WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed

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WW1 Book Review: The Retreat From Mons 1914 – South

7716The Retreat From Mons 1914: South by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
(Pen & Sword Books 2015, ISBN 978 1 47382 336 5, 152pp, paperback, illustrations, maps, £14.99)

Authors Cooksey and Murland embarked on a series of battlefield guides for those wishing to visit the Western Front by car, on bike or on foot, in the approach to the WW1 Centenary. This latest offering in their ‘Battle Lines’ series follows on from a previous volume devoted to the 1914 battlefields at Mons, and looks at the battlefields from Etreux to the Marne. In doing so they cover a lot of ground, in some respects many forgotten battlefields of the Great War. Unjustly forgotten because, as the volume demonstrates, there is an awful lot to see in this area.

The book follows the format of previous volumes with useful background information and general battlefield visiting details. It then follows four stages breaking the considerable distance between Etreux and the Marne down into manageable chunks. Throughout the information is clear and text well written, and there are good, colour illustrations and useful maps not too crowded with detail.

This is an excellent guidebook to a neglected area of the Western Front and is highly recommended, as with all the volumes in the series.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.


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Book Review: Stemming The Tide


By Spencer Jones (Helion 2014, ISBN9781909384453, 384 pages 15 b/w photos, 8pp colour maps, £29.95)

A century ago this week the men of the B ritish Expeditionary Force (BEF) went into action for the first time close to the Belgian mining town of Mons. We think we know a lot about the ‘Old Contemptibles’ but what do we really know of the officers who took them into battle in 1914?

This new book, edited by University of Wolverhampton’s Dr Spencer Jones, looks at the crucial question of leadership and officers in the BEF during the 1914 campaign though the work of a diverse collection of Great War academics. The book starts with an examination of the senior level of leadership at GHQ with articles on the CinC Sir John French and the BEF’s “big brain” Sir William Robertson. Command at Corps, Divisional and Brigade level is then discussed. Mark Connelly’s article on Lieutenant-General Grierson, the II Corps commander who died of a heart attack before a shot had been fired, was especially interesting as it casts light on a little known senior officer whose death led to the appointment of Smith-Dorrien and perhaps took II Corps on a different route than if Grierson had survived. I was pleased that Spencer Jones’ piece on one of my heroes, Charles Fitzclarence VC (who as ‘GOC Menin Road’ had shown outstanding leadership during First Ypres), showed clearly that Fitzclarence had made a crucial impact on the outcome of the fighting at Ypres in 1914 and demonstrated that even during the war his key role wasn’t properly recognised until some time after his death. The three chapters on ‘command at the sharp end’ were of particular interest with a good overview of battalion commanders and another on company commanders, and a fascinating piece on despatch riders, which hints at the wider subject of problematic communications in what was a very mobile war in 1914.

Although the book is the work of a number of contributors, it is clear these were carefully chosen; the whole publication reads well and is a testimony to Spencer’s editorship. This is not necessarily a book for the general reader but equally should be of interest to any serious student of the Great War wanting to discover how the training, skill, knowledge and experience of the officer class in 1914 contributed to the outcome of the BEF’s battles in the early months of the conflict. Highly recommended.

The book is available from the Helion & Co website.


BBC Our World War: Review of Ep1 – Mons

Having read a lot of negative press in the Great war Community about the BBC3 series Our World War, even before it was broadcast and no-one had seen it, I was very interested to finally watch it. With rumours of indie pop, odd camera angles and ‘Call of Duty’ style graphics I had feared the worst but actually… I really rather enjoyed it. In fact second only to the superb ‘The Somme: From Defeat To Victory‘ this is a very fine piece of docudrama from the BBC and a fitting addition to their WW1 Centenary season.

The film is sixty minutes of television and does raise a lot of points; I don’t intend to discuss them all here but I will make a few.

The Filming: this I thought was one of the things that made it for me. Far from odd camera angles the use of cameras giving different perspectives was very effective and much like ‘helmet cams’ as seen in Afghan war documentaries in recent years; I suspect that was the inspiration for this and in my opinion it worked. The graded colour was also a clever touch and gave the film a ‘dirty’ look, which again I think added to the structure of the film. The ‘Call of Duty’ style aerial graphics were clever too and well used; and will be recognisable and understandable to a generation looking at a WW1 docudrama perhaps for the first time. All of this made it a powerful film indeed.

The Music: yep, it was indie pop (rather nice to hear some PJ Harvey, who actually put out an album inspired by WW1 btw). Was it suitable? That will be up to personal taste but I think it certainly fitted in to the ‘modern’ approach the film makers took. The film was raw and so was the music.

The Sets: this aspect of it did not always work for me. The bridge at Nimy was a fair copy of the one there today but nothing like the low stone parapet railway bridge that was actually defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers in August 1914. I know a little of this as I was contacted by the programme makers who were desperate to find some vaguely suitable bridge in the UK to film it. Unfortunately I couldn’t help and the one they did end up using, in a wooded setting with no buildings, was nothing like Nimy 1914 but I don’t think detracted too much from the drama, even if it did from the history. The Head Quarters the runner went back and forth to was the most disappointing of the sets as it looked far too ‘English’; I presume it was probably filmed at Chatham Dockyard? But even with this drama I think budgets were limited and for a general audience it would have worked, and few would have noticed.

Uniforms: for many who watch programmes like these misdemeanours in the costume department do get people hot under the collar. There were a few here, but only a few, and things that most would not notice. Did the officers of 4th Royal Fusiliers really wear Other Ranks shoulder titles on their tunics; probably not? Dease was wearing an Imperial Service badge above his right tunic pocket, only worn by Territorials and not regulars like him. Wrist/bracelet style identity disk were not common place in 1914 (Godley is seen wearing one) and I would go as far as saying probably not worn at all by the BEF. Told you these were small points! But otherwise the actors looked at home in their uniforms, they were dirty and well worn, and the soldiers were dirty too with far from perfect appearances and teeth. They really did look like soldiers of the BEF.

The Characters: for a drama this is one of the few that has made Great War soldiers appear as real men. There were not many stereotypes here and the language, with plenty of swear words, was well constructed. Officers and men were more familiar than the army of 1914 would have been, but I suspect this is a modern take on it. I liked the Australian character and at first wondered why he had been used but in fact he was based on a real person Lieutenant (later Captain) Frederick Wilberforce Alexander Steele, an Australian who served with the regiment as the AWM website shows. Whether he would have had a slouch hat and drover’s coat; that is another matter! The runner character I thought was excellent and gave an insight into a side of the Great War few consider; battlefield communications. I also liked the device of showing Godley as an under-performing soldier who came good, as that reflected what often happened in the midst of battle, but I fear there is little evidence of that in the story of the real Godley. Having said all that these were all believable characters and people you quickly got interested in; which is the sign of good, professional drama.

The History: at times good, often very good and occasionally bad, but for me not so bad as to diminish the impact of the whole film. A full rifle company supported by the battalion machine-gun section defended the real Nimy Bridge, but the film made it look like a skirmish at times. Dease was in command of the machine-guns not the company and that part of his relationship to the story was a little confused I felt. As was Godley’s; he was a soldier in a rifle section who had been trained on the Maxim gun and as I thought was the story only stepped in to help when others had been killed and wounded. The Sappers blowing the bridge at Jemappes was weak historically as it looked nothing like urban Jemappes and the constant use of ‘Sir’ for a Sapper addressing a Corporal was odd indeed; and their conversation, body language and actual language when speaking to a Royal Engineers officer earlier in the film way off the mark for 1914. The final comment about Mons being a ‘humiliation’ for the British was unfortunate, and not really explained. It was a shame as no doubt this will spoil it for many.

Yet despite all this the first episode of Our World War was for me a moving insight the British Army’s first engagement of the Great War. What it set out to do was re-tell this part of the war in a modern way, from a modern perspective. And that’s where many will have issue with it. It set the men in the film not as hapless pawns but real characters, real heroes and real soldiers. Ending it with Steele’s original recommendation for the Victoria Cross and the recording of Godley was a brilliant touch.

This was a good start to this series; and we can only hope it continues in the same vein.

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Lights Out: Remembering The Start of the Great War

The next few days sees the final countdown to the start of the official commemoration of the actual Centenary of the Great War. On this day a hundred years ago German troops were mobilising for the invasion of France which would start the road to war for Great Britain when they passed through Belgium revoking that country’s neutrality, a neutrality safeguarded by Britain and the Treaty Of London. Britain’s upholding of that Treaty led to the declaration of war on 4th August 1914.

The first major event for the start of the British WW1 Centenary on 4th August is a multi-national service of remembrance at St Symphorien Cemetery near Mons, and later that evening the Lights Out event when,

“… everyone in the UK is invited to take part in LIGHTS OUT by turning off their lights from 10pm to 11pm on 4 August, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

People can take part in whatever way they choose, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War either individually or by attending one of the many events being organised around the country for a collective experience.”

The Lights Out event has attracted a great deal of public interest and was even featured on the popular BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers, but not everyone has found the idea behind the event appealing. In a Blog post, Professor Gary Sheffield called it a ‘ludicrous gimmick’.

But what is clear the public seem highly engaged with projects like Lights Out and if nothing else it is a way for people to remember the Great War, and the people in their family affected by it, in their own personal way. What it tells us about the Great War remains to be seen.

Read more about Lights Out and follow the Twitter feed that supports the project. There is also an App that can be downloaded for smart phones.

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WW1 Centenary Guest Post: Sarajevo A Century On by Robert Wilton


Lucky shot? Remembering the Sarajevo assassination a century on.

They didn’t know they were going to change the world.

As the handful of Serb conspirators moved, a hundred years ago this week, from village to village through what they considered occupied Bosnia, trying to escape the attentions of the Austro-Hungarian police, their precious pistols and bombs being smuggled in by other trusted hands, obviously they had no idea of the carnage that would follow once they had converged on Sarajevo on June 28th 1914.

As it happens, they did dream of changing the world – as they saw it. 19 year-old Nedeljko Cabrinovic had angered his father by refusing to raise the hated Habsburg flag, and told him that ‘King Petar of Serbia will rule here within a year’. After throwing his bomb at Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car, swallowing poison and jumping into the Miljacka river, and then finding himself with a scalded throat and standing in six inches of water, Cabrinovic declared to the policemen who demanded his identity: ‘I am a Serbian hero!’

They were kids: teenagers with under-strength cyanide doses, fired up on ideology and dreams of glory by older wiser men who themselves ran no risks on that June morning. (In that sense they foreshadow would-be ideological martyrs of different wars today.) They weren’t well co-ordinated, most of them flunked their chances to kill the Archduke, and that staggering event was only possible with a once-in-a-century coincidence of incompetence and luck.

But the coincidence did happen, and the Archduke’s driver went the wrong way, and stopped to reverse, and for a world-shattering second put the Habsburg heir stationary and a few feet from a Serb patriot with a pistol and a dream of glory. Princip fired, and the clockwork of Great Power pride and fear and calculation and alliance deals and mobilization schedules began irreversibly to tick, and millions of men went to war and those who returned did so to a new world.

How should we commemorate this? Perhaps it’s possible to feel an echo of pride at the soldiers who would go off to fight for something they believed in, or to feel humble at the futile carnage that was all they won. But a hundred years later there can be no glory in that devastation, whatever your nationality; and political attempts to re-wrap the commemoration in the flag seem distasteful and foolish.

(It’s also a bit of a challenge trying to write an historical novel around the outbreak of war: everyone knows what happened, and it’s hard to make anyone look good. The Spider of Sarajevo focuses on the Great Power intrigues in the weeks before the assassination, and the troubled infancy of British intelligence, and while there’s plenty of courage and conspiracy there’s precious little glory.)

Perhaps, as we mark the centenary of the assassination and then the chimes of the July diplomacy and the outbreak of war, we should try to put a little less emotion into it and a little more thought. The strange overstrained political landscape through which those young assassins slipped was the product of European states meddling with societies they did not properly understand, and trying to draw lines on maps for their own convenience. And brave men went to war with dreams born in prejudice and ignorance. It resonates today more powerfully than we might like or think, and we should reflect more thoughtfully on the events of a century ago not because they’re now so far in the past, but because of how much they still have to teach us.


Writer-diplomat Robert Wilton has been working on and in the Balkans for more than a decade. The Spider of Sarajevo, the latest in the series of novels drawing on documents from the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, is published on the centenary of the events it illuminates He’s tweeting the context and countdown for war @ComptrollerGen, and there’s more at www.robertwilton.com



Book Review: New WW1 Guide Books from Pen & Sword

The Retreat From Mons 1914: North by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78303 038 5, 157pp, paperback, illustrated, £14.99)

Jon Cooksey is editor of Stand To! and Jerry Murland has written several books about the British Army in 1914 and this volume is part of a series the authors have been working on covering largely lesser known battlefields of the Great War. Starting with a brief background to the British Army in 1914, some historical context and visitors information, the bulk of the book covers four main tours looking at different aspects of the Mons battlefields. This takes in the Mons area itself but also the early stage of the Retreat From Mons down to the battlefield at Le Cateau. Text is clear and the book goes into some detail with lots of human interest stories. There are good, clear maps and is well supported by contemporary images as well as colour modern ones. Mons has lacked a good battlefield guide for some time and this certainly fills the gap taking the visitor to some well known sites and also some lesser known ones. A fantastic Mons battlefield guide and essential reading for anyone going to Mons for the Centenary this August.

The book is available from the publisher’s website.

Ypres 1914: Langemarck by Jack Sheldon & Nigel Cave (Pen & Sword 2014, ISBN 978 1 78159 199 4, 208pp, paperback, illustrated, £12.99)

The authors have produced a number of Battleground Europe books looking at familiar Great War battlefields from a German perspective based on the research done by Jack Sheldon in German archives and unit histories. This volume looks at Langemarck, a village associated with a great deal of myth when it comes to the German experience of WW1 as the Nazis peddled the myth that the cream of Germany’s youth suffered a futile death here in the First Battle of Ypres. The bulk of this book is history rather than guidebook and nearly 130 pages cover the fighting in some depth with insights from both the British and German perspective. It is well illustrated, with many photos from German sources and thus lesser known. The tour section suggests four battlefield routes which cover areas much wider than Langemarck itself, and again there are good illustrations and maps to accompany this. My only criticism is that I could not find any mention of the symbolism of Langemarck to the next generation, nor any debate about the Lanhemarck – which was odd considering the book is more history than battlefield guide. Having said that it is a useful book for anyone wanting to look at an aspect of First Ypres in depth or visit the battlefields from a different perspective.

The book is available from the publisher’s website.

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WW1 DVD: Mons 1914

Mons 1914 coverThe Battle of Mons is an iconic engagement of the Great War when soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fired the opening shots in the west for the British Army. This 90 minute film follows the story of Mons from the mobilisation of the BEF in August 1914, to the first casualties, to the area where the fighting around Mons took place. Much of the filming is on-site in Belgium, seeing the famous locations from 1914 as they are today, interspersed with contemporary footage and interviews with experts.

The film was made by Battlefield History Television (BHTV) on behalf of Pen & Sword Digital. BHTV is a specialist video production company made up of largely retired British Army officers who are members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides, many of them working battlefield guides. At times the production is quite amateurish with video microphones on display, poor sound and some odd camera work. A few of the interviewees talk like they are on a Sandhurst staff ride with one commenting, for example, “the Germans continued their fighting in echelon” which will not mean much to most people. There are also too many references to Brigades, Divisions and Corps, which again means little to a general audience. Having said that, some interviewees like Paul Oldfield, Mike Peters and Ed Church do bring some of the stories to life and talk in terms most people can understand, and do it well.

This is the crux of this particular DVD: it is not really a film aimed at the general public, more the WW1 enthusiast. In that respect it does a good job in telling the Mons story and the 90 minutes are entertaining and interesting, covering some lesser known stories as well as the famous ones. The DVD retails for £16.99 but is currently under special offer on the P&S website.

The DVD can be purchased from Pen & Sword: Mons 1914.