Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert

Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert

I must admit I approached this book with a certain sense of dread. Most books that promise to tell the 'real story' of any historical event are generally unremittingly negative, looking to destroy the reputation of whatever they are examining, or reveal an unknown 'true story'. Thankfully that isn't the case here. Gilbert's aim is to produce an accurate history of the BEF in 1914, stripping away the wartime propaganda and its influence on later writers to see what actually happened, looking at both the failures and the achievements of the British army. Once or twice single negative sources are preferred to several more positive ones, but often with some justification.

The book starts with the period from the opening of the British War Book, through the move to France and the march towards contact with the Germans, and the battle of Mons. I don't entirely agree with the current tendency to describe Mons as a British defeat - given the scale of the oncoming German army in 1914 the escape of the BEF can be considered as a success, but I can see the author's argument. Part two looks at the BEF's least impressive period - the Great Retreat itself might have been handled with some skill, but the high command performed badly, the battle of Le Cateau was almost catastrophic (and caused divisions within the army for years to come), and Marshal French came close to withdrawing the BEF from the battle altogether.

The third part looks at the crucial battle of the Marne, where the BEF played a part in the victory, and the Battle of the Aisne, where a series of chances to seize the high ground on the German side of the Aisne were missed. The fourth part looks at Ypres, where the BEF performed impressively during a costly defensive battle. This intense period of warfare almost destroyed those units of the BEF most heavily engaged, as demonstrated by a quote from a medical officer who realised he was one of only two original officers (along with the quartermaster) left in his battle by the time of Ypres).

This account of the campaign demonstrates the unsuitability of several high ranking officers for service in such an intense conflict (the same was true in the French army, where many generals were replaced after the first clashes). One senior officer was said to have fainted when the scale of the German advance became clear, and many were caught out by the scale of the conflict. Others, Haig amongst them, come out rather better. Other parts of the BEF also struggled under the strain of an unexpectedly titanic conflict, including the artillery, which was equipped with the wrong sort of guns for trench warfare, and on occasion the wrong attitude.

This is a good up-to-date campaign history of this early pivotal period of the First World War, where both sides failed to take advantage of the period of open warfare, condemning their armies to the years of static warfare on the Western Front.


Part 1 - Advance to Battle
1 - Opening the War Book
2 - Across the Channel
3 - The March to Mons
4 - The Kaiser's Army
5 - Encounter at Mons

Part 2 - The Great Retreat
6 - Disengagement
7 - Le Cateau: the Decision to Fight
8 - Le Cateau: the Defeat
9 - Failures of Command
10 - The Retreat Continues

Part 3 - From the Marne to the Aisne
11 - Turn of the Tide
12 - Battle on the Aisne: Assault
13 - Battle on the Aisne: Entrenchment

Part 4 - Decision at Ypres
14 - The Opening Moves
15 - Storms over Ypres
16 - Battle in the South
17 - Ypres: the Test

Author: Adrian Gilbert
Edition: Softcover
Pages: 376
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2014

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