The General (C. S. Forester novel)
First UK edition
|Author||C. S. Forester|
|Publisher||Michael Joseph (UK)|
Little, Brown, and Company (US)
The General follows the career of a professional soldier, Herbert Curzon, from his service as a junior officer in the Second Boer War through his experiences as a senior commander in the Great War. While personally courageous and dedicated, Curzon is otherwise unexceptional: an officer like many others, and it is the very ordinariness of Forester's character that serves to give the novel power.
On mobilization in August 1914, Curzon holds the rank of senior major in a not particularly fashionable regiment – the 22nd Lancers. During the Boer War he won some distinction in an old-style cavalry charge but his character-forming career since has been a matter of rigid and unimaginative peacetime routine. He is given a temporary promotion to regimental command and then quickly a brigade command. At the First Battle of Ypres Curzon manages to keep his head about him and, upon the death of his brigadier, becomes a general. Curzon returns to England while his regiment remains in Belgium. He makes an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a Duke which gives him political connections to the opposition "Bude House" set. He is promoted again and again, eventually being placed in command of a hundred thousand men, ordering attacks that condemn many of them to mutilation and death amongst the shells and the gas and the machine guns. At the end the Ninety-first Division, which he has brought to a high degree of efficiency, is forced to retreat in the March 1918 German offensive. Faithful to traditional values, Curzon decides to "go up the line" on his horse with a sword rather than face defeat and professional failure. The novel implies that he seeks death in battle; he says "We can still go down fighting". He is injured by a shell fragment, endures months of drugged agony and loses a leg. His war is over.
Curzon – General Sir Herbert Curzon by this time – is not a brutal man or an uncaring one: simply a brave and honest but stubborn and unimaginative leader. For Forester, the tale of Herbert Curzon's almost inevitable rise to high command, the senseless slaughters he directs and his eventual retirement to the life of an aged cripple in a wheelchair, is not about Curzon – it is about the attitudes and mores of the British Army and of British ruling society more generally: the limited and inflexible mindsets that (in Forester's view) contributed to the appalling casualties and the horrors of the First World War.
He distrusts theorists, and is not part of the "blood-brotherhood of Camberley" (the staff college) Like his seniors he believes in "Attrition" and the "Big Push" with brute force; more men, more guns. Hence he is startled by the tank victory at Cambrai.
The War Office
The novel has an episode in the War Office with a field-marshal, a general and a major-general agreeing to promote Curzon, which is not due to any scheming but because though there were a hundred possible officers "an adventitious circumstance had singled him out for particular notice". Major-General Mackenzie laments, "where am I to get three hundred good brigadiers from?"
Mackenzie is the Director-General of Tactical Services, and when the Liberal Government admitted some of the Opposition to government: "while men in high position fell right and left, General Mackenzie remained Director-General of Tactical Services. Others greater than he – among them the greatest Minister of War that England ever had – were flung out of office, but Mackenzie remained despite his very unsound attitude in the Ulster crisis. Perhaps that is the most important contribution Curzon ever made to the history of England" Curzon, one of whose traits is personal loyalty, has urged his father-in-law the Duke to keep Mackenzie.
The Field Marshal and Minister of War was Sirdar of the Egyptian Army when he was forty-one (Curzon's age), so is similar to Kitchener. But in the novel he is forced from office, not drowned at sea. He is replaced by another cavalry-man, Scottish instead of Irish, named as Haig.
Effect of the novel
The General has been widely praised as being an excellent and very realistic account of the mindset of the British Officer Corps in times of war and as such many veterans are surprised to learn that the author himself never actually served in the armed forces. In fact, a persistent yet unsubstantiated rumor states that Adolf Hitler was so impressed with the novel that he made it required reading for his top field commanders and general staff, in the hopes that it would allow prominent German officers to be able to understand how their British counterparts thought. This rumor is referred to as fact by Forester in a foreword to a later edition of the novel.
Historian Max Hastings, in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, calls The General "brillantly contemptuous", and writes that "[Forester] likened the commanders of World War I to savages, striving to extract a screw from a piece of timber by main force, assisted by ever more fulcrums and levers" failing to grasp that simply twisting the screw would remove it "with a fraction of the effort." Hastings remarks:
This view of wartime generalship, which was essentially also that of Churchill and Lloyd George, has commanded widespread favour ever since. But what if, as most scholars of the conflict today believe, it was impossible to 'turn the screw', to identify any credible means for breaking the stalemate?
This article needs additional citations for verification. (August 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)