Monday, June 8, 2015

European RC #5

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2015.

The Donkeys – Alan Clark, 1961

World War I started in late 1914. So in the centennial of 2015 I decided to read this book about 1915, the year that saw the destruction of the old regular British army. In the introduction to this book, Clark observes with amazement the fact that the British Empire alone lost more men killed in the first two hours of Loos in 1915 than all three armed services on both sides on D-day in 1944.

Clark examines the reasons why British generals in 1915 failed to win their battles at Arras and Loos with the intelligence, improvisation and talent of Moore of Corunna or the Dukes of Wellington and Marlborough. His thesis blames pigheaded incompetence, self-seeking ambition, and back-stabbing rivalries among the senior British staff.

Though a Tory (he worked for Thatcher and Major in the 1980s), Clark writes with much anger toward the officer caste whose strategic and tactical mistakes lead to the death and injury and maiming of thousands of men. He’s as savage in his criticism of hopeless offensives as writers in the 1920s and 1930s like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Vera Brittain.

The book is about not only battles. Clark also describes the political intrigues behind the scenes as commanders and cabinet ministers jockeyed for influential positions in London, with all of them against the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.  Clark also briefly but clearly goes over Field Marshal Sir John French's ambivalence dealing with the French allies.

This book is short and not scholarly.  But back in the early Sixties, it contributed a great deal to the debunking of generals and anti-war sentiments for the generation born after WWII. To my mind, Clark makes a strong but narrow case. He suggests explore how strategy and tactics could have made the war any less of a mess. But I still figure war is always a mess. Haig and his staff didn’t even have radio communication and phone lines were easily disrupted by bombardments.

Still, it is passing strange – veterans who returned from France were in fact angry about brass hat incompetence – don’t soldiers, sailors, marines, and air troops always complain about officers? -  but they were angrier about a lack of jobs and respect from clueless civilians and jingoes. Haig, French, Rawlinson, etc. all received respect and homage, honors and titles. They attended countless memorials in the 1920s, apparently without being spit on by angry people. About a million people turned out for Haig’s funeral in 1928. It was in the late 1920s and 1930s when the writers and war poets depicted the agony of the PBI (poor bloody infantry) in contrast to the perceived callousness of the generals. Clark’s whole thesis may be an artifact of his time.

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