Book Review: Mons: The Retreat to Victory (1960) by John Terraine

A superb book of First World War military history, in which John Terraine covers the opening skirmishes of the war in August/September 1914.

Both sides are conditioned by recent history, in this case the fall-out from the Franco-Prussian war: Germany, the continent’s supreme power with its military complex furnished by its leadership oppose France, honour bound to avenge for the past humiliations of 1870. On the pretext of Austria’s quarrel with Serbia, the two sides engage into battle under differing delusions: France is myopically bent on offense without any consideration of the manpower and strategy opposing them. The German army’s advantages in strategy through its war plan are gradually undone by the complacency of its generals as the plan’s execution nears completion. The British, in particular its high command, are buffeted around by these delusions to near disaster.

Over two weeks in late August 1914, encountering the bulk of the German forces through Belgium and Northern France, the Allied armies of Britain and France are forced to retreat back 200 miles to within 20 miles of Paris. From there, they stage a counterattack that sends the Germans into retreat. Terraine rehabilitates the reputation of General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief who belatedly wakes up to the reality of the situation facing his forces and calmly manages his way through the situation and saves his country from defeat.

The Retreat to Victory is an overview of the role played by the British Expeditionary Force, the small but highly trained Army that entered the war against Germany in support of treaty obligations to Belgium and alliance with France. The book covers three phases: the background to the B.E.F’s entry into the war (in the years leading up to the conflict, and also the mobilisation and arrival in France), the initial days of the deployment climaxing in the Battle of Mons, and the retreat itself, where the Germans are heroically kept at bay by the II Corps.

The Retreat to Victory is extremely readable: I got through it over a week, reading a chapter a day. Detailing the B.E.F’s journey to Mons and retreat to the Marne, it is also full of fascinating anecdotal detail (the stories are superb and quite too many to mention). It concentrates on the human drama of the leadership and on the character and personalities of the British and French generals: primarily the triangle of Joffre, Sir John French and General Lanrezac.

Terraine stylishly describes the events (in which the B.E.F. slowly enter a nightmare and escape by the skin of their teeth) and offers superb insight: he blends the heroism of the soldiers with the slow journey of the Generals and politicians towards reality, outlining the practicalities of the Allies avoidance of the mighty German Army with its place in history.

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