Book Review: Fire and Movement
by Peter Hart
Oxford University Press, 2014
The persistent mythology surrounding “The Old Contemptibles,” the British Expeditionary Force sent to fight in France against the Germans in the First World War, is in part the target of Peter Hart’s new book Fire and Movement, and he uses much the same mechanism to serve it up as worked so well in his 2009 book The Somme: he builds his entire narrative around first-hand accounts of the front-line people involved. The aim of his book is
to place the British role in 1914 into a proper historical context. Indeed as a narraitve it has a far greater resonance when we are truthful about the manifest deficiences of the small numbers of the BEF – just 120,000 when the fighting started – when caught up in a vast continental war where armies marched in their millions. The British regulars were skilful soldiers, courageous and adaptable in the near-impossible circumstances they found themselves.
The parallel myths – German forces succeeding by brute force of numbers, French forces bumbling haplessly, and so on – are put under a spotlight as well, and the new picture that emerges is a far more dramatic for being more even-handed. Hart is a master of this kind of even-handed fresh analysis, and his central contention, that the actual, unmythologized story of the BEF is actually more worthy of their memory than the romanticized version, is highlighted by his clear-eyed assessment of the machinery of that mythologizing:
The total British casualties at the Battle of Mons were estimated to be 1,638. By later standards of fighting in the Great War, this much vaunted ‘battle’ is little more than a skirmish. As to the German casualties, the general approach adopted by British historians has been to take any high random number and simply double it. Aware of the total of British casualties and taking as gospel the tales of devastating rifle fire ripping apart massed German ranks, they have simply extrapolated – even reaching as hight in some guesstimates as 10,000. Bald conjecture replaced any kind of research and over the years unreferenced assertions came to be regarded as facts.
Hart takes his readers into the lived experiences of the war in the big battles, detailing the physical conditions, “such as tired hands and red-hot rifles … augmented by the simple fact that they would very soon run out of ammunition, as each soldier only carried 220 rounds.” But the atmosphere of Fire and Movement is largely supplied by the dozens of first-hand participants Hart once again quotes with unerring skill, finding them in all their moods, from bewilderment and terror to, as in the case of Lieutenant Sidney Archibald of the 6th Battery, RFA:
A message was passed down verbally with orders to pass it on, ‘Spies on the road ahead!’ While wondering why, if that were so the people in the front hadn’t done something about it, everyone assumed an attitude of extreme alertness and perhaps I surreptitiously grasped my revolver. Shortly afterwards a blessed sight appeared. Lying by the side of the road and obviously left there for us by the Army Service Corps were cases of bully beef and biscuits. For ‘Spies’ read ‘Supplies’ and there you have it!
The centennary of the First World War has produced a long, long line of new histories to mark the occasion. That long line is coming at last to an end – in 2015 we’ll be on to other anniversaries – but even at its end it can throw up some very strong books indeed. Hart’s book is one of those and warrants the attention of even the weariest interested reader.