Challenge of Battle – Adrian Gilbert

Adrian Gilbert’s book, Challenge of Battle, examines the critical battles of the opening months of the First World War. The book examines in detail the British military’s baptism of fire as a mainly colonial army met the German onslaught in Belgium and Northern France. Gilbert’s main premise is that the British Official History, published in the 1920s has coloured most of the subsequent accounts of the initial stages of the war and that it is time to look again at the pivotal events of 1914. Gilbert has revisited the events of the period and casts a fresh eye over the role and efficacy of the British Expeditionary Force, drawing upon a range of sources, primary and secondary, to retell the story.

Gilbert covers almost every aspect of the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) experience in France, weaving together instances of bravery, success, despair and failure with a telling analysis of what these events meant. Gilbert covers the BEF from the opening skirmishes around Mons, defeat at Le Cateau, the development of nascent trench warfare along the Marne and Aisne rivers and the establishment of the great salient at Ypres which was to shape a significant portion of the British experience in the First World War. The army is shown facing up to its inexperience in the face of the ascendency of defensive warfare on its way to becoming a full partner to the French armies on the Western Front.

Importantly, whilst this is a book about the British Army, Gilbert realises that an army is often measured by its opponents. He shows how the German soldier was probably more tactically aware and was often fitter than the British equivalent. He contrasts the hierarchical command structure and practices of the BEF with the objective and mission-based approach of the Germans. From personal hygiene to detailed attack plans, British officers were expected to govern much of the minutiae of the army in the field; this could be a real weakness as the army began to sustain high casualties amongst the officer cadre who were expected to lead from the front.

Gilbert is focussed on the British and German armies but avoids giving any detailed analysis of the French. Here, perhaps, an opportunity has been missed to discuss the experience and approach of the French as their army was, in common with the Germans, a continental army based upon the “levee en masse”. The French army is relegated to a bit-part role in this book as an alliance partner with demands and contributions that affected the British army.

Gilbert follows the BEF chronologically as the formative battles unfold. He has used quotations wherever possible, allowing the soldiers to speak with their own words. Anecdotes, such as the high cost that modern artillery can exact on a group of unprotected men and horses, are well-chosen to illustrate wider points.

Having made the point that the official history doesn’t always tell the whole story, Gilbert is at his best when he compares it to first hand accounts. He shows how the official history has distorted events, covering up failures and elevating successes beyond their actual importance. He identifies cases where career officers evade the truth over the defeat at Le Cateau and instances where heroic individual actions are used as a distraction from the ongoing defeat. His use of primary sources shows how the official history “sanitised” events ranging from incompetence, cowardice and even a staff officer’s suicide.

Gilbert looks at particular aspects of the BEF, often finding interesting anecdotes to support well-known aspects of the war. For example, when discussing the heavy British reliance on shrapnel shells he quotes a German soldier who stated that he preferred the shrapnel to the rain!

The fundamental learning curve that the BEF went through is writ large throughout this 300 page book. Throughout it is readable and well constructed, giving a clear analysis of an army struggling to cope with an unfamiliar form of war and against an often superior enemy. He gives a clear impression of a military organisation dealing with a war for which it was not prepared, did not expect to go on for long and against an enemy they often under-estimated.

1914 saw a “hollowing out” of the junior officers who fell in a greater proportion to other ranks due to their “lead from the front” approach. This, combined with the limited scope of the British NCOs’ role meant that the army’s leadership was heavily depleted. The weakness caused by the loss of these leaders was not easy to solve and was to affect the course of the war; as late as the Somme offensive, Kitchener’s new army was tragically not expected to have the tactical skills to do much more than march forward and occupy land cleared by artillery.

All in all, Challenge of Battle is an excellent study of an organisation struggling and occasionally buckling under immense strain. Gilbert presents the facts as he sees them with sympathy and empathy and without losing his analytic thread or readability. Recommended.

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