Sunday, 10 May 2015

C S Forester: The General


Written in 1936, THE GENERAL describes the career of Herbert Curzon from his experiences as a young Lieutenant in the Second Boer War (where he wins a DSO at the Battle of Volkslaagte) until he is seriously wounded in 1918, by which time he is Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Curzon, K.C.M.G., C.B ., D.S.O.

Curzon is a good regimental soldier who is brave and honest but also stubborn and unimaginative. As a result of a series of serendipitous events Curzon becomes Colonel of his regiment when the First World War breaks out – the previous incumbent being regarded by the War Office as too old – and then – as a result of the death or incapacity of the other senior officers available – temporary commander of the brigade of which his regiment forms a part.

On his return to England he is given command of an Infantry Brigade, but when the Divisional Commander proves to be incapable, Curzon take over command of the Division. As a result of Curzon's no-nonsense approach his Division (which is made up of Kitchener battalions) proves to be a tough, hard-fighting formation, and he is soon promoted to command of a Corps.

Curzon pushes his Corps to perform the task allotted to it as well as they can, and despite setbacks and heavy casualties Curzon gains a reputation for being a reliable General who will do that is asked of him. When a major German offensive breaks through the British front line and the Germans reach the British artillery gun line, Curzon proves his bravery by going forward to see what he can do to sort out the mess whilst ordering his HQ to retreat. Close to the fluid front line he is hit by shrapnel from a German artillery shell and is invalided home seriously wounded. He never serves again.

What I particularly enjoyed when I read this book is the way in which we see Curzon become what until recently would have been termed a 'Donkey'. He certainly does lead 'Lions', but he proves in the last chapter of the book that he is also a 'Lion' ... just not a very bright one.

4 comments:

  1. A friend gave me that a couple of years ago, and I was enchanted. It doesn't paint the General as a great man. Indeed, he comes across as foolish and stubborn, promoted above his abilities, but he is brave, dedicated and tireless in attempting to do his duty as best he can. It's a nuanced portrait of a man in an unenviable command situation, and is just the sort of fiction we could have done with in GCSE History back in my day, rather than being given a one-size-fits-all depiction of generals as brainless dullards more dangerous to their own men than the enemy.

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  2. General Curzon's last act of 'going up the line' was not so much to try and sort out the mess but an honourable form of suicide. He knew already that the battle had gone turnip shaped for his corps. He survived the war as a wounded veteran, but he was finished as a soldier.

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  3. Peter Ball,

    I agree with pretty well everything you have written. It is a much better picture of the sort of men who became British Generals during the Great War than many biographies portray.

    I understand that THE GENERAL has been used by some military academies as a teaching aid. It is very easy to see why.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  4. Archduke Piccolo,

    I saw what Curzon did as an example of him 'doing the right thing' ... which I suppose was a form of suicide as he pretty well knew that he was going to die

    Interestingly quite a number of British Generals were killed close to the front line during the Great War. From memory I think that this happened more frequently than it did during the Second World War.

    All the best,

    Bob

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