Now that we are through the first year of the hundred year anniversary of World War 1 I thought it would be interesting to read a history of that first year of the war. So I picked up Peter Hart’s Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914. Hart’s work focuses on the British army in France from August to December 1914. What’s most striking about this part of the war (as the title suggests) is that it is one of maneuver. The classic view of the war as one of complex trench networks only begins to come together at the end of 1914. As a result you get a very different kind of Western Front history in Fire and Movement.
This is a period of the war that has been mythologized to within an inch of its life. The standard story is of masses of German soldiers marching to their deaths in the face a small but well trained and plucky British force with accurate fire. Then the orderly withdrawal across France until the British and French counter attack at the Marne throwing the Germans back almost to their starting point. Hart seeks to challenge that view with a more nuanced story. Hart, through scrupulous research, found for example that often times the accuracy of British riflemen was much to be desired. Also the Germans didn’t always march in closed ranks into the blazing rifles and machine guns of the British force. Hart has a great deal of blame to lay at the doorstep of the British generals. Pointing out that had they listened to their intelligence staff they would have had a lot more notice of the magnitude of the German army baring down on them.
Hart is an excellent writer. He explains the complexities of the campaign without getting bogged down in the minutia. The story is fast paced and does a good job of getting the perspective of the British at all levels of the Army. The book is filled with the quotes of common soldiers, officers and generals. This shouldn’t surprise since Hart is the Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum but still its nice to hear the participants directly commenting on events.
If I had to level any criticism at this book it would be it needed better maps. There are, what look like, images of maps used in the campaign which are generally hard to read and aren’t always what is needed to understand the campaign. Other than that this book will be greatly enjoyed my military history buffs as well as those interested in World War I in general.