A review of the book “The British Expeditionary Force 1914-15” (Osprey Battle Orders series number 16) by Bruce Gudmundsson.
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I bought this book hoping for a detailed breakdown of the organisation and structure of the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force, the name for the British Army on the Western Front in the First World War). In the main I was disappointed. It deviates from that purpose too often, wasting the limited space the series format allows on interesting but peripheral matters. Furthermore the organisation of the information it contains is poor, especially at the start, making the reader jump about to answer questions one might hope would be easy to answer with a book of battle orders.
One example of the poor use of limited space is the map on page 5. Almost a whole page is used to illustrate the pre-war option that was considered for landing a force at Antwerp. In the event this idea was dropped and although it’s an interesting fact to know, it diverts from the main purpose of the book and wastes almost a whole page in doing so.
Figure: book cover (from Amazon UK)
A key aspect of the BEF in the period covered by the book is its significant growth in size, from 5 infantry divisions to 11 between August and December 1914 and larger still to 27 by the end of 1915. Yet few pages are devoted to this and they are spread through the book. The table at the top of page 12 is invaluable in giving the dates these new divisions landed in France, but it doesn’t show the corps and later the armies they were assigned to. A table across pages 10 and 11 does this for 1914, but there is no equivalent for 1915. This is typical of the patchiness of the book, providing superb detail in some areas only to gloss over others. Confusingly this treatment of the top-level structure appears in a chapter titled “Mission.”
The chapter “Unit Organisation” begins with another discussion of the top-level structure of the BEF, but scarce space is wasted with diagrams of organisations for 1907-09 and 1910-13 which never saw action. The organisation at the outbreak of war is given, but not its later developments. There then follows 27 pages on the detailed internal organisation of infantry battalions, artillery regiments and cavalry regiments. This is excellent stuff – exactly what you’d expect in a book on the battle order of the BEF.
After explaining the makeup of these low level units the book steps upwards in scale to cover the organisation of the brigades and divisions which they were the building blocks of. Eight pages cover the development of the structure of a British infantry or cavalry division, with copious diagrams. Again this is very useful. However there it stops. There are no diagrams of corps or armies to make good the lack of that information in earlier sections.
Next come a few pages on the makeup of headquarters at various levels, followed by five on “Weapons and Equipment” (which are almost exclusively devoted to artillery).
Finally there are a dozen pages on tactics, illustrated with maps of several of the battles the BEF fought in 1914 and 1915. This is excellent stuff, but is rather deviating from the expectations I’d have of a book of battle orders. The maps in particular take up a lot of space. I found them invaluable when planning visits to these particular battlefields so I am reluctant to criticise them, but really this whole section is a luxury in a book of battle orders, only to be included if the main aim of the book has already been met, which in this case it unfortunately hasn’t. In a book that has to conform to page-count limits set by the series editor this material is an indulgence and would be better split off into books about these particular actions.
What is missing? Well I’d expect tables of which battalions were assigned to which divisions, with footnotes on changes through the year and a half covered by the book. I’d also expect tables of how the divisions were assigned to corps, and later to armies, at key points in 1914 and 1915.
From a book with the title of this one, I’d want to be able to use it as a reference to easily find out the composition of a particular unit at a particular time and how it fitted into the hierarchical structure of the BEF. This book would get one part way there, but lacks enough hard data to do the job properly.
In summary, it is a useful and interesting read, but hardly the reference I’d hoped it would be. Three stars out of five.
Reviews by the same author of other First World War books: