Gosh, it was hard campaigning over the past fortnight. The first week I plodded along with the Duke of Marlborough’s musketeers all the way south from the Low Countries before his Lordship told us to turn left and march along the Danube. The poor old ‘Froggies’ were totally bemused by his artful manoeuvring but soon realised he meant business when we assaulted the Schellenburg Fortress. Ferocious fighting but we carried the day. Then it was on to some piss-pot village called Blenheim where we formed up with the gallant, but perhaps more importantly, brilliant Prince Eugene and his forces to face the might (heh! heh! heh!) of the French army. Result? Total and utter defeat of French forces, tens of thousands of prisoners taken and the first truly shattering defeat suffered by that ridiculous but evil popinjay, Louis XIV. What I do not understand is why Marlborough’s genius is not hoorahed as loudly as Wellington’s. In my ex-corporal’s view he was far the greater soldier.
But no sooner had I brushed off the detritus of Blenheim than I was back to Flanders, but some 200-odd years later. Here, my guide was Gordon Corrigan, a man I admire tremendously because he has, almost single-handedly, blown to bits all the soppy, sentimentality and the gross lies that have disguised the truth concerning the British army in WWI. In particular, he has resurrected the honour and the reputation of Gen. Douglas Haig, a man traduced by a mixed bag of villains, fools and those with something to hide and a need for a scapegoat. I include in this ragbag collection, Winston Churchill, the odious Lloyd George, the ‘war poets’ (or to be precise, their promoters) and the despicable Joan Littlewood and her production of “Oh! What a Lovely War”.
I know a fair bit about the beginnings of WWI but I confess to abject ignorance about much of what followed because it seemed to me to be one great, long slug-fest. The essence of the problem facing the generals on all sides was, again to my ex-corporal’s eyes, quite obvious. How do you get an infantryman made of fragile bones and soft tissue across 500 yards of open ground against machine-guns firing 600 rounds a minute? Well, there was no answer which is why zillions of them died or were wounded until they invented the tank. And as Corrigan reminds us forcibly, it was Gen Haig who threw his weight behind the idea of the tank because he was shrewd enough to see its advantages. Alas, in those days the mechanicals were poor and unreliable and it wasn’t until WWII that the tank came into its own.
For many years now I have moaned and groaned at the absolute nonsense spouted about WWI and the Western Front in general, and General Haig in particular. Corrigan’s book rights a massive wrong.
ADDITIONAL: Lost in what passes for my archives I came across this essay by Simon Heffer written a year ago for The New Statesman in which he summarises the historiography of WWI. Well worth a read not least because it reminds us amateur history lovers to read both widely and wisely!