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Oh, what a lovely myth


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From The Sunday Times.. Max Hastings....

Oh, what a lovely myth

Britains First World War generals were far from donkeys, the bloodshed no worse than in other wars and the frontline soldiers lot no more terrible.

No warrior caste in history has received such mockery and contempt from posterity as Britains commanders of the First World War. They are deemed to have presided over unparalleled carnage with a callousness matched only by their incompetence. They are perceived as the high priests who dispatched a generation to its death, their dreadful achievement memorialised for eternity by such bards as Siegfried Sassoon:

Good morning good morning!, the general said,

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of em dead,

And were cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

Two generations later the generals were caricatured by Alan Clark in his influential though wildly unscholarly 1961 polemic The Donkeys, for which the author belatedly admitted that he had invented the quotation attributed to the Kaiser, describing British troops as lions led by donkeys.

Charles Chilton and Joan Littlewood followed Clark by creating the satirical musical Oh, What a Lovely War!. In the 1980s, BBC TVs Blackadder Goes Forth imprinted on a new generation a vision of Great War commanders personified by General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett. Here was the mass murderer as comic turn or, if you prefer, the comic turn as mass murderer.

Yet this was not how most survivors of 1914-18 viewed their leaders in the wars aftermath, despite gaping emotional wounds left by the slaughters at the Somme, Passchendaele and elsewhere. Among returning veterans there was much anger about the muddle attending demobilisation of Britains huge army, which prompted strikes and mutinies; and about the lack of a social or moral regeneration such as might offer visible rewards to justify the wars sacrifice. But until the late 1920s senior officers such as Haig, French, Plumer, Byng and Rawlinson received respect and even homage. The belated victors of the western front were loaded with titles, painted by Sir William Orpen and granted places of honour at the unveiling of countless memorials. A million people turned out for Haigs funeral procession in 1928.

The public mood began to shift about the time the Depression began. Such accounts of the war as Frederic Mannings The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), Edmund Blundens Undertones of War (1930), Siegfried Sassoons Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man (1928), Robert Gravess Goodbye to All That (1929) and Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) depicted a protracted agony in pursuit of rival national purposes that allegedly meant little to those who perished in their names, compounded by the brutalism of those who directed the armies.

The Great War, it seemed, had not merely yielded battlefield horrors of unprecedented scale and intensity; it had also failed to secure any discernible benefit for mankind or even the victors. By the 1930s a diminishing number of people in the allied nations accepted the view that the Kaisers empire had represented such a malign force that it was necessary to defy its purposes at a cost of 20m dead.

Britain became host to a peace movement unrivalled in any other country for its numbers and fervour. After the Oxford Unions February 1933 debate, a motion was carried by 275 votes to 153 that this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country. In 1934 Madame Tussauds waxworks gallery responded to the changed public mood by removing from exhibition its galaxy of allied generals, catalogued as The men who won the war.

There was revulsion towards the bloodbaths that the brass hats had directed. Captain Basil Liddell Hart, who served briefly and without attracting much notice on the western front, had transformed himself into a widely read military pundit. He did much to advance the legend of British command idiocy.

Liddell Hart was prejudiced, if not embittered, by the unwillingness of the British Armys senior officers to treat him as seriously as he believed his gifts as a strategic thinker merited. A fluent writer who sustained a prodigious journalistic output, he developed some good and even important ideas, which, like most theoreticians, he overstated. Foremost among them was the claim that exploitation of manoeuvre and technology most conspicuously, the tank could have played a game-changing role earlier in the First World War, and would certainly do so in future conflicts, without the necessity for murderous headlong collisions.

Liddell Harts denunciations of commanders myopia, and assertions of their culpability, won favour with some important people, including Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and the novelist CS Forester, who was profoundly influenced by the military historian when he wrote his powerful 1936 novel The General.

Yet I suggest that the British military leaders of the period have received a more contemptuous handling from posterity than they deserve. The critics view that they could have secured victory at much lesser cost suffuses the pages of Foresters fiction: an assumption that they lacked the imagination to adopt methods that could have overcome the difficulties of confronting the German army in Flanders.

In a seminal passage the novelist describes how, after the failure of the British attack at Loos in October 1915, the commanders of the British Expeditionary Force discussed preparations for a new offensive with more men, guns, shells and gas.

In some ways, wrote the author, it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort.

Here the novelist displayed the mindset that caused Churchill to write: Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter. Such views remain widely held among the British people to this day.

Yet where both Churchills dictum and Foresters analogy were fundamentally mistaken, in the view of the best modern scholars of 1914-18, was in their failure to acknowledge that no military means existed to make possible a ready rotation of the screw, to open a cheap path to victory. The western fronts dominant reality was that the available means of defence proved more effectual than those of attack. Even when, at terrible cost, one side or the others assaults achieved an initial breakthrough, the necessary motorised mobility was lacking, together with appropriate command and control technologies when wirelesses were primitive, rapidly to exploit local success.

This changed only in the summer of 1918, when the German army was much weakened by attrition and the British had developed new tactics above all the sophisticated management of artillery for which Haig deserves some credit.

Even in the Second World War, Liddell Harts faith in an indirect approach, the possibility of attaining victory by manoeuvre rather than attrition, proved justified only where defenders suffered a moral collapse, as did the French in 1940 and the British in Malaya in 1942. When a defending army displayed staunchness and professional competence, like the Wehrmacht in almost all circumstances, Liddell Hart was shown to be quite mistaken in supposing that enlightened generals could cut ready keys to victory.

Between 1914 and 1918, British and French commanders were imprisoned by strategic realities, foremost among which was that if the allied armies remained supine in their trenches, they thus acquiesced in enemy occupation of a large swathe of France and Belgium, where 5m people lived under brutal subjection. Herein lay the answer to the oft-asked modern laymans question: Why did the allies keep attacking?

Moreover, the Germans enjoyed another considerable advantage: they could concede a few yards or even miles of occupied territory wherever it seemed expedient to do so to entrench on higher ground, for instance while it was politically unacceptable for allied formations voluntarily to yield French or Belgian soil, even if doing so would save lives. The only ready means of escape from the horrors of the western front was to concede victory to the Kaiser.

But if 1914-18s generals deserve sympathy for the intractability of the military challenges they faced, to modern eyes they still seem repugnant for their indifference to the massacres over which they presided.

A vivid insight into their emotions, or lack of them, was provided by the 1952 publication of Sir Douglas Haigs diaries. For instance, as commander-in-chief of the BEF, he wrote on July 2, 1916, very early in the battle of the Somme: A day of ups and downs! ... I visited two casualty clearing stations ... The wounded were in wonderful spirits ... Total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.

Haig was a Roman, schooled since infancy to regard fortitude as an indispensable virtue for every right-thinking soldier, a view shared by the senior officers of Russia, France, Germany, Austria, Italy. What seems to a 21st-century society monstrous insensitivity was, to those who led armies throughout earlier ages, an essential element of warriorhood. Some of Napoleons greatest victories were bought at appalling human cost, but few French people think the less of him because of it.

The first Duke of Wellington sometimes wept when confronted by the butchers bills for his victories but never hesitated to sacrifice men to battlefield imperatives. Almost a quarter of Wellingtons soldiers were killed or wounded at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, about the same proportion as fell on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme. Great captains have seldom flinched from accepting heavy casualties; their fitness for command would have been questioned had they done so.

In the First World War the vastness of the struggle and the unprecedented duration of battles imposed an unheard-of scale of loss. But what choice was there before the military leaders, save to stiffen their backs and carry on, unless they chose to resign their posts or concede defeat to the enemy?

The literary culture that dominates 21st-century perceptions burdens the generals with overwhelming blame. Yet, on the allied side at least, soldiers bore little or no responsibility for having unleashed Europes catastrophe. It is almost impossible to make such officers as led Britains forces appear sympathetic human beings to a modern audience, and they have no claim to be considered great captains. But they were men of their time, and it is thus that they should be judged.

There is a related popular myth: that the First World War was much bloodier than the second. Many people like to believe that in the 1939-45 conflict Britain suffered much smaller losses because the army had more gifted and humane generals, who declined to sacrifice their men as they had been sacrificed on the Somme.

Yet Paul Fussell, an influential modern writer, was profoundly mistaken when he wrote in The Great War and Modern Memory that the conflict was uniquely awful and thus lay outside history, fit only for literary, not historical, examination. All wars inflict appalling horrors. One officer with the rare distinction of having served as an infantryman in France throughout the conflict, Charles Carrington, wrote to a friend in 1975 deploring Fussells absolute misunderstanding of the war and the illusion that the war poets spoke for their generation.

I saw far more fighting than Siegfried Sassoon, or Edmund Blunden, or Robert Graves, Carrington said, far more than Liddell Hart, four or five times as much as much as Wilfred Owen, and I didnt go home with a nervous breakdown. [but] I fear the damage is done, and the myth of the 1930s has prevailed ...

When I meet some clever young scholar from Queens or Keble, who has written on WWI, and say to him, as politely as I can, My dear chap, I was there at the time and it wasnt at all as you describe ..., the shade of disbelief that I know so well passes over his features as he says to himself, The old boys growing soft. Hes losing his memory.

Does anybody care any longer about the silent millions who did not want the war, did not cause the war, did not shirk the war, and did not lose the war ... who had never heard of these lugubrious poets ... with their self-pitying introversion?

Carringtons absolutely correct point was that, while the war of 1914-18 was quantitatively worse for mankind than any previous conflict in history, qualitatively it was no more terrible than many others. Life and death in for instance western Europe during the 14th century, the era of the Hundred Years War, were dreadful indeed, as also during the 17th-century Thirty Years War, which killed a higher proportion of the population than perished between 1939 and 1945.

It is a delusion to suppose that 1914-18s fighting men experienced worse things than their forebears had known. For centuries soldiers had fought battles in which they were obliged to stand and face each others fire, sometimes at ranges of 50 yards and less, hour after hour. Their hardships from hunger, weather and disease were quite as severe as those endured by combatants on the western front. Survivors of for instance Napoleons 1812 Russian campaign would have mocked the notion that what men did to each other at Ypres represented a worse experience than their own.

What changed in the First World War was that cultured citizen soldiers, disdaining the stoicism displayed since time immemorial by professional warriors, chronicled the conflict into which they were plunged with an unprecedented articulacy and revulsion. Moreover, the absence of strategic movement generated a sense of futility that afterwards extended, understandably but irrationally, to the merits of the allied cause.

Neither the poetic achievement nor the sense of futility was matched between 1939 and 1945. This is strange, because the second of the 20th centurys great clashes was much more costly for mankind. Bloodier attritional clashes were required to accomplish the destruction of Nazism than the defeat of the Kaiser. But 1941-45s principal killing fields, its Sommes and Verduns, lay in the east, and the losses were borne by the Russians, who suffered 27m dead and inflicted 92% of the German armys total casualties.

The western allies bore a small fraction of the material and human price of destroying Hitler. For four years June 1940 to June 1944 most of the British and, later, American armies trained at home while a handful of divisions fought in north Africa, Italy and the Far East.

In the second half of the Second World War, assisted by a superiority of resources such as the French commander Ferdinand Foch and Haig had never enjoyed, together with the fact that the global tide had shifted decisively against the Axis, the western allies won some victories under the leadership of competent, if not inspired, generals. But it is difficult to argue credibly that British commanders of 1939-42 displayed higher skills than those of Sir John French, the first BEF commander, and Haig.

The reality is that Eisenhower and Montgomery were spared the odium of presiding over bloodbaths comparable to those of 1914-18 not by their own genius but because Russians did most of the killing and dying undertaken by British Tommies and French poilus a generation earlier.

It is also sometimes suggested that allied generals in Hitlers war eschewed the sybaritic lifestyle of commanders in the Kaisers conflict, who created the legend of chateau generalship, champagne-swigging brass hats living it up in the rear areas. This view, too, is factually hard to justify.

When champagne was available, most British, American and German senior officers drank it as enthusiastically between 1939 and 1945 as they did between 1914 and 1918. Soldiers serving in headquarters inevitably live far more comfortably than infantrymen. Once again, modern perceptions have been distorted by the literary culture of 1914-18, which fostered a myth of the First World Wars exceptionality. Sassoon wrote in one of his most famous poems: If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,/Id live with scarlet Majors at the Base,/And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

Fed by such brilliant derision, the delusion persists that the First World War was unique in its chasm between innocent youth sacrificed in the trenches and brass hats skulking at the rear. In reality, in all wars since 1914, for each rifleman confronting the enemy, at least 10 and sometimes 20 officers and men have fulfilled support functions. Every surviving veteran of the Second World War is today absurdly dubbed a hero, yet a small fraction performed roles that put them at much risk. Fighting soldiers of 1939-45 liked their brethren who manned office desks and ate hot lunches no more than did Sassoon his scarlet Majors.

Haig and his kind were not wicked men, in the way that Germanys 1939-45 commanders were indeed wicked, because they colluded in barbarous deeds unrelated to military imperatives. The British generals of 1914-18 did the best they could for their country. They possessed virtues and vices bred into the British military caste over centuries, which in the unprecedented circumstances of France and Flanders were tested almost to destruction.

It is much too simplistic to look back on the 1939-45 conflict as Britains good war, and 1914-18 as its bad one. CS Forester in The General recognised that his fumbling fictional half-hero, like his real-life counterparts, was as much a tragic figure as the men he led, often to their deaths. There is no cause for posterity to love or admire those commanders. But we can at least strive to understand them, to break free from the mire of wrong-headed cliché in which our view of the First World Wars battlefields and commanders has become entrapped.

This is an abridged version of Max Hastingss introduction to a new edition of CS Foresters The General, published this week by HarperCollins

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This is an abridged version of Max Hastingss introduction to a new edition of CS Foresters The General, published this week by HarperCollins

Abridged ? . . . .

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Abridged ? . . . .

Too far! The original book isn't all that long

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Strangely, I though that THE GENERAL was a book rather sympathetic to the officers in general, and certainly to this particular General. He actually throws out an incompetent predecessor at a few hours notice. Indeed, refuses to allow him to stay even a night in his married quarters.

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I find this passage in Robertson's memoir haunting. He is about to leave France to become CIGS:

" I also left my chauffeur, Reginald Settle, in France. Educated at a public school previous to joining his father's business, he volunteered early in the war and had driven my Rolls Royce since the autumn of 1914. He was devoted to his car - which he would allow no one else to touch - and also to myself; and he wished to accompany me home so as to continue driving me to the end of the war. This duty, as it would be in London, was not however quite suitable to a young man of his attainments and upbringing, and therefore I decided to leave him behind. He was a clean-living, attractive boy, and his death at the front a few weeks later, after receiving a commission, was a heavy blow to his parents. His only brother died in a French hospital at Mayence shortly after the armistice."

This seems cold-hearted at first reading. But clearly Robertson had not forgotten this young man (or his parents, brother), and pays him this tribute, in the rather gruff way typical of the time. This passage is a tender memorial, which does Robertson credit.

EDIT - according to the 'In Memory' website, upon Robertson's return to England Reginald Settle was given charge of the cars of Sir Douglas Haig at his headquarters, but requested a transfer to the RFC as he "wanted to see more action".

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