The flat countryside of northern France and Belgium is eerie when viewed with a historical eye. Today the train from London to Brussels hurtles through an emotive landscape, punctuated by periodic glimpses of pill boxes and cemeteries, grim reminders of 20th century European history. A short train ride south from Brussels brings you to the town of Mons, capital of Hainault, and site of the British Army's first engagement of the First World War. With "Riding the Retreat" Richard Holmes, perhaps best known for his magnificent “War Walks” series, incomprehensibly unavailable on DVD, combines a readable history of the opening part of the Great War with a personal and likeable travelogue recreating the headlong retreat on horseback.
When one thinks of the 1914-18 war one cannot help conjure up a picture of cloying mud, trenches, and endless static fighting for gains measured more in yards than miles. This masks the period in August 1914 when the long 19th century ended, when there was truly a war of movement and cavalry was not quite yet the tragic anachronism it would become in a matter of months. It is this war of movement that has largely preserved the Mons area and the countryside over which the British retreated, and this means that to this day the visitor can still see the landscape much as it would have been nearly 100 years ago. Holmes skillfully applies the story of the soldiers of 1914 to what is visible today, and as such brings it to life in a moving, emotional way. Having been privileged to live in Mons in 2007 I found this especially easy to relate to. Then my apartment, not far from the Berlin Gate to NATO's present day Supreme Headquarters, was just beside the point, in the little village of Casteau, where the first meeting took place, and every Friday I would drive to Soignies, in whose narrow streets the breakneck cavalry running battle ended
Holmes makes the point that August 1914 was one of only two periods when the war could have been comprehensively lost militarily, and this is spectacularly illustrated in “Riding the Retreat”, where the headlong pace of the retreat, is shown by pointing out how units dispersed in Belgium, only managed to reform in western cities such as Le Mans. The point too, that the British were not forced due east, but in a much more southerly direction after Mons is driven home, which highlights the gaping hole the Germans blew in the allied lines, and what made the prospect of success for the Schlieffen Plan much more than a nebulous idea. The speed of the German advance, the disorganised chaos into which the allies were thrown, and the perpetual motion of the retreating British Expeditionary Force describe a very different war from that which we associate with the 1914-18 period.
Affecting and compelling as the history is, this book's real strength is in the travelogue of Holmes and his companions, human and equine, as they make their way through Belgium and France. This aspect of the book is a very human story, with engaging and entertaining characters. Holmes describes the sort of interesting misadventures, lovely people, and fantastic meals that make this a journey one wants to have been part of, and one which it is a pleasure to read about. As such this book, really about a monumental human tragedy, as few of those fighting in August 1914 survived unscathed to November 1918, is one that makes you smile, which is in itself a sort of tribute to the sacrifice made by soldiers and civilians on both sides.