The British entered World War I convinced of victory. Many even predicted an end to hostilities by Christmas. For the British Expeditionary Force, which was instead obliterated by 1915, this proved a costly assumption. In his robust re-examination of the onset of war, Robin Neillands reviews the exploits and character of the BEF, revealing how it came to be both the focus of hasty British hopes and, in the tragedy of its defeat, the catalyst for a policy shift without which the war would surely have been lost.
Affectionately known as 'the Old Contemptibles' (a subversion of criticism from the Kaiser), the BEF was, although small, so highly trained and motivated that enemy lines mistook the unremitting accuracy of its rifles for machine gun fire. However, at Ypres, it was nonetheless conclusively defeated, proving that no amount of patriotism, skill or valour could match superior numbers and equipment. This forced the government to re-evaluate conscription and military funding.
Using the testimony of both commanders and infantrymen, Robin Neillands' definitive account, published to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of war, offers new insight into still highly, and justly, emotive issues: why such appalling numbers perished and to what extent the course of events would have been altered had the initial reaction from Britain been different.