Book Review: The British Army and the First World War


by Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman, & Mark Connelly

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. viii, 480. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $89.99. ISBN: 1107005779

The BEF, From “The Old Contemptibles” to “The Hundred Days”

The authors, all of whom have written extensively on the British Army – in works such as Beckett’s Ypres 1914, Bowman’s Irish Regiments in the Great War, and Connelly’s The Great War, Memory and Ritual – have given us a comprehensive look at it during the First World War.

After a short introduction they offer a detailed chapter on the pre-war army and one on its officer corps. This is followed by a chapter on the background and recruiting of troops, regulars, volunteers, and conscripts, the last for the first time in British history of the troops.

The complexities of the evolution of British strategy are examined in a single chapter, covering the decision to send the BEF to France in 1914, and then the wartime disputes between the “Easterners” seeking an “easier” route to victory, and the “Westerners” dedicated to fighting it out in France and Flanders. The balance of the book is decidedly “Westerner”.

The war on the Western Front is covered in five chapters, essentially one for each year of the war, culminating in the remarkable “Hundred Days’” offensive by which the BEF essentially ended the war, a matter often overlooked in American and French histories. The other fronts are neglected, lumped into just one chapter, and that mostly covers only the war against the Ottomans, thus ignoring British operations in Africa, the Balkans, and Italy.

The authors do offer a number of surprising insights. For example, the point out that the “Old Contemptibles” of 1914 were mostly not long service veterans, a majority of them were reservists, some not having been on active duty for as long as nine years, or recent enlistees. We also learn that, despite the oft repeated claim that the BEF held enormous numbers of cavalrymen in reserve toward the prospect of a “Break Through”, cavalry strength never exceeded 20,000 or so. The authors also throw light on such neglected matters as women in auxiliary service, inter-personal relationships among senior officers, non-white personnel in the ranks, and much more.

A volume in Cambridge’s award winning series “Armies of the Great War”, although its neglect of the “other” fronts is unfortunate, The British Army and the First World War is a valuable contribution to the literature on the war.


Note: The British Army and the First World War is also available in several e-editions.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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