The reader might be getting the picture now.  Gleichen’s work, once a genuine diary, was published for propaganda purposes and was certainly altered for the 1917 readership.  A student of propaganda may well find it enlightening, someone with an interest in the 15th Brigade or 37th Division would find it very interesting, anyone charting Gleichen’s life would find it useful and in such instances I would recommend it.  For anyone looking for a book about the early stages of the Great War I would say read it, sift the truth from the propaganda but above all, read parts of it with a huge pinch of salt.  This was a book of its time.  Well done for re-printing it.

Reviewed by Dr. Wayne Osborne for War History Online.

By Lord Edward Gleichen
Published under licence by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2014 as part of the Eyewitnesses from the Great War series.
First published as The Doings of the Fifteenth Infantry Brigade, August 1914 to March 1915.William Blackwood & Sons, 1917.
ISBN 9781783462490

Wayne Osborne

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