Posted 18 April 2012 - 05:10 AM
I have just finished reading Jerry Murland's "Retreat and Rearguard 1914" and can recommend it thoroughly to anyone who wants to know in detail what happened to the BEF in the first few weeks of the war. The first major action at Mons is described in greater detail, and using more first-hand accounts, than I have come across before, and subsequent small but hard fought actions at Audregnies, Landrecies, Le Grand Fayt, Etreux, Cerizy, Villers-Cotterets and Nery are also well described, as well as the generally unsung bravery of the Royal Engineers in destroying bridges along the line of retreat. The largest action of all, at Le Cateau, is described only briefly, but as this has been covered extensively elsewhere (notably by Nigel Cave and Jack Sheldon), perhaps this can be excused.
The maps provided of each action are clear, and the photographs are well chosen, including many of the battle scenes as they are today, always a useful guide to the visitor. However, the text has been done a disservice by some less than diligent proof reading in places, surprising for a publisher with such a generally high standard of production.
One of the most interesting features of the book is the description of what happened to the many men who were not able to take part in the retreat. Some were stranded behind German lines after the withdrawal began or escaped after their capture. Many made brave attempts at getting home through Belgium and Holland; some were successful and rejoined their regiments to fight another day, but tragically some were caught or betrayed and executed as spies. Others who were wounded or captured during those early battles are barely mentioned in most accounts of the time, and the courage and determination shown in their brief war by those who had to endure terrible wounds, often lying in the open for several days, is remarkable.
The stories of successful escapes from POW camps deep inside Germany are astounding, but sadly many prisoners didn't survive their captivity. It is heartening to know that some men with wounds which rendered them unfit for further service were eventually repatriated, a little known facet of the war, and perhaps one which warrants an account of its own.