Books written about the First World War (WWI) and the Western Front in particular number in the tens of thousands. The vast majority of them decry the useless slaughter of the gallant participants who were led by incompetent generals (“lions led by donkeys”), who avoided the unpleasantness of the fighting and made their decisions in the comfort of chateaux miles behind the lines. Moreover, critics complain that one quarter of all shipping from Britain to France during the war carried fodder for horses despite the fact that the cavalry was almost never used during the war.
Gordon Corrigan is a retired major in the British Army and a military historian. In Mud, Blood and Poppycock, he challenges many of the generally accepted descriptions of the war and sets out to disabuse the reader of various myths about the Great War. His observations and analyses are always cocksure, biting, amusing, and sometimes convincing.
The first “myth” Corrigan attempts to shatter is that of incompetence among the British generals. Although he admits they may not have been competent in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, he thinks that their judgment on the Western Front was reasonable when faced with the evidence they actually had before them. He even justifies the horrendous casualties they suffered in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 as necessary to take pressure off their French allies who were under severe strain at Verdun to the south. He concludes:
Those who now deplore the generals’ conduct of the war, particularly on the Western Front, might like to demonstrate how they would have done it differently, and how the results would have been better. This author, with a lifetime of army service and access to every worthwhile fountain of military thought, has to confess that, with the exception of individual errors to which all are prone, he cannot!”
He also argues that there was no “lost generation,” as depicted by many poets and fiction writers. The number of casualties may have been immense, but hardly amounting to the disappearance of an entire generation.
He points out that one particular practice of the army led to the perception in some places that an entire generation was “lost.” The army fought in units composed entirely of men from the same small geographical area. These “Pals Battalions” were supposed to enhance morale because so many of the men knew each other. The problem was that if a particular unit suffered severe losses, as happened quite often, then it would seem to the people of the area from which they came that the losses were a huge percentage of all the available men.
Corrigan also argues that life in the trenches was not nearly as awful as sometimes described. Men were rotated out of the front lines weekly, with an opportunity to recuperate at a safe distance from the fighting. When not actually in the front line, most of the enlisted men had better food than they did at home.
Discipline was stern, but not nearly as harsh as that of the Red Army in WWII. Corrigan argues that military justice is not only punitive, but also it is exemplary. Although 393 men were court marshaled and sentenced to death for sleeping on sentry duty, all but two egregious examples were commuted or reduced to terms of imprisonment.
Another “myth” probably not familiar to Americans, but commonly held in Britain, is that the American Expeditionary Force got into the war too late to have any real effect. Corrigan gives the Yanks a lot more credit for their contribution than would most European historians. He also gives very high marks to the American commander, John “Black Jack” Pershing for his generalship, even opining that Pershing might have made a find President if he had been so inclined. Nevertheless, he still feels that the British army was the only army capable of conducting effective offensive action at the time of the Armistice.
The book contains numerous interesting discussions of tactics and many fascinating factoids. For example, one dreadnaught of the royal navy, with ten 12 inch guns, carried all the firepower of six army division’s worth of artillery, but needed only one twenty-third of the men to operate it. The statistic quoted earlier about the shipping of fodder for horses was correct, but the cavalry used only about 5% of the horses on the Western Front. The other horses were used to move supplies and artillery, for messengers (there was no dependable radio available), and for high ranking officers to move about. Automobiles were not nearly as reliable as they are today, roads were deplorable, and there were few people skilled in driving cars.
Corrigan saves a few interesting observations for his concluding chapter. For example, “there was and is no British interest in Israel,” which he insists exists only because of American subsidies. While the British may appreciate Jaffa oranges, they have always been far more interested in Arab oil. Moreover, “the troubles still raging in the Middle East today might not continue to threaten the peace of the world if Britain had stuck to her traditional Arabist policy, and not betrayed the Arabs at Versailles.”
Being primarily a military man, Corrigan has little good to say about politicians who meddle in military matters. He is highly critical of Lloyd George in WWI, and he points out that Winston Churchill’s “wild flights of fancy…led to disasters like [Gallipoli in WWI and] Crete [in WWII], which achieved nothing … except Canadian distrust of British competence.”
Corrigan also points out that the “War to end all war” did nothing of the kind, and that other wars are likely. He predicts:
The next Somme may be ten years away, or fifty, or a hundred; but it will come. In the meantime we should do well to remember that the only nation able, and conceivably likely, to come to our [British] aid in the event of a major conflagration is the United States of America….it would pay to be nice to her.”
Evaluation: Corrigan is a bit of a curmudgeon and rather militaristic, but much of what he says is not stupid even if it is debatable. One imagines he would be a fascinating, if controversial, dinner guest. This book is directed primarily to a British audience, but it is a welcome eye opener to Americans.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Published in the U.K. by Cassell, an imprint of Orion Books, a Hachette UK Company, 2003