In the popular imagination, vast numbers of British infantry soldiers were sent needlessly to their deaths in World War 1 because their military leaders were incompetent. The brave ‘lions” were slaughtered because their “donkey” commanders couldn’t think of any other battle plan than to send wave after wave of soldiers directly towards barbed wire and machine guns while they remained safely ensconced behind the front line.
The General by C S Forester is a detailed portrayal one of these so-called “donkeys”, exploring the mindset of a professional soldier in a time of war. The novel follows the career of Herbert Curzon, a steadfast and courageous man, as he rises through the ranks. We first encounter him in his retirement, a Lieutenant Colonel with a string of military honours to his name and married to a Duke’s daughter.
He is usually to be seen in his bath chair with Lady Emily, tall, raw-boned, tweed-skirted, striding behind. … He clings to the habit of the old-fashioned bathchair largely for the reason that it is easier from a bathchair to acknowledge one’s friends; he has never taught himself to walk with ease with an of the half-dozen artificial limbs he has acquired since the war…
The story really begins some years earlier when Curzon was a Lieutenant with a Lancer Regiment in the Boer War. It ends with him in another conflict, this time in command of a hundred thousand infantrymen embroiled in the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele.
Forester shows how Curzon’s promotion through the ranks isn’t the result of any exceptional talents or any visionary capacity for innovative military strategies. He’s actually a fairly ordinary man but one who can be relied upon because he is steadfastly loyal to the principles of duty and obedience.
He got his first command in South Africa purely because, during a manoeuvre, his immediate superior was killed and all other senior officers had fallen ill. It was left to Curzon to rally the squadron and lead them safely back to base. By sheer chance they encountered a group of Boers and in the ensuing battle Curzon’s men were victorious. The event earned him a reputation for fearless leadership.
As his career advances, that reputation is enhanced with one that highlights Curzon’s close attention to detail. He sets a high standard for himself and the men under his command, operating a zero tolerance policy towards drunkenness and thefts of food. The chaotic conditions on the Belgian and French sectors of the front, the lack of reliable communication lines and the constant changing of plans, are thus anathema to a man who loves order and structure.
The General offers a balanced portrait of this leader. He’s not a man who recklessly orders attacks that condemn his men to die nor a leader who is completely uncaring of the welfare of the men under his control. What we’re shown is fundamentally a man who is completely and utterly devoted to the principle of obedience. So if his regiment is ordered to “hold the line” to the last man, that’s exactly what Curzon will do, regardless of the cost. As he becomes known throughout the army and in political circles as a hard working, dependable leader, his loyalty is rewarded with ever more honours and responsibilities.
In the view of the narrator, the flaw in leaders like Curzon was their constrained upbringing and heavy reliance on the traditions of warfare, rendering them unable to accept new ideas. Curzon is dismissive of the use of tanks and rejects “idiotic suggestions” from junior officers that the contribution of his beloved cavalry could be superseded in future wars by machine guns and aeroplanes. Such theories were to Curzon “dangerously subversive of everything worth preserving”. By which he means the glorious tradition of a cavalry battalion charging across the battlefield with lances and sabres drawn.
Forester doesn’t hesitate to show how men like Curzon were so fixed in the past they failed to recognise that the battles in France and Belgium were an entirely different kind of warfare and required new approaches. So they just kept using the same formula: more men, more weapons, more gas supplies.
Describing a meeting of the British Expeditionary Force commanders, Forester writes:
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 forces 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; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered hat they would laugh at the man who suggested it.
Yet there is sympathy in the novel for these men who were hide-bound by the past and by convention.
History has decreed that they were misguided yet, as Max Hastings points out in his insightful introduction to the book, at the time of the conflict they were highly respected by the soldiers under their command. Forester acknowledges that Curzon’s men recognise his courage and professionalism; his tireless efforts to execute the battle plan. He also credits him with the foresight to recruit civilian experts with skills in logistics and scheduling to overcome frustrations of broken supply chains and flaky communication systems.
The multi-faceted nature of this character study makes The General a much better novel than I expected. Forester clearly disdains his main character and makes him a bit of an snob, but he does recognise the merits of a man who would give his life for the ideals he believed in so wholeheartedly.
Is The General an enjoyable book? Largely yes. The battlefield conditions are very realistic though not over-dramatised and we get a very clear sense of the frustrations of trying to command a force without adequate supplies and hampered by constantly shifting directions. It does flag periodically when the narrative gets bogged down in details about command structures and nuances of seniority among the ranks. But overall I found it enlightening.
The General by C S Forester: Endnotes
The General was published in 1936 and was well received at the time though wasn’t a great commercial success. It’s largely neglected now, unfairly so according to the military historian Max Hastings who believes it shows more insight into the nature of the men who directed the Great War, than that found in most books by “modern pundits.”
C.S Forester was one of the most popular novelists of his generation. Born in Cairo as Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, he was rejected for military service in 1917 on the grounds of poor eyesight and general physical frailty. He spent three years as a medical student before abandoning that path to pursue a full-time writing career. He slowly built a reputation with novels that had a naval focus; his most famous creation was Captain Horatio Hornblower, a favourite of Winston Churchill.
I read this book as part of the 1936 club hosted by Simon of Stuck In A Book and Karen of kaggsysbookishramblings. My edition is a 2015 issue from William Collins. It’s book number 8 in my #TBR21 project, to read 21 books from my stack of unread titles by the end of 2021.