Book Review: Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force, 1914


by Spencer Jones, editor

Solihull, W. Midlands: Helion / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2015. Pp. xvi + 360. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $69.95. ISBN: 1910294721

Command in the BEF in 1914

Dr. Jones, who has written extensively on the BEF in the opening year of the Great War, in such works as The Great Retreat of 1914: From Mons to the Marne and Courage without Glory: The British Army on the Western Front 1915, has put together an anthology of 15 essays by himself and several other British specialists on the subject, such as Brian Curragh, J. M. Bourne, and Michael Stephan LoCicero, that directly address the commanders and leadership of the BEF during the opening months of the Great War. These essays are organized into five groups

In “GHQ” essays the senior officers who molded and led the BEF, John French, Archibald Murray, Henry Wilson, and William Robertson. “Corps Commanders” takes looks at Douglas Haig, James Grierson, who died just as the war began, and his replacement, Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien. “Division Command” covers only two officers, Edmund Allenby and Thompson Capper, while “Brigade Command deals with just three men, Edwin Bulfin, Charles FitzClarence, and David Henderson of the Royal Flying Corps. The final section, “Command at the Sharp End,” has three essays, one on battalion, one on company commanders, and an unusually interesting one that takes a look “The Dispatch Rider Corps,” a critical, very overlooked aspect of command at the time.

Several of the essays make an interesting distinction the idea of the “commander”, that is someone skilled in the conduct of operations and battle, and that of the “leader,” someone able to able to inspire and motivate troops. In this regard, some officers were neither, some one and not the other, and some were both. The officers who come off best in these essays include Edmund Allenby, Horace Smith-Dorrien, and Thompson Capper; while John French and Douglas Haig are found lacking in some respects.

Of great value to the reader is the frequent discussion of how post war memoirs shaped opinions about these officers, and as a result the reputations of some of the men who died before writing memoirs often suffered as a result.

While it’s unfortunate that not all the half dozen or so division commanders nor more of the two dozen or so brigade commanders could be covered, it’s understandable given that such a volume would have prohibitively larger and more expensive.

Stemming the Tide, a volume in the University of Wolverhampton’s “Military Studies” series is a valuable read for anyone interested in the first acts of the Great War, the British Army, and military leadership.

Note: Stemming the Tide is also available in paperback, $49.95, ISBN 978-1-9102-9472-7


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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