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

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Chasing the Great Retreat: The German Cavalry Pursuit of the British Expeditionary Force Before the Battle of the Marne, August 1914

By Col. (Ret.) Joe Robinson, Sabine Declercq, and Randal Gilbert
Helion and Company, March 2022
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

Idealized View of Germany's Cavalry

Ably assisted by two co-authors, Robinson has followed up his excellent work, The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914, with this book as a continuation piece. The work is another masterpiece which gives many Great War historians a necessary insight as to why the war wasn’t, in fact, concluded by Christmas as the Kaiser promised and newspapers shouted in the streets all over the world.

But before the reader can get to the gist of the book, the authors launch into a very eye-opening prelude. Specifically, they caution the reader to consider why certain paradigms exist in the structure of World War I accounts. Examples are the tenacity of British soldiers at Mons, where they released so many well-aimed rounds (15 per minute) that the attacking Germans thought they were faced with many machine guns instead of rifle fire, or the accounts of British victories at Le Cateau and Mons while German histories of the same battle claim a victory in both instances for their armies.

In the authors’ words, the truth of the matter is that the victor writes the history, and if the paradigm is said often enough it is believed.  Additionally, to reinforce these concepts there is a whole generation of writers who rely almost totally on British accounts without delving into either French or German accounts since they lack language and research skills. History is about gathering data and presenting it in an unbiased manner which has not always happened among authors. Taking this position into consideration, the authors then present the reader with a detailed description of the German cavalry’s composition, its missions, and where it fell into command and control of an offensive.

Truly, the cavalry’s existence in the early Great War days is a fine example of command echelons not understanding how to use the fast moving, hard hitting, most flexible arm of war-making in the early 20th century. In fact, the Great War created command structures which did not exist in peacetime and, therefore, lacked user guides. And that lack of understanding does not stop at deployment. It also appears in the most crucial area of war, logistics. There were no plans on how to feed or supply a force that could cover 30 kilometers a day and cross from one army’s control to another in the space of 48 hours. 

British Forces Under Fire During the Retreat from Mons

Once the reader understands the cavalry’s missions and logistical problems, the authors talk about the Great Retreat—but not from the Allied perspective. This is a German show and as such the next chapters describe how the German General Staff (OHL) and the 1st and 2nd Armies attempted, in accordance with their concept of encirclement, to get around the French left flank and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which occupied that position. Of note to me, the OHL was not surprised by the appearance of the BEF, as many accounts that I have read stated. They fully expected to meet British troops. However, they were surprised with the fact that the BEF went into the line directly from the embarkation points.

Additionally, Robinson is quite clear in painting a picture of a less than prepared Tommy who was not a colonial battle-hardened soldier as I had been led to believe over the years. He was rather a peacetime garrison bloke who was as new to war as his counterpart. The book’s day by day reporting of unit placements, confused orders, and missed opportunities is a treasure source. Each day’s report is illustrated with a daily map. The detail of some unit identifications did get a little excessive in places, but I was reading for content. Had I been researching information for my own book, all the superb data would have wound up in notes to be drawn from as I wrote my opus.

This is a work that merits a spot on a historian’s bookshelf next to Terence Zuber’s The Mons Myth, A Reassessment of the Battle (2010). Both are well balanced in their description of events before the war settled into a stalemate and passed Christmas in the trenches.

Michael Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. Thank you! Another book I must get.