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A Reasonable Book on the Bedrock of the British Officer Class - The Public School
on 22 September 2015
The subaltern was the bedrock onto which the British Army emerged victorious from the Great War. By sheer chance, the public school system had moulded generations of young men to lead men and to take the strain of total war. Their contribution due to class hatred has been denigrated until recent years. This is one of a number of books attempting to set the record straight.
It starts of as all books on this subject do, by prostrating itself upon the floor whilst imploring you to understand that these public school boys are only as special as those from other schools so please don't feel like we are trying to say how superior they are to non public school soldiers who died. Thankfully it moves past this demonstration of humility and guilt and for the most part is a reasonable book. It is most at home when discussing the boys and teachers but i have deducted stars because the authors are very clearly not historians of the British Empire or Military historians and as such, when they come to make comments on them, they display the lazy stereotypical opinions of those lacking thorough historical knowledge.
The book suffers again because there are other books written even on this small historical area - public schools and the first world war - and the others are infinitely superior when it comes to the boys involvement. Most notably "Six Weeks by John Lewis-Stempel" and "Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-18 by Christopher Moore-Bick" both deal with the boys involvement more substantially and in either a more engaging (Lewis-Stempel) or more scholarly (Moore-Bick) way. In addition Eton has its own book ("Blood and Thunder: The Boys of Eton College and the First World War by Alexandra Churchill") on this very subject, and the authors for obvious reasons (Eton provided more men and lost more men than any other school) use Etonian examples frequently.
In many ways one central criticism of the book is that all too often we hear repeatedly about the same boy, often summarising what we were told the first time. This feels like filler There are so many public school boys who served there is no reason to use the same examples repeatedly. Furthermore more examples of boys who survived need to be used in all these books. To reinforce the 'tragedy' of the Great War these books often use almost exclusively the stories of those who died, even though roughly 80% survived.
This book does have its merits. It includes teachers involvement as equal to the boys, something that other books on the subject often fail to do. It also uses the very broadest definition of a public school, meaning that many schools are included, notably schools from the Dominions and even some girls schools (girl's schools have never been considered public schools) that are often ignored. The book also has a good appendix setting out the number of boys who served, and died from each school. Finally, they are strong when it comes to how the schools dealt with the war in the post war world. The book is about 260 pages and around 60 pages are devoted to after the war.
The authors are clearly passionate about their subject, however it is a shame that they are clearly amateur historians when it comes to military history. Nevertheless, it is a worthy book and i recommend it for any former public school boy to understand those who went before them or anyone interested in the Great War more generally.