Chasing the Great Retreat

The German Cavalry Pursuit of the British Expeditionary Force before the Battle of the Marne August 1914

By Colonel (Ret) Joe Robinson, Sabine Declercq & Randal Gilbert

Helion, 2022

This volume covers quite a niche element of the opening stages of the First World War, that of the role of the German cavalry in the period 22nd August-1st September. The authors argue that the British should have been stopped at Mons, and the subsequent failure to defeat the BEF was largely due to the confusion in communication and reconnaissance between the various elements of the German war machine.

The challenges the German cavalry faced are clearly set out. Numbering 715,000 horses at the outbreak of war, unbelievably no official logistics for providing feed existed once they were deployed in the field. Communications were poor with lines of communication having to travel across army boundaries in order to reach their destination, leading to delays in sending and receiving crucial messages.

At Mons the cavalry was sent in different directions due to confused reports and orders. The authors argue that had the cavalry encountered the British cavalry earlier the outcome at Mons, and therefore of the whole war, could have been different. However the German lack of co-ordination blighted these early actions and was not just a one-off occurrence (for example the escape of the Belgian 4th Division).

Some of the text covering the British side could have been better-written. Referring to John French as ‘Marshal’ French throughout the book grated. The authors also made reference to the incident in St. Quentin when two battalion commanding officers decided to surrender their troops. However, the authors neglect to mention that the troops were rallied and the surrender did not take actually place.

The book may be relatively short at 188 pages, but it is certainly dense in terms of the information covered. I found it hard going at times but this was largely due to my unfamiliarity with the units, so I had to keep double-checking who was where. A familiarity with the German Army structure is definitely a bonus. Helpfully a glossary and appendix detailing the German cavalry units involved are provided. The bibliography also provides a handy selection of many German sources, should the reader wish to further expand their knowledge of the German perspective.

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