George Clarke Musgrave introduces his fifth book, a graphic, straightforward history of the war on the Western Front, with a note that the book was written at the suggestion of an American officer who, on his arrival in France, found that he could not gain a meaningful perspective. A keen student of the world war, he had followed its phases in the newspapers and the imposing array of war books. But when he reached France, he found that, by concentrating primarily on the great events, public attention had been shifted to and from different episodes in the far-flung areas of conflict, until the overall canvas had become too large to comprehend.
Based mainly on personal observation, however, "Under Four Flags for France" has the advantage of being written by a war correspondent of no ordinary ability; a man who describes himself as "a Briton by birth and an American by adoption," and is certainly not lacking in perspective. Through his vivid, accurate and illuminating narrative, our author draws his pictures with an eye to the diplomatic reasons behind the plans of war, the great sweep of armies as they manoeuvre for advantage, and the effect of the life and death decisions of Generals on the fighting man and on the civilian population.
Of the centre-piece at the Battle of the Somme, our author records that it came at 7:30 am. on July 1st, with a barely perceptible pause in the guns as the range leaped from the smoking first lines to a fire curtain behind them. A huge mine exploded under the bastion of La Boisselle; clouds of black smoke were released on "no man's land" for a screen. And a curving wave of troops twenty five miles long were over the parapets and charging the German lines. Yet the churned earth of the enemy front came to life in places but there was little loss generally as the British tore across the first lap and then machine guns and rifles burst from reserve trenches, the German guns came into action, and the real battle had started. The British army had marched to the Somme full of confidence. Each branch of the service had been trained patiently and thoroughly. At the first signal, every unit went in to win. Men showed bulldog courage; they put forth every ounce of weight they had, to break the German front. A huge machine had been assembled, but time and bitter losses were required before the various parts ran smoothly. Frontal attacks were inevitable; but the general tendency of the British was to advance too far on sections where an initial success was won. Sometimes big results were gained, but keen judgment was necessary. The lesson cost thousands of lives.
Supported by facts gathered from many sources including: the trenches, bivouacs, hospitals, military briefings, despatches, dug-outs and observation points, he writes of the invasion of Belgium and of the Allied effort to break the German lines as only a man who knows military life intimately, and has seen war all over the world, could describe them. With a focus on the eagerness of the Allied troops to come to grips with their enemy, we are shown the concerted unravelling of the German armies, the long deadlock at the front, and the virtues, the defects and the successes of the offensive strategy that ultimately checked the German menace.
In essence this is a vibrant and exciting story of the war, tinged with human interest, with a central theme depicting the ways in which the super-strategy of Germany to extend her frontier straight across France to the mouth of the Seine, was defeated with simple strategy and super-tactics which foiled the invasion and wrecked all chances of a German victory.The closing pages outline the influence of the two ultimate challenges to Germany's planned dominance; the thunder of the new British guns in Belgium, and the arrival of the American Army in Europe, ready for attack.