Book Review: Chasing the Great Retreat: The German Cavalry Pursuit of the British Expeditionary Force before the Battle of the Marne August 1914

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by Joseph Robinson, Sabine Declercq, and Randal B. Gilbert

Warwick, Eng.: Helion / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022. Pp. xiv, 188. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $45.00 paper. ISBN: 191507083X

The Failure of German Cavalry in 1914

As the authors of Chasing the Great Retreat say, despite the many works written since 1914 on the first month of the First World War, the role of the cavalry in these early battles has been long neglected, a lacuna that The Great Retreat seeks to correct by studying the conduct of the German Cavalry in Belgium and northern France prior to the famous Battle of the Marne.

Robinson, Declercq, and Gilbert. assert that the failure of German Cavalry to properly exploit the initial successes of German First and Second Armies against the BEF and French Fifth Army in August of 1914 are where the real opportunity for a decisive victory that year was lost.

That failure was in part a product of poor pre-war organization of the cavalry. The largest level of organization used for German Cavalry in 1914 was the Höherer Kavallerie-Kommandeur or HKK. This was not a cavalry corps, but rather an ad hoc organization of 2 to 4 cavalry divisions in a single formation, with an ad hoc staff (none of whom had trained together), lacking an integral supply service. In fact the only cavalry division that existed in the pre-war German Army was the Guards Cavalry Division. This ad hoc nature of the German cavalry contributed to a lackadaisical approach to any missions the cavalry was given in August 1914. Moreover, the cavalry had to draw its supply entirely from the German infantry army closest to it, which often forced cavalry units to pull back for resupply when they should have been pushing forward to catch up to the retreating enemy.

The authors point in particular to what they see as a massive opportunity that German Cavalry had after the Battle of Mons to pursue and cut off the BEF as it retreated, which in their minds, should have ended the war in a German victory. Here the cavalry was undermined by the decision of the German Wing Commander Karl von Bülow to move HKK1 behind his Second Army, which put it in a poor position to pursue the retreating BEF.

The authors argue that German cavalry should have been employed moving parallel to the German infantry so that they could flank and catch up with the retreating French and British infantry to pin them down for the German infantry to annihilate. Instead, German cavalry always proved to be a little too far behind the retreating Allies, who escaped to turn the war around in September at the Marne.

A secondary story told within the book is the use of German cavalry against the Belgian forces along the Channel Coast, and against the small number of British Royal Marines and naval infantry who were landed in Western Belgium in August. The tale of the Belgian 4th Division, which succeeded in escaping encirclement at Namur, is a particularly interesting one.

In toto, The Great Retreat is also to be praised for an engaging narrative of the battles that the cavalry was involved in, with good quotes from the cavalrymen themselves to describe events. The maps are quite good, though sometimes they were placed before the events they show are described in the text. It certainly is a worthy addition to the literature that already exists on the Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914, though I was not entirely convinced by the authors main argument. It is to be hoped that the gauntlet thrown down by the authors will be picked up with a study on the French, British, and Belgian cavalry in the same area in August 1914, still largely neglected.

Our Reviewer: Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews include Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective, Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies, In the Name of Lykourgos, The Other Face of Battle, The Bulgarian Contract, Napoleon’s Stolen Army, and In the Words of Wellington’s Fighting Cocks.

 

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StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

www.nymas.org

Reviewer: Alexander Stavropoulos   


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