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Matthew Moss reviews “1914” by Allan Mallinson

1914Allan Mallinson’s ‘1914: Fight The Good Fight’ is an ambitious attempt at giving a overview of the British Army during the first months of WWI. Published in time to coincide with the centennial commemorations 1914 traces the genesis of British war strategy, the efforts of the Army staff to reform and prepare Britain’s military for a continental war. In the opening chapters Mallinson broadly examines the British government’s political motivations for entering the war. At the same time he traces Britain’s mobilisation for war through the experiences of the officers and men of the battalions that would make up the BEF. This is something that Mallinson does throughout his expansive book, relying on the diaries and private letters of both the general officers but also some of the ordinary enlisted men.

Through them he retells the stories of the crucial events of the first year of the war from the opening british engagement at the Battle of Mons to the desperate delaying action at Le Cateau through to the Battle of the Marne and the Race to the Sea.  Mallinson brings the retreat from Mons to life examining the hardships of the two week long retreat. One of the highlights of the book are the accounts of the political meeting between the Prime Minister and his cabinet in their deliberations over entering the war. Also the author’s recounting of the awkward and often frustrating meetings between Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the BEF, and his French allies and his own senior commanders.

The final chapter of the book is devoted to a ‘what if’ question; how might the war have developed had Britain held the BEF as a reserve force rather than immediately marching north into Belgium, arguably before it was ready, to join the French line.  Mallinson argues that if the BEF had been held back as a strategic reserve a reinforced, possibly 300,000 strong British Army could have made a bold stroke into Belgium on a front between Arras and Lille turning the German flank while a French offensive along the whole line fixed German reserves in place.  Mallinson suggests that if this had been possible, the war may have been significantly shortened placing Germany on the back foot between the resurgent Western allies and the Russian’s in the East or at least pushing the fight back into Belgium shortening the allied front.

He brings his own personal military experience, a grounded knowledge and extensive study of the British Army’s history to bear. Criticising earlier works on the same subject for what he sees as their misunderstanding of military situations and also their representations of the events. Although readers must be equally aware of the author’s own possible bias, and must appreciate his background and passion for the subject. Regardless of this Mallinson writes with an accessible free hand, skilfully weaving the facts with contemporary accounts, anecdotal embellishments and his own insightful analysis.

1914: Fight The Good Fight is a highly readable account of the BEF’S first months in Europe.  Although the book is written perhaps not in a fully fledged academic style (with source footnotes frustratingly absent) it is written for the authoritative reader who understands the broader events of the latter half of the Summer of 1914.  Some further detail about the BEF’S allies and enemies would have been welcome however what is present is adequately insightful.  Mallinson’s accessible style and engrossing presentation of the events makes the book a worthy account of ‘The Good Fight’.

About Matthew Moss

Matthew Moss is a British postgraduate student specializing in military history. He also runs historicalfirearms.info, a site that looks at the history, development and use of firearms as well as wider military history. Follow him on twitter.

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