Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914, ed. Spencer Jones

Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914, ed. Spencer Jones

The senior commanders of the BEF have come in for a great deal of criticism in recent years, with the successes of the BEF put down to the fighting abilities of the soldiers rather than any skill on the part of their commanders. This study of the BEF’s officers includes studies of the main characters at GHQ, the three corps commanders (including Grierson, who died on his way to the front), a selection of division and brigade commanders and general studies of the battalion and company commanders.

One key feature of the book is that in most cases a deliberate effort has been made not to look ahead to the later careers of the officer being studied. Haig is thus examined as a 1914 corps commander, and not as a 1916-18 commander-in-chief, and Allenby as the moderately successful commander of the Cavalry Division and not the victorious commander in Palestine towards the end of the war. Instead the focus is on the individual’s pre-war career and their performance in the key battles of 1914 - Mons, the great retreat, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres - the battles fought largely or entirely by the pre-war Regular army, its reservists and the first Territorials to reach the front. 

There is a slight tendency in this sort of book to paint an overly positive picture of each of the individuals, as the authors have chosen who to spend their time studying. In this case I’m not convinced by the efforts to defend French’s performance during the retreat from Mons, where he effectively lost control of his army, with effective command falling to two corps commanders - Haig and Smith Dorrien. Otherwise it is actually quite useful for each of these figures to have their champion, as otherwise one might get an entirely negative picture of some officers.

There are interesting snippets all the way through this book. I must admit I didn’t realise that prospective battalion commanders actually had to pass a fairly testing theoretical and practical examination before they could take up their posts (and about a third of proposed commanders failed the test). At lower levels company officers went through an annual evaluation process that closely resembles modern continuous personal development practices. There is even a convincing defence of the common regimental ban on talking ‘shop’ in the mess, as a way of making sure that officers who generally lived ‘over the shop’ had somewhere that was a refuge from an increasingly heavy work load. 

The final chapter doesn’t really fit with the overall theme, looking at the civilian volunteers who served as Despatch Riders during the fighting in 1914, but is interesting in its own right. 

This is a fascinating study of the officers of the BEF, suggesting that they were actually more competent and more professional than they are normally given credit for, largely as a result of a decade of reform in the British Army triggered by the Army’s failings in the Second Boer War.


1 - Sir John French and Command of the BEF, Stephan Badsey
2 - Major General Sir Archibald Murray, J.M. Bourne
3 - Henry Wilson's War, Brian Curragh
4 - 'The big brain in the army' - Sir William Robertson as Quartermaster-General, John Spencer

Corps Command
5 - The Making of a Corps Commander: Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, Gary Sheffield
6 - Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson, Mark Connelly
7 - 'A Commander of Rare and Unusual Coolness': General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith Dorrien, Spencer Jones and Stephan J. Corvi

Divisional Command
8 - The Bull and the Fox Terrier: Edmund Allenby and Command in the BEF in 1914, Simon Robbins
9 - An Inspirational Warrior: Major-General Sir Thompson Capper, Richard Olsen

Brigade Command
10 - 'A Tower of Strength': Brigadier-General Edward Bulfin, Michael Stephen LoCicero
11 - 'The Demon': Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence V.C. Spenser Jones
12 - David Henderson and Command of the Royal Flying Corps, James Pugh

Command at the Sharp End
13 - The Infantry Battalion Commanding Officers of the BEF, Peter Hodgkinson
14 - The Company Commander, John Mason Sneddon
15 - 'Amateurs at a professional game': The Despatch Rider Corps in 1914, Michael Carragher

Editor: Spencer Jones
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 384
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2015

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