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Useful study of men at war
on 26 February 2009
By mid 1916 the British forces in France and Flanders were so large that they had been subdivided into five Armies, each larger than the original BEF that had sailed in August 1914. It curious that the men who led these Armies, and their chiefs of staff, have been rather neglected when it comes to scholarly biographies and analyses. Although several of them wrote autobiographies or memoirs, few have received more than a passing interest. Horne, commander of First Army, had nothing at all about him until quite recently; Byng and Plumer were subjects of single good modern biographies only in the last two decades; Monro and Birdwood get hardly a mention; only Rawlinson and Gough have received significant attention and one suspects that has been more driven by their failures than by their successes.
Rather like "Haig: a reappraisal 80 years on" that I recently reviewed, this is a collection of papers, one covering each General in turn, by leading contemporary historians including Gary Sheffield, Simon Robbins, John Bourne and Peter Simpkins. The various studies examine the background and temperament of the man, his relationships with Haig, his peers, staffs and subordinates.
Some themes will serve to frustrate the "lions led by donkeys" school. These men were experienced soldiers, who rose to their command through demonstration of capability. Their backgrounds and personalities varied greatly, with inevitable consequences for their relationships and actions. Two were sacked (Gough perhaps unfairly in 1918, although there is a case that he should have gone much earlier; Allenby in 1917, sidelined to Palestine where he turned out rather well), one more at least (Plumer) came close to the same fate. Rawlinson's development from a less than wonderful 1915 and a disastrous 1 July 1916 to a capable, flexible, wise, leader in 1918 is covered well: as indeed are all of the stories.
I was intrigued by a surprising weight given to secondary sources in some of the papers, but this may have been due to tight writing timetables or small research budgets. I would not rely on this book as my single source of information about a General, but as a taster and a guide to where to look more deeply, it can not really be faulted. All papers are scrupulous in their citation of sources, as you might expect from professional academic historians.
There is a small collection of photographs, none of which you will not have seen before, and insertion of a few largely irrelevant maps. This book is not about trenches and battle timelines. It is about men and their struggle to overcome the unprecedented challenges of technology, communications and huge organisational scale and in that most stressful and unforgiving period in our history.