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Saturday, 29 October 2016

Book review - The General

C.S. Forester’s fiction covered a wide range, though there was a heavy leaning towards historical stories. The General (1936) is virtually a biography of a fictional Army officer. It begins with Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Curzon, KCMG, CB, DSO being wheeled in his bath-chair along Bournemouth’s promenade.  Local opinion in Bournemouth ‘is inclined to give Sir Herbert more credit than he has really earned, although perhaps not more than he deserves.’  That ambivalent, cryptic observation then leads into a flashback that covers almost the entire book.

The ‘virtual biography’ stems from the style and point of view of the writing: ‘The day on which Curzon first stepped over the threshold of history, the day which was to start him towards the command of a hundred thousand men, towards knighthood – and towards the bath-chair on Bournemouth promenade – found him as a worried subaltern in an early South African battle.’

At the time, Curzon was in the cavalry fighting the Boers. By chance rather than design, he distinguished himself in the battle of Volkslaagte and earned a DSO. Curzon is depicted as a man of honour without much imagination. He desired to conform to type, particularly as his family history could not compare with that of the majority of officers. ‘… it is assumed that it is inherent in the English character to wish not to appear different from one’s fellows, but that is a bold assumption to make regarding a nation which has produced more original personalities than any other in modern times.’ (p20)

The years passed and then the First World War was upon them. Forester captures a great deal of the feel of the time: ‘There never had been a mobilization like this in all British history…’ (p28) They conveyed some three thousand horses to France for the expeditionary force.

Curzon believed in the maxim, ‘Feed the horses before the men, and the men before the officers, and the officers before yourself.’ (p29) He didn’t like to command his division by telephone, as other commanders did: ‘He was still imbued with the regimental ideal of sharing on active service the dangers and discomforts of his men.’ (p148)

Curzon had not mastered French, ‘which the civilians talked with such disconcerting readiness. He had early formed a theory that French could only be spoken by people with a malformed larynx…’ (p29)  This is only one instance where Forester employs his humour and irony. Another is: ‘Her Grace is not at home, sir,’ said the butler at the door. By a miracle of elocution he managed to drop just enough of each aitch to prove himself a butler without dropping the rest.’ (p68)

At length, Curzon was promoted to Major-General and given the Ninety-first Division, to relieve a rather aged officer – ‘a doddering old fool’ - and take his residence. The outgoing officer and his wife were not pleased. ‘Until this morning they had felt secure in the pomp and power of their official position. It was a shock for old people to be flung out like this without warning… With the tenacity of very old people for the good things of life they wanted to spin out their stay here, even for only a few days.’ (p88)

Eventually, Curzon marries well, the daughter of a duke. ‘The Bishop (he was a Winter-Willoughby too; by common report the only one with any brains, and he had too many) went through the service…’ (p102) Afterwards, at the reception, Forester presages the doom looming: ‘The sparse khaki amidst the morning coats and the elaborate dressed would have been significant to an attentive observer. Those uniforms were like the secret seeds of decay in the midst of an apparently healthy body. They were significant of the end of a great era.’ (p103)

While Curzon might have been a bit of a snob, he was not as out of touch as his in-laws: ‘… it gave the Duchess an uneasy sense of outraged convention that aeroplane bombs should slay those in high places as readily as those in low. She described the horrors of air raids to Curzon (on leave) as though he had never seen a bombardment.’ (p175) The Duke’s sense of proportion was less warped, if marginally so.

There are a few moving passages where Curzon’s stiff upper lip almost falters with regard to his wife. ‘Curzon actually had to swallow hard as he kissed her good-bye; he was moved inexpressibly by the renewal of the discovery that there was actually a woman on earth who could weep for him.’ (219) [We’ll ignore the repetition of ‘actually’…]

As the war gets under way, Curzon’s 91st Division is scheduled for Gallipoli, but he wants to face the Hun and manages to get the orders changed. To the Western Front – Flanders’ fields…

Written just before the next global conflict, The General shows that the adage ‘lions led by donkeys’ might have been good left-wing or liberal propaganda, but it was unfair. The methodology of warfare had been outstripped by the weapons. Common sense should have indicated that throwing thousands of infantry at barbed wire and machine-guns was no way to wage war. ‘… a convention had grown up under which the prowess of a division was measured by the number of its men who were killed.’ They were playing a numbers game, not dealing with human beings who had dreams, hopes and families.

Although Forester didn’t go into combat, he manages nevertheless to convey some of the horror of trench warfare.  The General is an excellent examination of a brave First World War officer thrust into a situation largely beyond his understanding where his beliefs and ideals are shattered by modern warfare.

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