Wednesday, April 04, 2012

"The General" - a review...

This was a surprise find at my local village hall..  a few months ago they installed a couple of book shelves and put up a notice encouraging people to bring in their old books and feel free to borrow any they wanted...  my two spuds go to dance classes there once a week so I usually stop for a quick browse....  

My attention was first caught by the title - I'm a wargaming geek so why wouldn't it - but I then noticed it was by Forester who most people will know better as the author of the Hornblower books...

Now I have read a few of Mr Forester's other non-Hornblower books and invariably they have been entertaining/good so this was a bit of a no brainer....

It transpires that it was a good move - this is a most unusual book - a damn good read but leaving you slightly confused....

The focus of the book (and I purposely don't use the term "hero" as I leave you to make up your mind on what he is) is an army officer by the name of Herbert Curzon - the story starts with the beginning of his career as a subaltern in a Lancer regiment in the Boer War - Curzon is absolutely "straight" - he revels in his ordinariness, subscribes completely to the view that anyone with radical views and a uniform should be distrusted, and that shop, politics, and the fair sex should never be discussed in the mess....  he is as stiff as the moustache on his (stiff) upper lip...

He is also a very good officer - he is liked by his men, because he treats them by the book, always makes sure they are fed etc. He also has no hesitation in ordering them into "harms way" if he feels it is required by the strict rules of behaviour he has adopted based on his training, and the opinion of his commanding and other officers...

He is efficient to the n'th degree, rules with a rod of iron, and a strong believer in training, training and more training....

At his first battle, by a healthy dose of chance, his troop win a notable victory over the Boers which gets the attention of the Army GHQ. So it is that years later at the start of WWI, and as a Major and 2-i-c of his Lancer regiment when the decision is taken that the commanding officer is too old - that report leads to his being given command...

When he gets to France, his regiment is involved at Ypres and Mons, and because of his seniority when his Brigade Commander is killed he is given command of the brigade - not for the first time you note that this (extra)ordinary man is in the right place at the right time....  luck plays a part in his career.....

He is promoted again and again, usually as a result of patronage, and knowing the right people, and eventually is placed in command of a Corps where he orders attacks that condemn hundreds and thousands of them to  mutilation and death amongst the shells and the gas and the machine guns. 
 
He is not overly shocked by the deaths, but is deeply and completely disappointed that the tactics he believes are right are so completely failing - the answer is to double and triple the numbers, but the results remain the same...  he is depressed that the army can't be seen to be going "forward", but are seemingly condemned to stalemate - what he sees as a failure...
 
He is knighted, he gains further patronage, he continues to plan for bigger and bigger offensives that fail with increasing numbers of casualties.....  he is not unintelligent, his initial negative views about trenches, digging in and training with machine guns are all jettisoned as soon a he gets to France and sees the evidence with his own eyes, he understands tanks after Cambrai, before it his usual distrusting view of officers with unusual idea's leads him to discount them, he is stupidly brave but based on his view that this is a minimum requirement of an officer...

Basically, he is a fundamentally honest bloke, honourable, not evil, but hidebound - restricted by his upbringing, his class, his limited life experiences, and the emotional constipation this brings - which he welcomes as being "normal"...

Cracking book - more than anything it helps to explain how the British army saw so many casualties at Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme - Steve the Wargamer gives this one a 8 out of 10....read it!!

B.t.w - there is an (unsubstantiated) rumour that Adolf Hitler was so impressed with the novel that he made it required reading for his top field commanders and general staff in the hopes that it would allow prominent German officers to be able to understand how their British counterparts thought! This rumour was referred to as fact by Forester himself in a foreword to a later edition of the book...  so who knows???

5 comments:

  1. Fascinating! I'll be looking for this one!

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  2. Never heard of this one, sounds interesting!

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  3. Not one I've read. I did 'Brown on Resolution' as a set book at school and loved that. 'The Nightmare' is a very disturbing set of short stories based around Nazi atrocities.

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  4. I've also never heard of this book, but it does sound like a must read??

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  5. I will have to try this one-to be honest I only ever read "Death to the French" at school eons ago.

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