Top positive review
The British way
on 10 December 2012
This remarkable book is not just about certain survivors of the 1st World War who go on to attack Everest. It is about the British way of life and how it changed after WW1. It makes uncomfortable reading.
I have to admit to anger as I was reminded of the horrors of the 1st World War. For example that '95% of officers had never read a military book of any kind. This cult of the amateur, militarily anti-intellectual, resulted in a leadership that was obtuse, wilfully intolerant of change, and incapable for the most part of innovative thought or action'. 'In four years at the head of the largest army the British Empire had ever placed in the field, a force that would suffer 2,568,834 casualties in France and Belgium alone, Haig never once visited the front; nor did he visit the wounded'.
'Karl Blenk, a German machine gunner of the 169th Regiment, wrote; "When the English started advancing we were very worried; they looked as though they must overrun our trenches. We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before. I could see them everywhere; there were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim. We just fired into them. If only they had run they would have overwhelmed us.'
Newspapers reports of battles 'simply echoed official bulletins, which had little connection to reality. "Sir Douglas Haig telephoned last night" the Times noted on July 3, "to report that the general situation was favourable... Everything had gone well... effective progress... We got our first thrust well home, and there is every reason to be sanguine as to the result...'
Haig's daily routine included an afternoon constitutional riding a favourite horse - one of the highlights of his day. '...with his polished staff at his side, not a button or buckle amiss, allowed him to maintain the illusion that the world was still a place of gentlemen and order, and that war as an exercise had not lost its lustre or glory'. ' Haig famously asked Sidney Clive, his senior liaison to the French headquarters, "Have we really lost half a million men?" He had, and all for an advance of five miles'.
British public schools had reached their apogee in the decades before the 1st World War. 'The schools existed to create a cadre for the empire, civil servants to man the distant outposts, officers to lead the armies, politicians to determine the fate of millions of dark-faced subjects of the crown. Education was valued, with more than half of classroom work devoted to the classics, but for the most part the atmosphere in the schools was fiercely anti-intellectual. Their real purpose was to infuse students with a certain ethos, a blind obedience to those of higher rank, a reflexive inclination to dominate inferiors, and, above all, the cultivated air of superiority so essential to the stability of the empire'
A radical innovation in the 1922 Everest expedition was the use of oxygen. The Royal Geographic Society which - together with the Alpine Club - was the organising force behind the Everest expeditions, was slow to see its importance. 'Traditionalists ... questioned whether the use of supplementary oxygen was sporting'. Hinks the RGS secretary 'who knew nothing about mountaineering was the most vocal critic. "Only rotters would use oxygen" he insisted'. George Finch was the oxygen enthusiast. But Finch had not attended the proper schools. That he had chosen a career in the sciences, a profession unworthy of a gentleman, was another issue.
The issue of oxygen paralleled attitudes to Amundsen's use of dogs in polar expeditions - it was seen as less heroic than man-hauling, the preferred British way.
Mallory however, was convinced that oxygen would "serve us well". He was open to anything that would get them to the summit. Mallory was rather reluctant to join the 1924 expedition (following his past Everest experiences). He wrote '...I sometimes think of this expedition as a fraud from beginning to end, invented by the wild enthusiasm of one man; Youndhusband - puffed up by the would-be wisdom of certain pundits in the A.C.' (the Alpine Club). In the end, in 1924, after two unsuccessful attempts on the summit by the team, Mallory and Irvine were allowed to make a last-ditch attempt with oxygen available as needed.
These quotes cannot reflect the book's breadth and depth. It is critically fair. It is one of the most significant books I have read for some time.