Spencer Jones on shedding new light and challenging myths about the British Expeditionary Force

Now the right side of a recent dose of ‘Fresher’s Flu’ and on the eve of a much-needed break in Lanzarote ‘Independent Scholar’ and first-time Helion author Spencer Jones takes time out of his busy university timetable to indulge in some fighting talk circa 1914…

How are you feeling now, Spencer?

“I’ve recovered thanks. It’s just the rest of my workflow that’s trying to kill me! I’m a roving History and War Studies lecturer; to give the job its posh title – an ‘Independent Scholar’. I split my time between three universities – Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Buckingham. I started lecturing in 2003, but in a much more serious manner in 2009 when I got my PhD. It’s my dream job.

I get mistaken for a Brummie but I’m a Black Country boy; an alumni of the University of Wolverhampton circa the 1990s. I’ve gone from sitting at the back of the class to standing at the front! I came into War Studies wondering where it might lead. It was more of a pursuit of an interest than a thought-out career.

You’re editing a collection of essays on Officers in the British Expeditionary Force. How did you choose the contributors?

War Studies is a small world. ‘Family’ is a nice word to describe it, though others might say ‘incestuous’! We share tips on research, events, conferences… keep one another informed on what’s going on. The book was originally going to be much shorter – around eight chapters. I had a ‘dream team’ in mind of top academics, professors and scholars who I wanted to contribute – including Professor Gary Sheffield who I work with at the University of Birmingham.

As I approached them, they suggested other people I wasn’t even aware of. In this way, the book has grown to 15 chapters – each looking at a specific officer with a general theme around command and control. The willingness from the War Studies community to participate in and contribute to this project has really impressed me.

How would you describe the essay project?

It’s a look at the Army itself from top to bottom. It’s about officers from the British Expeditionary Force who went to France in 1914. They were a small outfit – around 120,000 men facing a German army of millions. “Punching above their weight” might be one way to describe it!

You’ll have heard the phrase “lions led by donkeys”. That is to say that the established view is that in 1914 the men were well-trained and fought well, but that they weren’t well-led. The idea behind these essays is to look at the key officers in terms of where they came from; what experiences had they had up to 1914 and how did these experiences equip them. In short, were they up to the challenge? The goal is to shed new light on the accepted view and perhaps challenge some myths along the way.

Were you tempted to just write the whole book yourself?

Duncan and I had talked on and off about a book which would look at the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 as a whole. It’s still an idea that’s on the table, but one day over lunch one of us said: ‘Why don’t we have an edited collection focusing on key officers?’

When you’re the sole author you have complete control. With a collection of contributions you get lots of viewpoints. It gives a real richness to the book… a sense of ongoing debate – especially as some of the authors disagree with each other.

Which officer did you want to write about?

Right off the bat I knew I wanted to write about Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence (pictured right) – the man who ‘saved the British Army in 1914’. On 31st October 1914, the British line at Ypres was broken by constant German attacks save for a few stragglers such as cooks and mechanics. FitzClarence stepped in and took control – organising the Worcester Regiment into a counter-attack which surprised the Germans. Sir John French wrote: “I regard it as the most critical moment in the whole of this great battle.” Sadly, he didn’t live to tell the tale – being killed in action on 12th November. With the passage of time he has been largely forgotten by history even though he won the Victoria Cross for bravery during the Siege of Mafeking in the Boer War 1899. No biography has been written about him since the 1920s.

He was the only officer I considered writing about as the local Worcester connection means a lot to me personally . Worcester has a park named after the action – “Gheluvelt Park” – which I have visited many times. I knew that FitzClarence’s personal papers were available, but in themselves this was not enough for a whole chapter. I dug back into other sources and took advice from colleagues (the War Studies community coming to my rescue again!). Now I have so much material it’s difficult to see how I can cut it down.

Needless to say, of the eight completed chapters mine isn’t one of them! But I have got a good excuse. My first book – ‘From Boer War to World War’ – is due out next month. It looks at tactical reform. This title is how the Army prepared and trained. The essay collection – my first book with Helion – is how it went to war. They’re almost a matched pair.

What are your ambitions for the essay collection?

Wouldn’t a Templer Medal be nice?! I’d be over the moon with that! Seriously though, Duncan and I want it to be as good as it can be. There’ll be a map section in the centre with a really good selection of pictures.

Personally I hope that FitzClarence’s family will get in touch when it’s published sometime in the late summer/early autumn next year. The Irish Guards have passed on a letter I have written to them, but sadly I’ve had no reply as of yet.

As for the launch, in an ideal world it would take place at the Guards’ Club in London. Charles FitzClarence commanded the Guards’  Brigade. I think he’d smile on that kind of endeavour.

You can follow Spencer Jones on Twitter at @historian1914

Words by Michelle Corbett

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