On August 4th, 2014, the world remembered the unofficial start of the First World War one hundred years ago. In 1914, Europe went to war in possibly the greatest clash the world had seen (to that time); soon after, much of the world joined in. Tensions were high in June 1914, then like a match striking a fuse, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 began the downward spiral to all-out war. Like all wars, it was an event of terrible loss and destruction punctuated by moments of humanity and possibly hope. The destruction, casualties and deaths resulting from the Great War seemed to know no bounds.
In his latest historical reference book, Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914, Peter Hart captures the events and mood of 1914 bringing the first months of the Great War into vivid detail. Hart quotes those who experienced the war by pulling passages from letters, reports, memoirs, etc. When England joined the War in August 1914, it was shouted everywhere that the War would be over by Christmas. By the end of 1914, it was fairly certain that the war would continue and be seen as one of attrition and not easily won, as is expressed in the quote from Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (when he was only a corps commander in 1914): “Many amongst us now are tired. To those, I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest.”
Hart is an oral historian. This is important to remember while reading his passages evoking both national pride against all odds as well as despair for what transpired. I was at first put off by Hart’s narrative style. It seemed inappropriate for historical accounts. As I read, I realized that Hart has an ability through his narration to get under the stoic layers of time and forgetfulness. Through his retelling of history, Hart brings the events of 1914 to the present while adding life through his ability to relay history in a passionate way as only an oral historian can.
Fire and Movement begins with a brief summary of England’s military history through the nineteenth century. Hart surmises that England’s strength was built upon the water and the British land forces were possibly ill equipped for sustained war. Hart also examines the rise of the German Empire formed from the “loose confederation of German states into a serious force”. Through his exposition, Hart explores both strengths and weaknesses of the forces involved during those first months of the war. He leads the reader through the early battles of Mons, Aisne, Ypres, and so many more showing the expansion of trench warfare. The book culminates with the myth and reality of the 1914 Christmas Truce then foreshadows the events yet to transpire in four long years of continuing war.
What makes Hart’s rendition of history so interesting is his ability to relate a story. Within Fire and Movement, Hart pulls together his account of 1914 from the personal experiences of those who fought the war. His blend of stories are chosen “to give a coherent idea of what was really happening in 1914”. The wide variety of passages that Hart quotes are taken from the highest ranking officers to the foot soldiers in the trenches; it is this assortment that gives Fire and Movement a comprehensive yet approachable base.
Fire and Movement is not a quick read. This is a serious historical study of the first movements of the Great War. Yet Hart make the history accessible and interesting through his interpretation. I found the book at times entertaining, sometimes shocking, but always informative.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Oxford University Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.