To disaster on a Flanders mare

RIDING THE RETREAT: Mons to the Marne 1914 Revisited by Richard Holmes, Cape pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
THE military historian Richard Holmes had the splendid wheeze of getting back into the saddle, literally, to retrace the route through northern France taken by Britain's cavalrymen in August 1914. It was, he writes, "a journey over the horizon to glimpse the summer the old world ended". The result is a book that amuses yet haunts, brisk at one moment, melancholy the next; bound to appeal to all who love horses, enjoy history and don't mind a bit of boyish enthusiasm.

The cavalry's war was brief, romantic as an Edwardian adventure story, full of guts and tactically doomed. Holmes and his companions ride a route marked by disaster and punctuated by memorials to heroic futility. One of the many pleasures of his account is the almost effortless blend of past and present. Events from the campaign and informative gobbets of military lore come blended with descriptions of the landscape today, seen through a staff officer's eyes. A perennial contrast runs through the book between the humour of Holmes' progress on Thatch, a whimsical horse part Irish Draught, and the sad heritage he follows. This is a difficult trick to bring off, but Holmes manages it with skill. He keeps the soldier's balance between pride and self-deprecation. The tone is entirely right.

The cavalry of 1914 belonged to a school of warfare that Marlborough or Wellington could have comprehended. But even before the extinguishing fire of the western front they were a breed in danger of social extinction. Major-General G F Rimington, who wrote Our Cavalry in 1912, complained that it was getting difficult to find the right sort of officer. "We particularly want the hunting breed of man," he explained, "because he goes into danger for the love of it...we draw on a class who have not been used to much brain work...the young officer should for choice be country bred, fond of sport, a 'trier' and there must be some private income."

We can laugh hollowly down the generations, but the foolish gallantry of those who charged riflemen with lances and sharpened 1908 model swords still buckles the heart. "The unconquerable and determined offensive spirit" was the foundation of British military doctrine, and cold steel at close quarters provided its ultimate test. The author quotes Engels observing to Marx that fighting is to war what the cash payment is to trade: it occurs rarely but everthing is directed towards it, in the end it must take place and it must be decisive. What cavalryman of 1914 would not have preferred a swift, blood-boiling fight to the Golgotha of trench warfare to come?

So the horses, riders, artillery pieces and gun limbers toiled across France as General Von Kluck's grey tide enveloped the British Expeditionary Force. The British were led by generals whose names still resound like toppling tombstones: French, Smith-Dorrien and Haig. Many of the horses came from the green studs of Ireland and each officer bought his mount with care. The men took on the hard work of grooming, feeding and caring for their animals as well as all the common drudgery of soldiering. It seems that the shared love of horses gave to all ranks a regimental spirit that knew little class boundary.

Holmes is a good writer of battlefield scenes. He tells the tale of Captain Charles Hornby, 4th Dragoon Guards, who won the DSO as the first cavalry officer to kill a German with the sword, on 22 August. He captures the reckless valour of the first large-scale cavalry charge of the war two days later: "Get mounted lads! We're going to charge the guns," cried an officer - and off they pounded, straight into the artillery's maw, the horses felled by thickets of barbed wire, Sergeant Talbot of the 4th Dragoons going down in a crashing somersault, the 9th/12 Lancers harvested by the German machinegunners amid the corn stooks of late summer and their elegant officers blown to pieces in the saddle.

These were actions more like the fighting of 120 years earlier than the battle of Ypres that came only two months later. The cavalry's day was soon done. Trenches, gas, mortars, enfilading machine-guns and, eventually, tanks defined the rest of a static war. But what a band of men they were! In the pages of Holmes' book they come alive again, their sabres flashing in the last sunshine of chivalry, their shades a-gallop across the plains of France, standardbearers of a dying order deficient in almost everything but courage.