Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914
by Peter Hart
Published by Oxford University Press, 2014

The history of 1914 is one of armies mobilizing and first experiencing the war that would consume them over the next four years. Each army has its story. Fire and Movement is the story of the British Army during those early days of World War I. While continental powers had their massive ground forces at the time, Britain defended its Empire by ruling the waves and maintaining a small professional army. This war was not to be the one the British anticipated and, in the time frame covered by this book, they sent only a small expeditionary force to fight alongside the much larger French Army.

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One cannot tell the story of 1914 without looking down the long road that led to war, and author Peter Hart begins his book with the lead-ups that prepared the belligerents for the war they would fight. British alliances were driven by an interest in preventing any one nation from achieving dominance of the Continent. The ascent of the German Empire, particularly its challenge to the Royal Navy, strained its relations with Britain and drove the United Kingdom to establish its primarily alliance with its traditional rival, France. 1914 found the British prepared for a war it expected to fight by destroying the German Fleet followed by blockade. But although the war took unexpected turns, Britain's recent war against the Boers had left it with an advantage over its allies and foes, namely a greater appreciation for the value of mobility and power —  that is, a war of fire and movement.

Hart's book follows the BEF through the battles of 1914, those that frustrated the Schlieffen Plan, deflected the knockout punch against France, and set up a stagnant war of trenches and slaughter that put the Germans on the road to eventual defeat. The names of the battles are known to the devoted Great War student: Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, Aisne, the Race to the Sea, and, finally, Ypres, where mobility and hopes of a quick victory sank into the mud. The narrative concludes with the legend of that unique day when the warriors suspended hostilities to share their Christmas celebrations.

A synopsis of each battle is presented, but the particular contribution of this book to the Great War literature is its focus on the experiences of individual British soldiers. Readers are introduced to memoirs of dogfights, air bombing, the treachery of false surrenders, cold and filth, pain and death, philosophical acceptance, and occasional humor. Hart's style leavens his own narratives with long quotes from the participants themselves that help us see the battles through their eyes. To cite a few, looking toward the heavens, a Lt. Francis Le Breton reports what he saw:

This aeroplane then came back over us, and a British biplane came up from the other side of the Aisne, and the two aeroplanes had a duel. We could hear the shots fired. After a little manoeuvring the British machine suddenly tilted up sideways and started falling: it recovered partly, however, and flew back in a rather slanting attitude whence it came.

Many of us have seen sterile recreations of trenches in museums, but we get a much different perspective from the words of a solder of the 15th Brigade:

Oh that mud! We had heard lots about Flanders mud, but the reality transcends imagination, especially in winter. Greasy, slippery, holding clay, over your toes in most places and over your ankles in all the rest — where it is not over your knees — it is the most horrible 'going' I know anywhere. Whether you are moving across plough or grass fields or along lands, you are perpetually skating about and slipping up on the firmer bits and held fast by the ankles in the softer ones.

1914 Trench in Flanders

The trenches were not just filthy and sloppy. They caused pain and illness that could only be described by one who experienced them, such as Lt. Arthur Ackland, who wrote:

The bottom of the trenches became deep in icy mud. In this they stood, up to their knees, day and night, for we could not spare a man from the trenches, and soon we began to experience what we call now 'frost-bitten feet'. No one knows what it is but I think myself it comes from the continual pressure of the mud and lack of ventilation to the feet. Anyhow, it is a dreadful thing and the men suffered agonies from it.

As hard as it is to imagine, amidst the horror soldiers were still able to see irony and make attempts at humor. Capt. Arthur Martin-Leake observed:

We had roast pig for dinner today. The beast was reported officially to have died from shell wounds!! It is extraordinary how often edible creatures meet this end.

My favorite part of the story is the Christmas Truce, the Christmas in which civility temporarily suppressed the terrors of war. In the words of Rifleman Graham Williams:

Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air!...First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up 'O Come All Ye Faithful the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words 'Adeste Fideles'.

Fire and Movement gave me a greater understanding of the initial developments of the Great War and their significance. Many military history books paint the big picture, the sweep of armies, and the significance of campaigns. While this book does that to some extent, it mainly focuses closely on the experiences of the individual soldiers. I particularly recommend it for readers in search of their stories.

James M. Gallen


  1. Good review James, thanks.

  2. Sounds much like Hastings' 1914. He also covers the same thing Hart covers, but does so in much greater depth painting the whole six months of 1914. He ends his tale at Xmas 1914, as both sides in the East and West acknowledge exhaustion and slowly come to the conclusion for all the grand designs of long dead planners of a blitzkrieg of six weeks sank in the mud of Flanders and Picardy

  3. Excellent review. Indeed when I first picked up the book I was concerned that it led me up to a battle and without fanfare it was done and the book moved on. Then I stepped back and looked at it more as a passing by the men involved in the events than the events themselves and knew I could go elsewhere for the details. Found it then to be a massively enjoyable read and therefore is taking me onto other books for the details.