Author Adrian Gilbert’s introduction notes that: “British histories of the 1914 campaign typically adopt the emotionally comforting paradigm of the plucky Briton giving the overbearing foreign bully a bloody nose.” Gilbert goes on to state “…my intention is to look afresh at the British Army during 1914….My aim is not by any means to belittle the army’s many achievements but to provide a more realistic assessment of the army set within a general narrative of the war in 1914.”
Gilbert’s book succeeds admirably, and not as a revisionist work but rather as a corrective supplement to the controversial Official History of the First World War multi-volume series published between 1922 and 1948. Although the 1914 volumes of the Official History were not subject to as much debate as later books in the series, Gilbert still found “significant instances of evasion and omission, and, on occasion, outright distortion” in the 1914 volumes of the Official History.
For example, Gilbert’s research contradicts the official version of the battle of Le Cateau (26 August) as a successful delaying action fought against great odds. The author explains that such misrepresentations are important because the Official History was “so influential in defining the outlook of subsequent histories of the war.” As an example, Gilbert quotes historian John Terraine who described Le Cateau as “one of the most remarkable British feats of arms of the whole war.” Challenge of Battle devotes five detailed chapters to the preliminary maneuvers and decisions to fight at Le Cateau, the battle itself, “Failures of Command,” and the continuing retreat of the BEF. Gilbert’s book clearly proves that Le Cateau was a British tactical defeat, but it remains to be seen whether his new work can overcome well-established myths.
Dana Lombardy, Publisher WWOI