Sunday, 30 January 2011

The General, by C.S. Forester

I bought this Penguin paperback as a schoolboy for 4 shillings, and read it as an indictment of the British military leadership in the First World War. This dusty, yellowed book was taken off the shelves again immediately after a visit to Ypres this year in May, and this time I perceived it as more balanced and understanding of the character Curzon, who is ‘The General’.

The visit to Ypres included the Memorial Museum at Zonnebeke, which vividly conveyed the history of the battle in great detail, and included an ‘experience’ of a British bunker in the basement. I started to grasp the geography and events. It was amazing to learn that 200 tonnes of armaments are still dug up every year in Belgium, needing disposal. We drove to Passendale in ten minutes, using the sat-nav, in our air-conditioned car, and back to Tyne Cot cemetery. The soldiers in the battle of third Ypres took five months to slog to the top of the Passendale ridge, where only a pile of rubble remained. At Tyne Cot there were 35,000 names of soldiers completely lost in the mud and explosions. I found the landscape to have a spooky feeling to it. Wind rippling the long grass sent a chill down my spine, as if ghosts were caressing the tortured ground.

Having re-read this book, I think Forester was genuinely trying to understand the mind-set of the officers in the British army. He is very good at describing and analysing the small things that turn a battle and make a decisive difference to history. He also does this in ‘The ship, ‘The gun’ and ‘Brown on Resolution’. For instance here he shows how Curzon was promoted after getting lost down a gully in a Boer War battle which fortuitously brought him out behind the enemy lines, enabling the battle of Volkslaagte to be won.

In the First World War he shows how Curzon was again lucky to be promoted rapidly, through small chance events and decisions. There is an air of grim satire about some of the unforeseen consequences, but he is simply reflecting the role of chance and chaos in war and human affairs. The General’s rigid frame of thinking leads to tragic losses of life for his men, for he is not one to give up and retreat or admit defeat. Forester fairly conveys his honour, his patriotism and his courage, but always within a fatally limited world view. In the end, the General is a failure, even if society does not recognise him as a failure.

This book is a useful resource to understand the First World War’s Western front. It is accurate and fair, though it remains a product of its time (published in 1936), when people were questioning the achievements of the British military. The view of that war as a tragic series of blunders reached its satirical apogee in the 1960s. Since then historians have developed revisionist interpretations that recognise it was not all futile, and was a truly difficult situation for all the leaders concerned, grapping with new destructive technology. Novelists and many ordinary people remain fascinated by the whole tragedy.

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