Nigel Jones

Win some — lose too many

Rather than battering away on the Western Front, we should have kicked in the back door through Italy or Salonica, according to Mallinson’s Too Important for the Generals

In this centenary year of the Somme, it is refreshing to read a book about the Great War that is not yet another dreary recital of the tragic and over-familiar facts, but successfully gets to grips with the dilemmas facing the commanders and politicians mediating the gargantuan conflict.

Historical debate about the war now boils down to two views. Either the conflict was conducted by bone-headed generals guzzling champagne in their chateaux while sending a generation to certain death against chattering machine guns and impenetrable barbed wire. Or the said generals have been much maligned, and eventually achieved a stunning victory after intelligently using tactics learned in a very hard but sadly necessary school of battles.

The former view is the one held by the overwhelming majority of those brought up on Oh, What a Lovely War!, Black-adder Goes Forth and the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The latter is insistently, but vainly, argued by a young generation of military historians determined to defend the reputation of the generals, particularly that of the one regarded by his critics as Bonehead-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

Allan Mallinson, a professional soldier turned historian and novelist, is well placed to consider both arguments. In this trenchant, thoughtful study, informed by a reading of sources well beyond the reach of most of our contemporary military historians, he argues cogently that the war was simply too great — too complex, too brutal (in a word too modern) to be adequately understood and run by Britain’s antique military-political caste.

So it came about that after the trench lines had stabilised, for three awful years — 1915, 1916 and 1917 — the High Command’s only answer to the question posed by the German occupation of French and Flemish soil was the repetition of ever bloodier and more fruitless frontal offensives.

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