If you want a really good read, you can’t do better than Bernard Newman’s The Cavalry Went Through (1930). I’ve whizzed through it in a day; it’s definitely one of the unputdownables.
The novel is one of the first (actually the first?) in the genre of virtual history. It is the supposed memoirs of an officer (called Newman) who took a crucial role in the Great War of 1914-1917, and explains how the British, led by an unconventional and individualistic general, developed new tactics that broke the trench stalemate and scored an overwhelming military victory that left the German armies decimated. It comes complete with mock-scholarly footnotes referring to the more detailed and scholarly works that chronicle this triumph.
Newman imagines a colonial administrator, Duncan, who fights the Germans in West Africa, and discovers a genius for military thinking. C.E.Montague, in Disenchantment (1922) describes the naive trust that the soldiers of 1914 had in their generals:
One of the heavenly things on which the New Army had almost counted, in its green faith, was that our higher commands would have genius… We had indulged that insane expectation, just as we had taken it for granted that this time the nation would be as one man, and nobody “out to do a bit for himself on the quiet.
The generals by and large did not have genius, though many had ability, and the dreadful impasse of trench warfare dragged on into a war of attrition. As Montague could not help feeling, though:
Yes, there is always an impasse until genius shows a way through.
Bernard Newman must have felt the same, and in this book shows how genius could have managed it. The typical tactic of trench warfare was the mass dawn attack, which was heavily signalled by a previous artillery barrage, and whose timing was the result of negotiation between Allied politicians. Newman’s essential recipe for overwhelming success turns out to be the reverse of this:
- Surprise, especially in night attacks.
- Secrecy – doing things before the politicians can interfere.
- Deception and traps – luring your enemy into false assumptions.
- Relying on a small band of highly skilled thinking soldiers rather than a mass of undifferentiated cannon-fodder.
- Breaking through on a very narrow front, to cause trouble to the enemy’s rear.
- Making your aim penetration and destruction, rather than gaining ground.
- Being willing to take risks, and to lose numbers of men if the corresponding gains are significant.
- Ensuring that politics is put at the service of the military, rather than the other way around.
Duncan, Newman’s hero, is charismatic and authoritarian. Once successful, he knows that he can afford to be ruthless in order to get what he needs. An Admiral who refuses to cooperate with his plans is sent home; timid ministers are dismissed on his say-so. He gambles, and expects others to do so.
His gambles are invariably successful. After spectacular local victories on the Western front, he goes to Gallipoli, shows how it should have been done in 1915, and takes Constantinople. Then it’s back to France to deliver the knock-out blow to the numerically superior Germans. Victory is achieved before the Russians have time to revolt, or before the Americans can claim the right to dictate the terms of the peace settlement.
Newman was not the only novelist thinking about alternative strategies at this time. In John Buchan’s Courts of the Morning (1929) Sandy Arbuthnot leads a small guerrilla force against a much larger army that “has learned all the lessons of our little scraps in France and Flanders.” (I think that even the Gorbals Diehards in Huntingtower are a way of showing how a weaker force (numerically and physically) can defeat a larger one through lateral thinking.
Implicitly The Cavalry Went Through is a criticism of Haig’s generalship, but the portrait of Haig in the book is generous. He is thinly disguised as Sir John Douglas, who:
represented the finest type of British regular officer. His grey hair and moustache matched his clean-cut features.
When he meets Duncan for the first time:
After the formal salute they stood for a moment with hands locked: it seemed as if each instinctively recognised the greatness of the other.
Douglas supports Duncan in his early battles, and gives him the chance to show what his methods can do. Half way through the book, though, Newman gives Douglas a serious illness that gets him out of the way so that Duncan has a completely free hand, and is not hampered in his dealings with politicians by Douglas’s more appeasing approach.
The book is fantasy, of course, and Duncan’s victories come rather easily, with no major setbacks. Goodness knows if such tactics would have worked, but many of Newman’s criticisms seem valid – about the conventional thinking of regular officers, about the failure to trust the intelligence of ordinary soldiers, about the adverse effect of political tinkering on the military effort. And it’s a very exhilarating read.