The General (C. S. Forester novel)

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Dashing_Chap, Oct 2, 2011.

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  1. Anyone read this?

    The General (C. S. Forester novel) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    I'm quite surprised about the bit about Hitler giving it to his generals, not sure I agree with it either as we had Auchinleck, Gort and Monty etc.

  2. It was my favourite book for a while...still Top Ten.
  3. Auchinleck: bullied by Churchill into attacking before he was ready and then blamed and sacked by Churchill for obeying Churchill's own instructions. Auchinleck also lacked the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff when it came to picking commanders. The problem was that the 8th Army always had a lot more chaff than wheat in its senior ranks. The facilities and mind set for training in handling large tank formations simply hadn't existed in the pre-war army. Probably the best armoured commander the British had ended up as a lance corporal in the Home Guard.None the less, the Auk won the first battle of El Alamein. More by luck than judgement, but he went forward personally when everybody else was either retreating or preparing to.

    Which is a nice parallel on the novel. When the British front collapsed in 1918 and he could no longer effectively control his shattered formations General Curzon ordered his staff officers to saddle up and follow him into the battle. Which is how he was wounded so badly he never walked again.

    Gort is an interesting case: 'Gort was neither a great strategist nor a deep military thinker.' (General Horrocks). Which would probably have been the majority opinion of Gort by staff college high fliers, but the one undisputed quality both generals possessed was personal bravery -- Gort was a VC. But above and beyond that Gort had a much rarer kind of bravery -- the bravery to shoulder responsibility without waiting for the right orders. The French wanted him to stay in France, Churchill and the British government ordered him to stay in France. As the man on the ground Gort realised he had to cut and run or the BEF would end up trudging in endless lines into German POW camps. Gort ignored the chain of command from top to bottom and saved his Army from becoming involved in an irretrievable disaster. Never was the old adage about running away to fight another day better proved.

    There is nothing in the character of General Curzon to suggest that he would have followed Gort's example. Faced with oncoming disaster and an incompetent high command he would have simply told his men to dig in and fight to the last bullet -- and Hitler would probably have won the war. So Gort wasn't a great general in the accepted sense of the word but the one supremely important decision he had to make in his life he got right.

    There are so many different opinions about Montgomery as a military leader that there's no point in going there. What is certain is that he must have been the most politically ingnorant soldier who ever reached high command in any army. That he could even think that an American supreme commander could allow a British general/Field Marshal to remain as Allied ground forces commander when American divions were flooding in to take over the war in Europe remains a source of complete bewilderment. Surely somebody must have told him that neither Congress nor the US media would allow any such thing to happen?

    As for a comparison between the fictious Curzon and the real life Montgomery, I think we can write our own dialogue for Curzon: "Montgomery! That poisonous little shit!"

    Curzon was, after all, a gentleman. Not a word which anybody ever dreamed of using to describe Montgomery.
  4. The novel does a good job of describing how an unimaginative but physically brave man could rise to the top. It describes the pressures on different levels of command and the compromises of his moral courage in the furtherance of his career. I think its impact is to give a convincing explanation of how a decent brave man could give orders that resulted in what was seen by the mid 1930s as pointless slaughter.

    When I read this decades ago, I assumed that "Curzon" was a thinly disguised Hubert Gough - but it is a pastiche of the stereo-typical British Great War general. The cap could fit Gough and Rawlinson or Hunter “Bunter” Weston, or Pultney, described by one subordinate as “the most completely ignorant general I served during the war”

    In the aftermath of the Great War the big themes of British military thinking were using technology to avoid any more Western Fronts. Basil Lidell Hart and his indirect approach, the armour enthusiasts and the investment in the RAF’s heavy bomber fleet as a deterrence. I suspect these were a distraction from the unfortunate truth about the cost and duration of C20th Warfare. The intensity and duration of the Great War wasn’t an aberration. You may wish to fight a war of manoeuvre if the enemy co-operates – if not it’s a long struggle.

    I don’t think there is any evidence that Hitler actually asked his generals to read the book. There is evidence that the Germans thought the British to be unimaginative – and we knew this at the time. An Army Training memoranda circulated in early 1941 includes a translation of an article from a German newspaper which contrast the lack of initiative shown by the British in 1940, using the example of Harburton Lee’s head long attack on Narvik with the German capture of Fort Douamont at Verdun on initiative of a sergeant.

    There is evidence that many Britons thought the British Army’s methods boneheaded and out of date. Read Denis Foreman’s book To Reason Why, for a critique of british Army training and the establishment of battle schools. or Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches, or the Sword of Honour Trilogy. Look at the story of how Spanish Civil War veterans were brought in to train the Home Guard. Or watch the film Colonel Blimp.

    Undoubtedly there were men who could have fitted the description of Curzon. Gort was described as particularly unimaginative. There is the oft told anecdote about how he was obsessed with trivial detail such as over which shoulder should the respirator be carried.

    My impression of the WW2 British generals is that they were keen to avoid what they felt were the mistakes of the WW1 generation of leaders. Montgomery went to great lengths to avoid appearing insensitive to losses and did their best to ensure that their troops went into battle well prepared.

    Unfortunately, that only works if the enemy and political masters allow it. Thus imaginative men such as Wavell and Auchinleck were forced to fight with ill-prepared forces responding to multiple threats across the empire. The failure of the 8th Army in the Western Desert before El Alamein is a more complicated story. Auchinleck encouraged and tactical innovation with all arms battle groups,
  5. Auchinleck had the entire Mid East on his plate, beside having to take over 'Command' of 8th Army from the subordinate he had promoted to GOC.
    Middle East command was only split in to two separate commands with arrival of Montgomery and Alexander.
    I always though Gort was badly done by, Yes he disobeyed a direct order but in doing so he save the bulk of the BEF (and my Dad) from Herr Hitler.
    As for Uncle Bernard that's one debate I will keep out of.

  6. Damn, now that's another book I have to add to my reading list.
  7. I read The General as a youngster around the same time as Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. I think the latter contained a scene in which a general visiting the front witnessed two soldiers carrying each full gas bottle but only one carrying the empty ones. He insisted on this situation being reversed because 'any fule kno that gas is lighter than air'!

    As a diver, this has stuck in my mind ever since.
  8. There were quite a few WW1 generals who served at field rank in the Boer War. Curzon is an example of a decent man. The generals of WW1 who issued the executive orders were all decent men. Those who think of them as necessarily evil or stupid should think of the line from Apocalypse now after Kurtz describes the VC amputating the arms of vaccinated babies. "These were moral men."

    Moral courage is a hell of a difficult line to tread.
  9. I tend to the view that we are too hard on our past generals; after all, most of us have no conception of what it must have been like to manage transition from a tiny professional force (which was actually astonishingly good at providing the image and back-up needed for the Empire) into a vast industrial war machine of c.5 million civilian soldiers - all whilst in contact with a tough enemy. The deeper you delve into any particular WW1 battle or scenario, often the harder it is to see how things could have been done any differently. One measure is that the Germans - despite their vaunted staff professionalism, pre-war preparation, tactical advantages and large standing army configured for European war - didn't really manage to achieve anything better than our demeaned British generals.
  10. for everybody who I have come up against on here arguing traditional/revisionist arguments on WW! and the hated brass hats, may I recommend you read "Bloody Red Tabs - General Officer Casualties Of The Great War Of 1914-1918" by Frank, And Graham Maddocks, publ. Davies (1995)

    Or take a walk into Mametz woods and find the spot where Maj General "Inky Bill" Ingouville Williams was killed during the Somme battle. You are almost on top of the front line and I would hazard many, many miles away from undamaged, comfy chateaux!

    Inky Bill, like so many of the generals of the Great War, had lost a family member - his brother - in the Boer War. Of course the difference between people like "Curzon" and modern liberal commentators, is that they believed in sacrifice both personal and corporate to support the nation. FM Earl Roberts, himself a VC had a son killed, winning a VC, in S Africa. contrast that with the motivations and career choices of Mr Blair and his fuckwit sons.
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  11. I've said this many times.

    The WW1 officer corps took an Army of 350,000 and expanded it to nearly 5 million. They had to contend with the introduction of Arty/Eng/Air/Chemical/Armour and logistics that had previously been unimaginable. They took their Army into the field, and met, held and then defeated what was generally held to be the best army in the world. And we call them fools!

    Do not judge these men by the standards and morals of Alan Clark (excellent pisshead he may have been, historian he was not) or indeed Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. 2020 hindsight is a wonderful thing.
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  12. It was in The General; he thought the full gas cylinders must be lighter because gas was used to fill balloons. Presumably physics wasn't essential for a future young officer and gentleman.

    It stuck in my mind, as well, about all I can remember of the book. It's 30 years+ since I read that. I think it's due for a re-read.
  13. Goatman

    Goatman LE Book Reviewer

    Ditto......but it was the General's encounter with some young trollop and her garters that stuck in mine :) it here somewhere...I'll dig it out....

    Read just about everything Forester wrote, after immersing myself in the life and times of Horatio,Lord Hornblower ( the pattern for Bolitho, Ramage and Captain Jack bloody Aubrey ).......his non-fiction 'Naval War of 1812' is very good.

    'Brown on Resolution' - one man's simple single minded adherence to his duty.......excellent book - and 'The African Queen' which was made into a gritty film with Humphrey Bogart was also CS Forester.......much neglected author.