This is a fine collection of personal accounts from the opening year of the First World War, a good number of which have not been published before. What makes this book particularly interesting is the number of German accounts which are included.
Amongst these is the description given by the German novelist Walter Bleom, of the 6th Brandenburg Regiment’s attack against the 1st Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment at St. Ghislain at the Battle of Mons: “And so we went on, gradually working forwards by rushes of a hundred, later fifty, and then about thirty yards towards the invisible enemy. At every rush a few more fell, but one could do nothing for them. On and on, that was the only solution. Easier said than done, however, for not only was the meadow horribly swampy, filling our boots with water, but it was intersected by broad, water-logged drains and barbed wire fences that had to be cut through ... Behind us the whole meadow was dotted with little grey heaps. The hundred and sixty men that had left the wood with me had shrunk to less than a hundred.”
As the book concentrates on just 1914, the engagements of those first four months of the war are covered in considerable detail. This includes the rearguard action at Elouges (see page 28) during the retreat from Mons as seen through the eyes of a corporal of the 9th Lancers, when the 2nd Cavalry Brigade charged the German artillery: “We rode absolutely into death, and the colonel told us that onlookers never expected a single lancer to come back ... You see, the infantry of ours were in a fix and no guns but four could be got round, so the General ordered two squadrons of the 9th to charge, as a sacrifice, to save the position ... It was magnificent, but horrible. The regiment was swept away before 1,000 yards was covered, and at 200 yards from the guns I was practically alone – myself, three privates, and an officer of our squadron. We wheeled to a flank on the colonel’s signal and rod back. I was mad with rage, a feeling I cannot describe. But we had drawn their fire; the infantry were saved.”
The confusion of the retreat from Mons is exemplified by the infamous events at St. Quentin where the mayor asked the British troops to fight outside the town because he did not want his beautiful town destroyed by the fighting. The men refused, saying that they could not leave St. Quentin: “We have lost nearly all our officers, our Staff have gone away by train, we do not know where to. Also, we have no artillery, most of us have neither rifles nor ammunition.” As a result the men were bullied into surrendering by the Marie even though there were no Germans for miles. The arrival of a group of British cavalry officers soon resolved the situation.
It has often been recognised that the officers and men of the British Army regard each other with respect. This was most certainly not the case in the German Army of the early twentieth century and the differences were explained by a British officer who had also served in the German Army. One of the reasons for this, Captain Thomas Burke wrote, was the Germans were “not like the British Tommy, professional soldiers, but are birds of passage, serving only two or three years, and longing to be free ... The German officer is not, as are the British and French officers, the confidants of their men. As I have explained, the men are but birds of passage, and it may be that they hardly have the chance to get acquainted with one another. Certainly, the officers in my experience gave their men no encouragement in this direction ... [the German soldier] is simply something which must be turned and knocked into shape ... The English non-com is often a father to his regiment, but there is nothing of the father about his German cousin, except that he calls his men ‘my children’ and thrashes them.” That pride in the regiment and the strong bond between officers and men that has existed since the days of the sword and musket, is still the backbone of the British Army today.
First-hand accounts are always of great value, more so usually than the interpretations of historians. In 1914 Voices from the Battlefields the author has thankfully refrained from adding little more than a few lines to provide context and continuity. This is certainly a book I will dip into time and time again.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.