BEHIND THE IMAGE – Race to the Sea

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The 16th (The Queen’s) Lancers (3rd Cavalry Brigade) advancing from the Marne to the Aisne, September 1914

Keith Robinson studies the aesthetics of this WWI photograph.

16th Queen's Lancers during advance to the Marne Sept. 1914.
16th Queen’s Lancers during advance to the Marne Sept. 1914.

At first this seems a generally quiet, almost static photograph dominated by the horizontals of earth and sky. But our eye is drawn from left to right as a series of diagonals converge at a clump of trees on the centre of the picture’s right edge.

Bank, shadow, verge, track, line of horseman, hedge, all head towards those trees. The scale of the lancers thus rapidly diminishes, suggesting both large numbers of men and distances to be travelled.

The lances of the cavalrymen provide a minor diagonal counterpoint to the strong lines of road, hedge, and bank, forming a series of light ‘v’ shapes arrowing towards the vanishing point, underlining the sense of movement to the right.

Yet there seems no urgency in this movement of men. A mixed detachment of French mounted troops wait on the verge while the Lancers pass unhurriedly by. Perhaps the French soldiers have pulled on to the verge to let the Lancers through, or perhaps they are taking a break. A group of French villagers watch the whole event from the height of the bank to the right.

One or two of the lancers appear to look at their French allies, maybe passing a friendly comment or two. The hindmost of the lancers, though, has definitely seen the photographer and manages a nice cheery grin for the camera.

However, the vertical of the young, recently planted tree creates a note of unease. Placed roughly a third in from the right, a traditionally important compositional placement, it partially obscures one of the French riders and his horse. The vertical also obstructs that general sense of left to right movement. A note of disharmony in an otherwise picture of gentle movement.

This photograph of the Lancers and mounted French troops tells the story of the first couple of months of the Great War when the conflict on the Western Front was still a war of movement.

The 16th were the British Army’s second ever light-cavalry regiment, raised in southern England in 1759 by the cavalry officer John Burgoyne, who served as its commander for 16 years.

The regiment deployed to France under the command of Hubert Gough – later to become commander of the British 5th Army – as part of 3rd Cavalry Brigade in August 1914. On 16 September, the Cavalry Brigade became part of the newly created 2nd Cavalry Division.

This was just a er the First Battle of the Marne, 5-12 September 1914, often referred to as ‘the Miracle of the Marne’. This Allied victory effectively ended the month-long campaign that opened the war, with the German Imperial Army having reached the outskirts of Paris.

The counter-attack of sixFrenchand oneBritish armyalong the Marne Riverforced the Germans to abandon their push on Paris and retreat north-east. The Battle of the Marne was an immense strategic victory for the Allies, wrecking Germany’s bid for a swift victory over France.

In the photograph, we see the 16th Lancers making their way to the Front at Aisne, where the German Army had dug in along the commanding heights north of the river. The war of movement of the early weeks of World War I would now give way to four years of static, attritional trench warfare.

The uncomfortable feeling caused by the placement of the sapling would be born out for the Lancers during much of the rest of the war. Indeed, the 16th Lancers would spend much of the remainder of the conflict fighting in the trenches as infantry.

By the end of the war, the traditional roles of the cavalry would be superseded by new technologies: the cavalry’s speed and their use in scouting and reconnaissance roles were usurped by the tank, motor transport, and the aeroplane.


This article appeared in issue 42 of Military History Monthly.

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