"The General", Book Review, C.S. Forester
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.)