A unique Leonaur edition—never before available in this form
John Buchan was a popular author of historical and adventure fiction whose works remain in print to the present day. He also wrote important works of non-fiction that are less well remembered. Among these was a commissioned, multi-volume history of the First World War that was so well regarded that it became a source-work for other historians. This Leonaur Original, drawn from Buchan’s history, and including many maps, battle plans, photographs and illustrations, has been published to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War on the Western Front as overwhelming German forces swept through Belgium and France. This was a mobile war—much like the wars fought in Europe for hundreds of years—of marching infantry and cavalry armed with lances and swords. The battle at Mons, the dogged retreat of the ‘Contemptible Little Army’ of the B. E. F., the incredible resistance of the out-dated Belgian Forces, the battles of the Marne and Aisne as the tide turned, and the carnage of the First Battle of Ypres as the war became a stalemate of wire, mud and trenches at the close of the year, are all covered in Buchan’s brilliant take on just six months of war in 1914.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
There was abundance of cover, and the German field uniform was well chosen for fighting in a green northern land like the Belgian border. Its greenish-grey melts into the background of a European landscape better than our khaki, which was a colour chosen for operations in the Sudan deserts and among the brown rocks of the Indian North-West Frontier. In the first stage of their onward march the German infantry held its fire. At more than one point its presence was revealed only when at last it brought rifles and machine guns into action, and the whistling of bullets overhead and the direction of their fall gave a clue to those who were anxiously searching the foreground with their glasses. Then our men in the trenches, who had so far been watching the artillery fight, and suffering patiently some loss from the enemy’s shrapnel, at last had the relief of action.
The rifle fire began all along the front. The men shot with the cool deliberation of well-trained riflemen, confident in their weapons. There was no flurry or excitement. It was like field firing at targets at Aldershot or Salisbury Plain. And soon they had easy targets, for the German attack was pushed forward with reckless haste. It seems likely that the German leaders had overestimated the effect of the storm of shells that their field guns and howitzers had been hurling against the British positions. The true theory of the frontal infantry attack is that it can be pushed home if the covering artillery fire is heavy and effective enough not merely to inflict a certain loss on the defence, but so to shake the morale of the men that they will no longer raise their heads above cover, adjust their sights, and deliver an aimed fire.
But when the Germans made their first attack, the British in the trenches and along the canal had settled down fairly to their work. The first excitement of being under fire had gone. The first tremor at the sight of death and disablement had given way to that strange state of mind that soon comes to men in battle, when the horror disappears, and the brain is absorbed in a succession of tasks which become almost automatic. The special advantage of the well-trained soldier over the novice is that this mental condition comes quickly, and remains unshaken.
There were two surprises for our men. At manoeuvre battles in England they had seen the “enemy” coming on in thin and widely-extended firing lines. But here was the real enemy advancing in dense masses, and affording the easiest of targets. The second surprise was to find that the blaze of fire from the German front did comparatively little harm. Thousands of bullets whistled overhead with a rising roar like a winter’s gale, but few found a mark. Soldiers’ letters describing the German infantry attack at Mons were full of such expressions as, “They came on in bunches,” “It was like a football crowd on cup day,” “One could not miss them, they were so packed together,” “They could not shoot for nuts,” “They could not hit a haystack.”
Anyone who has seen German troops at manoeuvres will readily understand what happened. Though the drill book of the Kaiser’s army laid it down that the firing lines were to be in extended order, for years it had been the custom to form shoulder to shoulder for attack. This practice was based on the teaching of Meckel, that the loss thus incurred was compensated for by the greater volume obtained by putting every possible rifle into the firing line at the earliest stage of the attack. At Mons the infantry had advanced for some distance without incurring any serious loss. They were reaching decisive ranges; some of them were within five or six hundred yards of the British positions, and there must have been among the officers an impression that their immunity was due to their artillery having beaten down the fire of the defence. But they had escaped so far because they had worked forward under cover, in ground where their uniforms made it hard to distinguish them.
As they broke from cover and attempted the final advance to close quarters, they were met by an unexpected storm of well-directed fire. Rifles and maxim guns came into action, and battery after battery, neglecting more distant targets, sent showers of shrapnel over the grey lines. Under this hurricane of fire the shooting of the German infantry went to pieces, and even under less difficult conditions they had no easy targets in the well-entrenched infantry before them. Small wonder that our first impression was that, however dangerous the big German guns might be, the German rifle fire was little to be feared.
But through the rain of bullets the enemy struggled on. One line would go down in death, but the supports came up through its broken ranks. Here and there line packed and crowded on line in the desperate effort to push through. There were places where it seemed that this reckless advance might be crowned with success. The Germans were closing on the trenches when a burst of magazine fire from the British mowed them down, and then, with a cheer, our men dashed forward with the bayonet, and the hard-tried enemy broke and bolted for cover, with our pursuing quick-firers and maxims strewing the line of retreat with their dead and wounded.
But the first attack had no sooner died away than the grey lines were seen again advancing, wave after wave. Von Kluck had the advantage of superior numbers. He could afford to waste life freely in the effort to wear down the defence. Like Grant in his battles with Lee, he used his masses as mere “food for powder.” Along the line of the canal towards Condé the assault was at first intended only to keep Smith-Dorrien’s men occupied, and prevent reinforcements being sent to the right. There were attacks all day against the bridges, and at these points the fighting was sharp.