“Not all First World War soldiers were heroes,” says historian

Official accounts of 1914 take a too “cosy and comfortable” view of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and fail to acknowledge its shortcomings, historian Adrian Gilbert has claimed

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n a new book, Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Gilbert reexamines the opening campaigns in France and Belgium, and, amongst other things, notes instances where British troops broke and ran from the field of battle.

He considers failures at the battle of Le Cateau – normally described as a valiant British delaying action – and the St Quentin Surrender.

Inspired by the unusually frank memoirs of Major-General Thomas Snow, the 4th Division’s commander, the book draws on numerous first-hand accounts.

Here, in an interview with History Extra, Gilbert discusses his research.

Q: What do you mean when you say that ‘not all soldiers were heroes’?

A: There’s been a recent and irritating tendency to see soldiers as synonymous with ‘heroes’. But only a few soldiers were actually heroes, and they are the ones who made very difficult decisions. By virtue of simply being a soldier does not make a man a hero.

In my book I take a fairly hard look at the army, and examine both strengths and weaknesses.

There has developed what I call a commemorative history rather than an analytical one. It draws a veil over the more embarrassing aspects of the war. A particular offender is the British Official History, which covers up many of the more unpleasant aspects of the campaign.

Nor do you get an analytical history in regimental histories. Understandably, they ‘big up’ their regiments as much as possible.

Historians, however, have tended to follow these records too closely, and so the balance is lost – we end up with a lop-sided, overly ‘positive’ take on the war.

It may seem unpatriotic to delve deeper into some of these darker aspects, but you must look at the war in its entirety.

Q: You say that many official records conceal failings – so how did you go about researching your book?

A: I was inspired by the memoirs of General Thomas Snow [the great-grandfather of historian Dan Snow]. He was almost unique in being critical of himself and of his own troops. This inspired me to look at other memoirs, and I kept coming across first-hand accounts that did not tally up with the official accounts. They cast a different light on things.

It then became clear to me that there was enough to include in a book.

Q: Can you give us some examples?

A: One of the examples I draw upon is the Battle of Le Cateau [fought on 26 August 1914 after the British retreated from Mons and had set up defensive positions around Le Cateua as part of a fighting withdrawal against the German advance].

It has been presented as a marvellous delaying action by the BEF, but in fact it was a defeat.

The badly deployed British 5th Division on the right of the British line was torn apart by the well-executed German attack – they were exposed to German guns, and they were ripped apart.

Other troops saw this and just walked off the battlefield. There’s a quote from General Ferguson – a marvelous understatement - who said that his men “were starting to dribble away”. Men fell back, and officers were unable to keep them in place.

And during the disorganised retreat from the Le Cateau battlefield, the 8th Brigade found itself in difficulties. A large group of the retiring infantry began to panic, initiating a headlong rush that dragged in other troops.

Corporal John Lucy of the 2nd Irish Rifles was one of the many observers of the incident: “Down the road I went, and saw a dreadful spectacle. Wagons, guns, and men were breaking in helter-skelter on to the road from the captured lines on the right, enemy shells pursuing them.

“One regiment had partly panicked. The traffic became chaotic. The drivers in the rear under the cracking shells whipped up their horses regardless of the rules of the road.

“Cries of urgency rose on all sides. Infantrymen mounted every vehicle in sight, while others ran alongside. Some of their wounded were slung on the gun limbers.”

This incident is not mentioned in the regimental histories of those involved, nor indeed in the Official History. Again, this is perhaps understandable, but what has been surprising is the failure of subsequent historians to look beyond this.

There were many big command failures, with troops being badly deployed, and there were heavy casualties. The soldiers were not quite as brave as has been made out. Quite a few simply broke and ran.

Another example in the book is the St Quentin ‘surrender’. During the retreat from Le Cateau, the commanding officers of two British battalions ‘surrendered’ their troops to the Germans – an incident not noted in the official records.

The 5th Division and 19th Brigade had been instructed to pass through St Quentin [in northern France] on 27 August, but such was the confusion of the retreat that soldiers from a number of other formations also ended up in the town.

Among them were substantial elements of the 1st Royal Warwickshires, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Elkington, and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Mainwaring. Both of these battalions from the 10th Brigade were led by their colonels to St Quentin in the hope of being taken by train to the rear.

But the exhausted and dispirited troops discovered that the last train had already left St Quentin. In a decidedly mutinous mood – with some drunk on French white wine – the Warwickshires and Dublin Fusiliers refused to march.

The mayor of St Quentin, fearful that the Germans would exact retribution on the town if there was military resistance, told the British that they had to either leave immediately or sign a document of surrender.

The two exhausted COs, unable to move their men, agreed to surrender, and signed a document saying as much.

But fortunately for the British troops in St Quentin, the redoubtable Major Tom Bridges of the 4th Dragoon Guards was acting as the rearguard commander. On his arrival in St Quentin, during the hot afternoon of the 27th, he heard the news of the ‘surrender’ and tracked down the mayor and relieved him of the offending document.

He managed to get the men together, cheer them up with music, and march them out of the town.

Mainwaring and Elkington were court-martialled a few days later, found guilty and cashiered in disgrace.

Q: Why did these failures occur?

A: Troops were fairly inexperienced – no one had fought a war like this before, and it came as a shock to many. They needed to come to terms with this new kind of warfare.

I think there was a lot of tightening up as the campaign went on, however.

Q: Why do you think these failures have not been explored before?

A: Put simply, at the time it was unpatriotic. Failures were kept secret because knowledge of them would have helped the enemy. And then afterwards they were quietly brushed under the carpet to avoid embarrassment.

They were painful episodes, but 100 years have now passed. It’s time to move on and think about the war properly. It’s a historian’s job to find out the truth, not to please people.

We have an almost ‘cosy’ view of the BEF in 1914, but we need to look at it in a more analytical way.

It’s worth pointing out that the witnesses I have drawn upon were all regular soldiers, many of whom went on to pursue distinguished careers in the British Army. They certainly weren't muckrakers, and they didn’t enjoy pointing out these failings, but felt it their duty to do so.

Q: What do you make of the centenary coverage so far?

A: It’s extensive and impressive, but I do wonder whether people will start to suffer ‘battle fatigue’.

Overall, it’s a difficult balance to strike – you don’t want to be overly mournful, but at the same time not too jolly either.

We’ll have to wait and see what the British public thinks.

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