General Kelly and Forester’s ‘The General’

Chief of Staff John Kelly has the reputation of being the most stable figure in President Trump’s chaotic White House. From what one can gather, he has brought a semblance of order and organisation to the place, and has engineered the removal of some of Mr Trump’s more erratic political associates.
Earlier this year, he gave an interview about his favourite book, which is C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel, The General, the story of Curzon, the bone-headed officer who rises up the chain of command by continuously doing the wrong thing and creating disasters as he does everything by the book. General Kelly is not the only thinking soldier to value this book as an guide showing how not to do it. It used to be required reading at Sandhurst. Maybe it still is.
This is the book that has done most to perpetuate the myth of the First World War generals as donkeys. It has stayed continuously in print since 1935, and has attracted a large readership (partly because of the enduring popularity of Forester’s Hornblower novels). I don’t have any sales figures, but I’m pretty sure that many more will have read this novel than popular history books like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, or the politicians’ memoirs which shifted the blame for all the war’s failures onto the soldiers.
General Kelly says that he has re-read this book at every promotion of his long career:

depending on as you get older and higher in rank, it’s a different book every time you read it. When a lieutenant reads that book it’s different from when a lieutenant general reads it. … So it’s just kind of a fun thing I’ve done over the years and with this book in particular just to remind me of the critical importance of thinking.

It is a very good novel, pacey and very readable, with a brilliantly delineated central portrait of a deeply unimaginative man struggling to do his best according to the rules that he knows, constantly bringing disaster on those under his command, and inexorably rising up the military hierarchy. He is a cavalryman at a loss in modern industrial warfare, but never lets a sense of inadequacy get in the way of sending increasing numbers of the men under his command to their deaths.
How true is Curzon as a portrait of a First World War general? Randall Stephenson gets it wrong, I think, when in his Literature and the Great War 1914-1918 he describes Curzon as ‘resembling Haig’. Curzon is a technophobe, whereas Haig was an enthusiastic technical innovator – sometimes placing too much trust in new technology – overestimating the effectiveness of gas at Loos, for example, and later expecting the tanks to achieve more than they were capable of. Curzon is a caricature of the fixed inflexible officer stuck in the past, depicted with powerful irony. (Though it is sometimes a sympathetic irony – Curzon often elicits the reader’s sympathy as he tries to do the right thing, however disastrously, and his marriage is sympathetically portrayed, too.)
I’ve written before about Curzon and Hornblower. The pair have much in common; both are reticent men and socially uncertain behind the mask of command. Both have a strong feeling for the tradition of their service. Both have considerable personal courage. But Hornblower has imagination; he thinks his way out of situations and will break established rules where necessary. Curzon cannot do this.
Curzon is the Great War general as seen by a later generation whose hindsight makes the errors of the war seem obvious and preventable. Forester was born in 1899, and later said that he tried to enlist in 1917, but failed the medical. One can’t be quite sure, though, About his own life Forester was as much of a fantasist as that other great writer of sea stories, Patrick O’Brien, and his autobiographical statements are rarely to be trusted. Apparently he sometimes claimed, later in life, to have served in the war. He had certainly read widely in the secondary literature of the war, and The General is the third of his novels to deal with the conflict, the earlier ones being Brown on Resolution and The African Queen. Brown on Resolution can be read as a companion-piece to The General, since its hero, Brown, is Curzon’s exact opposite. A sailor taken prisoner by the Germans, he escapes, and from Resolution island conducts an inventive one-man operation against a German warship. Like Hornblower, this sailor thinks his way to victory.
The problem that the ‘generals were donkeys’ school of historians have is that somehow these donkeys managed to win the war. American writers, of course, sometimes claim that the Americans won it, despite the hidebound British (which makes me wonder – how far has The General informed General Kelly’s view of his British allies? Does he think we’re a nation of Curzons?) Others, of course, take the Hitler view that the Germans were never actually defeated. (Hitler, by the way, was an admirer of this novel, It may have led him to underestimate his British adversaries.)
Forester fudges the issue. The novel climaxes with the great German spring offensive of 1918:

Through all the weak places in the British line – and they were many – the German attack was pouring forward like a tide through a faulty dyke.

Curzon senses utter disaster, and responds with the noble insticts of a cavalryman. He calls for his horse and heads bravely into the heat of the battle. It is magnificent, but of course bears no relation to the duties of a general in the Great War. He is hit ‘both by a flying fragment of red-hot steel and by a jagged lump of pave. His right leg was shattered and his horse was killed.
So he is now out of the war, and Forester can avoid dealing with the British successes of the war’s last hundred days, or describing how the Germans, whom he had presented as frighteningly efficient, now became demoralised. That was not part of the myth of the war that he wanted to present.
Despite my reservations about the history, I’m glad that General Kelly nominates this as his favourite book. I hope that he reads Hornblower, too. In Trump’s White House he is going to need all of that her’s intellectual flexibility to keep his nation from disaster.

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One Comment

  1. Stephen Paradis
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    The other Forester novel on the suggested reading list for Marines is “Rifleman Dodd”. Dodd is separated from his unit in the Peninsula and strives to rejoin it. On his way, acting alone or with Spanish guerillas, he raises some minor hell with the French.
    It’s included as an exemplar of what a single soldier can do if he has to, and if he maintains an offensive spirit. “The General” is similarly recommended as a warning to officers who grow hidebound and stop thinking about their profession. I’d be surprised if the historical curriculum for training line and staff officers didn’t include the latest studies of Great War battles. Belleau Wood, the great Marine battle of that war, now seems to be regarded as an unnecessary waste of lives in frontal assault, as opposed to contact and flank.


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