The Donkeys Paperback – 12 Dec 1991
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"A shell-burst of a book" (The Economist)
"An eloquent and painful book... Clark leaves the impression that vanity and stupidity were the main ingredients of the massacres of 1915. He writes searingly and unforgettably" (George Malcolm Thomson Evening Standard)
"Mr Clark writes with verve, venom and real feeling for the men whose lives the brasshats squandered" (Paul Johnson New Statesman)
"So far from being "just another war book" that it is likely to be bought and read for years to come" (Vernon Fane Sphere)
"He is a writer with considerable gifts both of description and narrative. His subject gives them plenty of scope; indeed his descriptions of battles and battlefields are sometimes masterly" (Michael Howard Listener)
An impassioned book which changed the way we think about the Western Front – a controversial classic.See all Product description
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If you are seriously interested in finding out about the sombre events of 1915 then I recommend Gordon Corrigan's "Loos 1915: The Unwanted Battle" and Niall Cherry's "Most Unfavourable Ground: The Battle of Loos 1915".
Seeking to go beyond the coverage of the more general histories of the Great War, I picked up a copy of the "The Donkeys" and settled in for an entertaining read......and yes it is entertaining, but regretably that entertainment comes from the exaggerated writing style, value judgements, and hearsay that has been injected into the narrative. It's a polemic made palatable by a racy journalistic style.
As a "history", the book has been made redundant by the opening of the archives since the book was written at the beginning of the '60s. The subsequent outpourings of newer histories, even where 1915 and the British attacks are covered as part of a general review of the war, have much more to add to an understanding of the conflict in that year than this book.
It's "Use By Date" has clearly been reached!
The availability of the documents in the Public Record Office at Kew Gardens has shown, instead, that the British Army adapted at every level to the new constraints of trench warfare. The disastrous results of the offensives in 1915, which are the subject of this book, stemmed from the virtual destruction of the old professional army and the difficulties of training and assimilating the New Armies. Once, however, that was achieved, tactical innovation proceeded at a fast pace. Enterprising officers within the British Army, led by Arthur Solly Flood, Director of Training, GHQ, adapted (between the summer of 1916 and spring of 1917) the tactical principle of small-unit, fire and movement and all-arms approach combining infantry and artillery in a deep battle that led the BEF to victory in 1918.
It is a shame that this book should feature so prominently among the 'classics' of First World War Historiography, for it paints a very distorted picture of the standard of the British officer class, which hinders the study of the developments in tactics during the War. Far from being 'lions led by donkeys', it would be more true to assert that the average 18 year old conscript, freshly trained in 1918, was 'a donkey led by a lion'
Firstly, Clark lied about the title. The German General he claimed attached this phrase to the British Army had not said that at all. Clark admitted this before his death.
The British Army was a Colonial police force in 1914, with a core of highly trained men. By 1918 it was the most sophisticated Army in the World. British Generals began a learning curve in 1914 which reached its peak in 1918. Most of them had never commanded above Division level before. They were learning on the job. The Battles of Loos, Neuve Chappelle, the Somme and Ypres were a part of this learning process. The British Armies had not operated in such masses since Napoleon. They did not have the experience of the French or Germans. But within four years had matched and surpassed them in terms of tactics and technical quality.
The inconvenient truth for Clark is - the Allies won and the British played a vital part. He dismisses this as a result of numbers, and blockade. In fact it was three massive attrition damage done to the German Army on the Western Front that forced Germany to seek an armistice. It was the losses at the Somme, which force the German economy to move to total war in order to stave off defeat that was the driving force for the collapse.
There is much more: But Clark's 'work' is not scholarly or academic it just plays on casualties and the "six inches of ground won". Claiming Chateaux Generals threw away thousands of lives "doing the same thing" - utter nonsense.
For those who want to become academics - try reading Gary Sheffield's Forgotten victory.
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