25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 25 November 2007
Nearly a century after it started, the First World War continues to provoke major debates among historians. One major and rather popular contention has been that it was a futile war, fought by incompetent generals, who were happy to cover their shortcomings and sheer lack of imagination by feeding more and more men into the hellish mincing machine of the Western Front. In the classic description of the British Army by German General Hoffmann, the British Army were "lions led by donkeys". This was typified by "The Donkeys" of Alan Clark.
However, a cursory reading of WW1 histories reveals that, while there was indeed incompetence and lack of imagination in plenty (on both sides), things were never this simple. A long time ago, John Terraine pointed out that WW1 was unique in that, for the only time in history (a) armies were so big that a commander could not see the whole battlefield, and (b) there was no way of effective communication with the army. Thus, once an attack was set in motion, there was no way to control it, or even to stop it if it went wrong. More recently, Niall Ferguson has pointed out that, contrary to popular myth, many soldiers had a "good" war, and even enjoyed the experience.
Both sides were operating in completely unknown territory; they had envisioned a war of movement, with the outflanking movements beloved of generals since before Alexander (just look at the Schlieffen Plan), and both were taken by surprise when they found themselves stuck in a version of siege warfare in which outflanking was impossible, apart from attacking somewhere else entirely (e.g. Gallipoli). So, when your enemy digs in and goes completely on the defensive and his flank can't be turned, your options are limited. The British Army in particular, a tiny regular force (Bismarck famously said that, if it ever invaded Germany, he'd have the Berlin Police arrest it), had to adapt to a situation that it could never have imagined and for which it was not at all prepared. And it had to expand enormously to do it.
Gordon Corrigan's point of view can be summarised in the following sentences from his closing chapter:
"In this book I have tried to show that the Great War of 1914 to 1918 was a just war, which Britain was right to join...The New Army's first encounter with all-out war on the Somme was inevitably shocking. The Army learned, and improved continuously as time went on... Haig and the general may not have been the best team that the British Army has ever produced, but they were pretty good and did their best with what they had in a war whose like had never been contemplated."
This provocatively-titled book thus seeks to present the case for the defence of the war (so to speak), that it was necessary to fight it and that, given the circumstances, the British High Command made as good a fist of it as could be expected. Much of this ground has been covered before, but Mr. Corrigan brings it all together in a rather well and clearly presented summary. Moreover, he says that Hoffmann's "lions led by donkeys" was never uttered by Hoffmann at all, but invented by a British journalist!
So, how does he do? In my estimation, quite well. Of course, Corrigan, a former soldier, sees the war through soldier's eyes and one wonders whether he perhaps feels the need to stick up for the soldiers (he is scathing about the interfering politicians, especially Lloyd George). So, one can't help wondering whether there are things that he doesn't mention. For example, initially he attacks the myths very aggressively. However, when it comes to the Somme, the first day of which was described by someone as "the greatest British military disaster since the Battle of Hastings", the tone changes and is more careful, almost as if he feels the need to build his case very carefully. And at this point, one wonders whether he is telling everything. Although he dismisses the 60lb packs allegedly carried at the Somme as a myth, he is silent as to the "slow walk", in orderly ranks, across the battlefield, in a manner that would have been fine at Waterloo, where there didn't happen to be machine guns.
One myth that it is good to see despatched is the contribution of the USA. Popularly dismissed as too little, too late to have any real effect, Corrigan shows that the doughboys made an enormous contribution to victory. The Allies may have won the war without the entry of the USA, but it would have taken a lot longer and cost even more lives. The Americans had to learn some hard lessons very quickly, but they benefitted from the experience of the Allies and very quickly became a highly effective fighting force and an essential part of the hammer blows which made even Ludendorff (mistakenly rendered as "von Ludendorff") realise that the game was up. The US contribution to the Great War is largely forgotten, even in the USA (at the time of writing, I believe that there is only one old doughboy left), and it's good to see it remembered.
So, all in all, apart from minor shortcomings, this short volume adds an interesting perspective to a war that is now just on the fringes of living memory, and, whether you agree with it or not (and I confess to reservations, which may just be my ignorance talking) is well worth reading.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2004
Corrigan's book is an excellent effort to try and debunk some of the myths surrounding WW1 and in particular, to defend the British General Staff's handling of it.
One face value, this would seem to be a difficult job - one would feel it would be easier to defend Harold Shipman than Field Marshal Haig, but Corrigan makes an excellent attempt at it, supporting his views by statistics.
He also tries to give the reader "the big picture", that the British effort on the Somme was required to take the pressure off the French at Verdun; and that acting as part of a coalition the British staff were not always given a free hand.
Nonetheless, like all revisionist histories, this book cannot be read in isolation. It is true that whilst the British generals were not the "donkeys" of popular myth; they still made some gruesome mistakes. 1st July 1916 on the Somme was still a disaster.
I would recommend that this book is read in conjunction with other histories of the war. Basil Liddell Hart's is very much a "standard" text giving the traditional viewpoint. Another good read is Heinz Guderian's "Achtung Panzer!". As well as his prophetic work on armoured warfare, this gives a German view of the British in WW1 and is an excellent companion to Corrigan's book.
51 of 64 people found the following review helpful
There's a lot worth reading in this book for anyone seriously interested in WW1. The author brings his military experience into good use in describing a lot of things many authors take for granted the reader knows - the structure of armies, the various ranks, how trenches were constructed, and so on. For someone like me who has never done any form of military service, this was very enlightening.
Also his analysis of army records to find out how soldiers actually did in the trenches - their rotas, use of reserve lines, R&R etc -was, to me, completely new. (He does, however, cite them uncitically, assuming that the records reflect the reality, which may not always be true)
So why the modest rating?
Firstly, this is not a well-written book. I found the author's style stiff and stuffy, with his attempts at humour all falling flat.
More serious, though, is that the author seems hell-bent to defend absolutely everything the army did in WW1. I have long been a convert to the "revisionist" view of WW1 - I agree entirely with the author that the "lions lead by donkeys"/"senseless slaughter & stupid generals" view of WW1 should be consigned to the dustbin of history - but time after time, the author seems to simply ignore any evidence contrary to his book's thesis.
I could cite many examples of this, but three will suffice:
(1) In the "Kangaroo Courts" chapter, the author apparently rubbishes any claims of misjustice. He partially does this by one of the oldest tricks in the book, i.e. putting up a straw man to demolish, in this case the cases of three executions "often cited" as unjust. The author rubbishes them and proceeds, with faulty logic, to virtually dismiss all claims of injustice. (The last case, the "Stone case", was recently featured on a TV documentary; it was interesting to see some of the facts that the author left out, particularly the correspondence between Haig & his generals clearly stating the view that there was a need to "made an example of" some men.)
(2) In the section on the Somme, the author glosses over the disastrous first day of the campaign, ignoring all the evidence of strategic confusion and tactics based on hope rather than experience. Read Huw Strachan or John Keegan's books on this for a contrast.
(3) In a lighter mode, read the section on the infamous General Cameron Shute and marvel at the naivety with which the author dismisses Shute's critics by pointing out how much training he'd had, then search the Internet for some naval documentation on Shute.
The author seems to have prejudices which often sppear to come to the surface - his low regard for Australians & the Irish, and his soldier's incomprehension about political realities is a recurring feature.
Personally, I doubt if this book will make many converts to the "revisionist" cause, as it is too blatantly biased. Try Gary Sheffield's "Forgotten Victory" instead.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This is a readable book, an enjoyable one and, particularly with the author's "inside knowledge" of army ways, an enlightening one. However, it does need to be treated with a degree of caution, as a number of other reviewers have pointed out. The generals of WWI were neither (on the whole) butchers & bunglers, nor blameless professionals. Fighting a war no-one had ever fought before, without the tools to properly control the enormous armies they commanded, without even the information to really know what was happening in any reasonably immediate timeframe, they did the best they could.
Gordon Corrigan, unfortunately, in his efforts to redress the condemnatory "donkeys" histories of the 50's, 60's, & 70's, goes too far & ends up whitewashing mistakes & stupidity. It's no more a convincing argument than those of the opposite camp; the truth lies somewhere in between. The author's scholarship can be called into question (and has been); his partiality is obvious & beyond doubt. Therefore, whilst this is a useful counterweight to the more prevalent "bunglers" view of WWI, it shouldn't be taken as gospel. A good book, but one that should be mined for nuggets, rather than blindly accepted.
on 4 September 2015
The book is a diversion away from much writers views of the Great War and gives some incredibly not thought of perspectives on it. It also explains in great detail certain topics such as trench tactics and American contributions (which was a most interesting part of the book for me). Where I struggled at times was the reliance on figures and data to produce his arguments but reduces the flow of the book to a hard slog at times. Once through this though the writer usually pulls it back with a thought provoking conclusion to a chapter.
28 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 26 August 2003
Gordon Corrigan's inimitable style gives this book an explosive edge. 'Mud, Blood and Poppycock' is not for the faint of heart, as Corrigan storms through all the reasons why historians like him refuse to believe that the First World War was the futile and bloody waste that many writers beloved of the 'butchers and bunglers' theme would have us believe. Using hard fact, statistical analysis, and as a serving army officer his personal knowledge of the realities military life, Corrigan shows that 1914-1918 did not result in Britain losing a generation, that its generals were not incompetent butchers, and that cultural events such as the musical and subsequent film 'Oh! What a Lovely War' are as historically useful as 'Wind in the Willows.' This book says what others were too afraid to say, and Corrigan may fly a little close to the winds of controversy for some people's liking, for example on the subject of soldiers executed for treason, but his arguments are incredibly well-constructed and thoroughly researched. However, for those readers who have the historical nouse to know how much myth-making rubbish is published about the Great War, Corrigan's book is a refreshing breeze of old fashioned common sense together with rigorous historical enquiry. I highly recommend reading this book; you will love it or hate it but there is no denying the strength of Corrigan's formidably constructed argument.
on 29 April 2015
An interesting book. A sort of counterblast to 'Oh What a Lovely War'. Its written by an ex soldier and is much along the lines of the generals of WWI did very well considering. Maybe it swings too far as an apology for how the military ran the war but its a reasonable and challenging point of view. It was well worth reading. Recommended to those who like the history of the period.
17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 12 February 2004
Gordon Corrigan has produced a real wonder here: A history book that is thorough, readible, and even humorous! Corrigan's intent is to debunk myths and explain the realities of the First World War in terms that make sense to an audience that has little frame of reference to the realities of the early Twentieth Century. Drawing only the British experience, both from a desire to keep the material to a manageable scope, and from familiarity (Corrigan is former Royal Army), he has accomplished exactly that, and more. This is not a typical chronology of war, nor a list of battle honors, nor is it a narative in the usual sense. Corrigan sticks resolutely to his purpose, and only gives specific battle details when they serve the purpose of elucidating the conditions that existed, despite the undoubtably intense temptation to wander further afield.
By approaching his material myth-by-myth, Corrigan has simplified his task, and made his lessons more accessable to the reader, even if it means that he sometimes retraces his own footsteps. This choice lends Mud, Blood, and Poppycock to use as a textbook as well as a volume of general history. You needn't read the entire book to gain value from it, you only need open to any specific chapter, and Corrigan's entire argument for debunking that particular myth is layed out for you in it's entirety, with no need to refer elsewhere. If, however, you *do* wish to refer elsewhere, there is a rather complete list of end notes to each chapter. This is one of the few items about which I might have any quibble: While the end notes are more useful if you're going to follow-up with additional research, a casual reader would find footnotes easier to read, without needing to flip back and forth to the end of the chapter.
Corrigan isn't infallible, and he does make the occasional error, such as asserting that no army can plan for the 'next' war, but instead *must* plan for future wars by learning from past wars, and that no army has the resources to plan speculatively for the future. This is clearly in error: While any responsible army must indeed study the lessons of past wars, a truly responsible army also studies current trends in an attempt to discern the future. Now while I realize that this, as doctrine, is relatively new, asserting that it doesn't exist at all is a mistake. He does give himself an 'out' by noting that armies of the day had little budgetary resource for studying war from a speculative approach. Still, Corrigan would've done better to explain that doctrines change, rather than to deny the possibility of a particular doctrine. This is one of the very few failed analysis I can find in the entire book, and is a near-miss, rather than a clean miss. On the other hand, Corrigan's dry wit permiates the book, making me smile at the oddest moments. One comment that simply cracked me up was a reference to the effect the shape of mortar pits had on the toilet habits of the King's soldiers. I won't give away the entire joke (nor any of the others scatered throughout), so you'll just have to buy or borrow the book and find it yourself. In fact, I STRONGLY recommend that you do so... Not only is the wit entertaining, but the book is also a wonderful work of historical scholarship. Corrigan's conclusions are solidly based in carefully documented research, and appear to be without ulterior motivation, further reenforcing the value of this work.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 26 November 2010
I have read most if not all available books on WW1. It fascinates and appalls me in equal measure and i am a sponge for all new ideas and concepts. I have enjoyed most of the books I have read with maybe one exception which was Alan Clarkes Donkeys...which i found to be almost a work of fiction. This book is well structured with many arguments well researched and articulated. I couldnt put it down and Major Corrigan should be congratulated for a superb piece of work, but some of his arguments ignore the facts. I agree that English generals were much better than the last 50 years historians have given them credit for, I agree Haig in general did what was needed, I even agree that the British army was the only army by 1918 that was able to go on the offensive to win the war. However, his version of July 1 and the infamy of that day should be rewritten as it ignores the facts, his chapter on Kangaroo courts is just written from a one sided perspective and ignores proven ideas.
For these 2 reasons I cant give it 5 stars but it is still a brilliant piece of work that for 90% of the time breaks new ground and I found myself agreeing with most of his conclusions.
11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 6 August 2006
I loved this book, and as I write I am reading the sequel, but what comes through, bright and clear, is the author's firm (and justifiable) sense of rage at what he perceives as the 'Blackadder school' of military history.
Nobody weaned on 'Oh! what a lovely War' should avoid this, uncomfortable although some of Maj. Corrigan's conclusions may be. His simple respect for the efforts (and suffering) of those who took part in the Great War and, more critically, the efforts of the General Staff to advance the campaigns insofar as they were able to do, is an object lesson for all who re-asess received thinking. Tick, VG - 10/10.