"CHALLENGE OF BATTLE" is, perhaps, the finest book yet written on what was the British Army of 1914. Of all the major European powers, Britain possessed the smallest peacetime army. Yet, despite its size, it was a force that had been seasoned over the past century in various colonial wars fought in Africa and Asia.
The common impression formed of the British Army upon taking the field in France in August 1914 and marching north into Belgium (where it first clashed with the German Army at Mons), was that despite its small numbers, it managed, owing to superior firepower and riflemanship, to always stay one step ahead of the Germans, helping their French allies to buy time, and thus keep Paris free and France afloat, at the First Battle of the Marne. Gilbert sets out to show the reader that the British Army was not without its faults, both in terms of tactics and its leadership. Indeed, "[t]he overall performance of the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] during the 1914 campaign was uneven. The peacetime failings in command and control had been ruthlessly exposed on many occasions, and the vital necessity for the separate arms to work closely together was a lesson that was painfully and sometimes inadequately learned. The morale of the other ranks had proved too dependent on the inspirational qualities of their officers; when officers became casualties, or otherwise failed as leaders, the men fell back from exposed front-line positions with alarming frequency. Good leadership at all levels was a precursor to battlefield success."
The story of the British Army's actions at Mons, Le Cateau, along the Aisne River, and in Flanders during October and November 1914 is well-detailed and a fascinating one. It is a story in which Gilbert shows to fine effect his extensive knowledge of the subject. Plus, this is a book that even the layperson can easily digest without getting lost (or hopelessly bogged down) in the minutiae of military jargon and tactics that often clouds books on military history. I'm so glad I read this one.