Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne, Jerry Murland

Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne, Jerry Murland

The period between the BEF's first battle in France in 1914 at Mons and the end of the Allied retreat was one of the most important phases of the First World War. This was the period when the German advance looked to be going largely as planned, as the British army and the much larger French armies stumbled back in retreat in the face of the unexpectedly powerful German right wing. This was the period of the 'Old Contemptible', and the sources of many stories and myths about the performance of the small but professional British army. This book focuses on the ten days from the first clashes at Mons to the last steps of the retreat (ending with the first step of the advance to the Marne).

After a brief introduction we begin with look at the Battle of Mons. Murland has used both British and German records to examine this battle, and in the process demolishes one or two myths of long standing - the idea that the Germans thought the British were all armed with machine guns appears to come from a comment in the official British history, and the high casualty figures believed to have been inflicted. German losses were still quite heavy, but not quite as devastating as sometimes believed. On the other hand an aft-dismissed story about cavalry being stopped by normal farmer's barbed wire during a disastrous charge is supported by evidence from one of the participants.

After Mons the rest of the book covers the week-long retreat that lasted until the start of September. Many accounts of this period of the war focus on the exhausted infantry and the rearguard battles, but Murland also looks at the role played by the British cavalry, which provided constant cover for the retreating infantry, and the engineers who were often at the very rear of the army, left behind to blow bridges after the last troops had crossed. The infantry are given their due place, but it is nice to see other parts of the army get their due credit.

The conflicts within the British high command and between the British and some of their French allies are both well covered. One also gets a feel for the odd variety of this period of the war - while most men were struggling along on foot, some still had access to cars on open roads or even the French rail network. Senior officers could motor from the brutal slog of the retreat to a meeting at the BEF's HQ and back again with comparative ease.

The author makes good use of British and German sources, and in particular the official German histories, to produce a valuable, detailed, but still readable account of this crucial ten-day long campaign.

1 - Prelude
2 - 23 August - A Very Short Fortnight
3 - 23 August - A Slow Burning Fuse
4 - 24 August - A Very Trying Day
5 - 25 August - Audregnies
6 - 25 August - I Corps Joins the Fight
7 - 26 August - Accidental Rearguard
8 - 26 August - Le Grand Fayt
9 - 27 August - St Quentin and Etreux
10 - 28 August - Cavalry Capers
11 - 29-31 August - Blowing Bridges in Our Sleep
12 - 1 September - Néry, the Chance Encounter
13 - 1 September - Still a Force to be Reckoned With
14 - Left Behind
15 - Aftermath

Appendix 1: BEF Order of Battle August 1914
Appendix 2: The Cemetery Trail

Author: Jerry Murland
Edition: Hardcover
Pages:  224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2011

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