I was reading recently a book describing the contemporary practices and ethos of the Marine Corps, and found reference to a publishing house (Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co.) offering a product line, principally composed of well-selected reprints, aimed at a professional military readership.
One title, mentioned as a popular favorite almost rang a bell: C.S. Forester’s (non-Hornblower novel) The General.
I could almost swear that I had read it long ago, but the book I remembered had not inspired any particular attachment or respect, and this title was extravagantly praised. I got hold of a copy and could hardly put it down. Its wry and affectionate portrait of the fictional General Sir Herbert Curzon K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O. was meat and drink to my reactionary and Anglophilic imagination.
Curzon, known to his family and subordinates as “Bertie,” is a classic British Blimp.
The picture of Curzon in the years immediately before the war seems to verge closely on the conventional caricature of the army major, peppery, red-faced, liable under provocation to gobble like a turkey-cock, hidebound in his ideas and conventional in his way of thought, and it is no more exact than any caricature. It ignores all the good qualities which were present at the same time. He was the soul of honour; he could be guilty of no meannesses, even boggling at those which convention permits. He would give his life for the ideals he stood for, and would be happy if the opportunity presented itself. His patriotism was a real and living force, even if its symbols were childish. His courage was unflinching. The necessity of assuming responsibility troubled him no more than the necessity of breathing. He could administer the regulations of his service with an impartiality and a practiced leniency admirably suited to the class of man for whom those regulations were drawn up. He shirked no duty, no matter how tedious or inconvenient; it did not occur to him to try to do so. He would never allow the instinctive deference which he felt toward great names and old lineage to influence him in anything which he conceived to be his duty. The man with a claim on his friendship could make any demand upon his generosity. And while the breath was in his body he would not falter in the face of difficulties.
Bertie blunders accidentally as a subaltern, while commanding a squadron of cavalry during the Boer War, into a superb position on the enemy’s flank where he is able to deliver a quick charge, gaining Britain a notable victory and winning himself the D.S.O.
When WWI eventually breaks out, Bertie’s previous status as a hero, along with his unrelenting dedication and unflinching courage propel him rapidly upwards in rank. He immediately receives command of his regiment. In the First Battle of Ypres, his commanding general is killed and Bertie inherits command of the brigade.
He continues through the war as a model soldier of the old school, perfectly courageous and reliable, free from selfishness or nerves, entirely a sound man, the soul of duty and loyalty, faithful to tradition, suspicious of novelty, theory, or demonstration or display of any kind.
His military faith is in punctilious planning, perfect execution of classic tactics, and the application of overwhelming force.
He spoke vehemently against the effect on the troops of life in the trenches, and this system of petty ambuscades and sniping and dirt and idleness. And, with his experience of improvised attacks and defence to help him, he was able to say how advantageous it must be to be allowed ample time to mount and prepare a careful attack in which nothing could go wrong and overwhelming force could be brought to bear upon the decisive point. Curzon checked himself at last when he suddenly realized how fluently he was talking. It was un-English and lawyerlike to be eloquent.
Of course, the result of all that planning is the Somme.
Forester then plays tricks on his reader, deliberately undermining his hero by making him suddenly begin to behave meanly and out of character.
Bertie ignores his humble aunt’s request to transfer her son to a non-combat position out of snobbery, and displays actual jealousy of the new-fangled tank arms’ success at Cambrai.
Forester is, of course, arranging Bertie’s downfall and destruction. Now a lieutenant general and commander of a corps, Bertie returns to France to find his sector of the line at the very center of a major German offensive in overwhelming strength. As the Germans begin to achieve a breakthrough, Bertie is obliged to send his former divisional command as a sacrifice into the middle of the breach. Bertie then sends for his horse, buckles his sword onto his Sam Browne belt, and rides toward the enemy, gathering up retreating soldiers as he goes.
Bertie must be made to pay for his fidelity to the tactical approach of General Grant, so at the next crossroads, Forester has him cut down by German artillery, his horse slain, one leg blown off.
General Curzon (out of character, it seems to me) then becomes an invalid in a bathchair, incapable of adapting to an artificial leg, rolled about the promenade in Bournemouth by Lady Emily, his tall and raw-boned wife. Sic transit…
I thought the book was fine, until the author turns upon his character. Still, I suppose Forester is entitled to make the argument that inutile destruction and enormous waste of life of WWI had some specific connection to the virtues (and limitations) of the old school British military. They ought not, it is possible to contend, have been so suspicious of intellectuality and theory. Like the Hun, they should have studied war and built an intellectual General Staff. (But, of course, intellectualism and General Staff and all that, the Hun still managed to lose two wars.)
Interesting review, and much appreciated.
On the opposite side of the coin, too many heroes of historical fiction are flawless beyond belief – Sam Damon in Anton Myrer’s epic “Once an Eagle”, for instance
Also, there seems to be an false standard of fiction that characters should not change over time – but that’s not exactly the way real life works, IMHO. In Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s wonderful biography, “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters”, it comes through quite clearly that Robert E. Lee changed substantially with experience: In early manhood, he was quite an engaging, irreverent personality; then after the sudden death of his mother in-law Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, Lee had a religious conversion and was baptized and became something of an hard-core born-again Christian; and finally, after the war ended Lee still attended Church but was much less trusting of God to bring good fortune to his flock of believers.
When I read â€œThe Generalâ€ years ago, it wasn’t hard to see that it was yet another not so veiled attempt to besmirch Field Marshall Haig & those ramrod straight virtuous paragons of his mold – who led the Allied Forces in actually winning The Great War. So easy to parody by the shirkers, the Leftists, the peace-at-any-pricers. So much of this same poppy-cock will be trotted out about the waste and folly of war for the next 4 yrs Centennial years MOSTLY by folks who never served and who loathe the military anyway. The actual, you know, Brit veterans of WWI worshipped 1st Earl Haig â€“ one of Britainâ€™s most honored warrior-leaders in all its History. They did NOT lament their service nor curse their officers ever after. Thatâ€™s all Leftist defeatist armchair pundit chin stroking tommy-rot.
Itâ€™s SO EASY for US to better fight WWI one hundred years later. We have so much insight into the mistakes they made then. If only we had been in charge! My what useless Generals they had. Donâ€™t flatter yourself, pilgrim.
I’m not sure that Sam Damon is “flawless.” That is part of his appeal. He has an affair in the South Pacific with a nurse. He disobeys orders on several occasions. And there are several other examples.
It is just that Massengale is so odious that makes Sam look so good.
The Colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai was a sympathetic (finally) portrait of such an officer.
Sorry, but I find this review wrong-headed. It seems to miss the whole point of the novel. Which is? That in the course of history, a decent man and first-rate officer may be promoted to the point where he, and others like him, can do terrible damage to their own side. It’s something we still see constantly in our own time.
Contrary to the review, the protagonist doesn’t fall out of character near the end — rather, seeds carefully planted early in the story come to fruition, while changing life circumstances (promotion and an upward marriage) have the effects that they would have in life, in the time and place and social order discussed.
Two specific things gotten spectacularly wrong:
1. “Bertie ignores his humble auntâ€™s request to transfer her son to a non-combat position out of snobbery” — this from a reviewer who claims to admire Bertie’s Blimpish punctilio and reliance on the book. A real pukka sahib cannot cut some kid non-combat orders just because he’s a relative; it is Wrong. It’s true that this decision is also easier on Bertie, because he wouldn’t have to explain the new orders to others and face social embarrassment; that’s why he feels guilty and ashamed about it. It’s a beautifully described — if agonizing — human moment, and not out of character at all, unless you insist on a superhero protagonist with no flaws.
2. The reviewer’s idea that the author turns on his main character at the end, because of Forester’s political vendetta against the generals. On the contrary, Forester goes very merciful at the end, allowing his protagonist to bear the full responsibility for his mistakes in an act of sacrifice and heroism — true to his character, not a violation of it.
As to the notion, backed up by other commenters at this site, that Forester wrote the book as a lefty pacifist doing typical hindsight bashing of the World War I military, this is quite silly. Any fan of Forester’s novels generally knows him for a patriotic bloke with a keen understanding of, and sympathy for, the military. If you are a fan, try to dig up a copy of his early autobiography, Long Before Forty, out of print but available used on Amazon. In some ways it is the Forester you expect, in others wildly different. But it shows him having, from a very early age, a keen interest in military history, tactics, strategy, and logistics (as a child, he literally blew up his back yard playing around with a home-made mine). It shows him volunteering for World War I, only to be turned away with the revelation of a heart condition then thought to be fatal within a few years. For the rest of the war, he suffered the torture of understanding the mismanagement of England’s forces and feeling, as a patriot surrounded by patriots, helplessly unable to damage morale by commenting on it.
The General was his comment, years later, when he thought its message might still be useful. He was chagrined when the German War College was the first to see its significance and made it required reading on a Know Your Enemy list; fortunately, you don’t win by fighting the last war. Forester would retaliate on the Germans with his own literary counter-attack during World War II.
Great Review. I read the book decades ago and your review awakened memories.
If you want to understand the problem of British officers being so bad, and they were mostly terrible, read Martin Samuels “Command or Control?: Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918” ISBN-10: 0714642142.
I think you make some good arguments there. Your sympathy with the book, and possibly your understanding of it, may well be deeper than my own.
Thanks for taking it that way. A good blog doesn’t just speak, it listens.
Intelligent comments come along pretty regularly here, and are much appreciated.
You may agree with me, though, that Curzon not adapting to walking with an artificial leg and becoming content with being reduced to the status of invalid in a bathchair seemed very out of character.
I understand your point, but I see it this way: it accentuates the sacrifice (which accentuates the heroism), and it may be the character’s way of accentuating the penance. It probably also reflects Forester’s realism. Critics, and even a lot of us fans, may think of him as an escape novelist, but even in the Hornblower novels — where you have a character whose realism must diminish the more episodes there are — he always tries to temper the hero stuff with a regression to the human mean. Curzon fought his whole life; but men do retire.
I was referring more to Damon’s military exploits than his sexual morays.
As for Damon making a major military blunder, there’s a very brief mention made of an amphibious landing behind enemy lines gone awry due to “freakish chance” where Jimmy Hoyt’s battalion ends up decimated and virtually in the water, but that’s about it – and that event is presented in the past in summary rather than in real time, with a detailed description.
Don’t get me wrong – Damon is a great character and “Once an Eagle” is an excellent book – but if the character of Sam Damon is a play on the ancient Greek concept of a “daÃmÅn” – a divine, tutelary guiding spirit – then I would have liked to have seen him make a real, honest-to-God serious mistake and have to deal with the aftermath of that, too – because that’s a big part of life and leadership that even the finest officers have to learn to handle, as well . . . . . . .
When ‘The General’ was published in 1936 it was by then quite fashionable to lampoon the British General Staff as inflexible, pompous, blustering windbags. Colonel Blimp was the stereotypical cartoonish embodiment of the type that Forester merely sought to portray with the written word. That was the fashion. For all of Foresterâ€™s â€˜patriotismâ€™ alleged in this stream by one poster, he waved off the Big Show on the continent when he was in his youthful physical prime. And if you donâ€™t think they would have taken him at the Front my friend, you donâ€™t know nothing about how hard blokes worked to get those deferments. Your prior Service? Or just an avid reader? I can sniff anti-military at a hundred paces. British Literary circles and Politics in the 1930s were all about the Trench Butchers of WWI. The um lads who were in the trenches meanwhile donned their old uniforms and faithfully went to the memorial ceremonies year after year. Field Marshal Haigâ€™s Funeral in 1928 saw a huge outpouring of genuine grief and affection for the old Commander.
Ah, but he also serves who writes patriotic novels â€“ and reads them. Look, Iâ€™ve read Foresterâ€™s stuff, and enjoyed it. But he romanticized Officers from previous generations that came up the hard way, buying their commissions and earning their licks â€“ like he did as a writer. Officers like H. Hornblower. Well, thatâ€™s just not the same image one has of the WWI Commander now is it. Aloof, distant, cold, calculating, incompetent. Forester added to that image with his character Herbert Curzon in â€˜The Generalâ€™. And Iâ€™m just saying that itâ€™s a fictitious image crafted by the liberal press, writers like Forester, and by Labor Party politicians of the age feeding into the whole War to End All Wars garbage that contributed to the rise and rampant success of Hitler. Iâ€™m sure Neville Chamberlain was a â€˜patriotâ€™ too, though. In his own way.
Very late to this thread but you might want to check out the works of Charles Carrington. He thought highly of Haig and was not ashamed to say so:
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