Six Weeks an Officers life at the Front1

Discussion in 'The Book Club' started by seafarer1939, Jan 2, 2012.

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  1. "Six Weeks the short and gallant life of the British Officer in FIrst world War by John Lewis-Stempel"

    I have read a great deal about WW1 and like others I was filled with contempt for the donkeys at HQ who kept throwing troops in to a wall of death with no thought other than attrition.
    I could forgive them for their past ideas from the Coloniel period of Cavalry tactics but not their willingness to learn and change.
    This book is the finest I've read re.WW1 from an Officers point of view,they may have been little darlings in some eyes,including mine at times,but they braved it out with the men.
    They helped with sandbags,they sometimes shared rations they had from home,one colonel was seen going out into No-mans Land stripping dead German soldiers of their socks for his own men!
    They often refused Staff jobs to stay with their men and payed the ultimate price shortly afterwards.
    I've never had much truck with the privilege Public Schools bring through upbringing but there is no doubting their courage at the Front.
    Their life expectancy was 6 Weeks as they led from the front in charges,I admire them a lot and that from an old hater of Power through Priveledge.
    It's a great read and very moving.
    Mines on Kindle at a cheapish price and worth every penny if you are into WW1 History.
    I recommend it thoroughly.
  2. Seaweed

    Seaweed War Hero Book Reviewer

    Then donkeys thing is rubbish and has been comprehensively rubbished on ARRSE.
  3. I don't think so,I have enough books to state that the orders were to walk to the guns with heavy packs,run and you were in trouble and could be shot.
    Haig was too weak to oppose Rawlinson whose orders it was.
    One General kept ordering men to charge even after the first 3000 didn't make 20 yards,the next 3000 didn't either the final 3000 didn't make it,although not all were killed!
    He was quietly sent home.
    ARRSE has it wrong,one brave young Officer just before an assault crept out into No-Mans land and saw it was all thick mud,he reported it to the intelligence Officer saying the men could not make headway through the mud and would be slaughtered.
    He had the reply that Haig could not be told that as it would make him depressed.
    They were slaughtered so Donkeys they were and will always be.
    It wasn't until the Canadians showed how it should be done by running and weaving that the Generals changed and the fact that the Yanks refused to have their men mown down by having them under British control.
    Pershing said it was pure madness to walk at machine guns.
    It's all on record,you just need to dig it out especially the books,The Somme and Ypres and a good few others.
  4. Check out 'Theres a devil in the drum' by J Lucy. Excellent book on the subject.
  5. Seaweed

    Seaweed War Hero Book Reviewer

    You must be so pleased, Seafarer, that you know how the whole thing could have been done differently. Do share.
  6. Purple_twiglet

    Purple_twiglet War Hero Moderator

    Oh gods, the 'lions and donkeys' rubbish all over again.

    As a good counterpoint, go and ready 'tommy' by Richard holmes, or 'Forgotten Victory' by Garry sheffield, both of which comperhensively debunk this myth. The reality is that generals had a reasonable tactical apprecation of the battlespace, that the reason they worked in HQs behind the lines was because you need masses of phone lines, and if you're organising the movement of over 100,000 troops at a time, it helps to not have to man the firing parapet every 5 minutes. Additionally, much of the perception of the lack of official presence was that there was a wide area of front, that soldiers routinely moved in and out of the front line, so it was entirely possible that senior officers visits were noteworthy not because it wasn't uncommon (it was very common), but because the average private remembered it.

    I'm not saying that the generals were perfect, but the reality was that the UK military knew it had an expendable BEF, then a 2 year buffer to retrain with the TA, and then generate an army using citizens to march to victory. They did so using massively changing equipment, new tactics and techniques and in the process developed arguably the finest army in the world by 1918. The staff effort to win the war was immensely important.
  7. For a start,since it seems I lost a grandfather and his two brothers I was always interested in WWI and it faults and successes.
    I have at least 50 books,a great deal of trench maps and attack plans over the years not to mention the new updated version of the DVD box set with unseen footage.
    The opinion of nearly all historians was it was badly planned and even more poorly led in the first 2 to 3 years of the war.
    If you have more records of it than I have then I'll listen and I have no idea of how the war should have been conducted I'm not a General nor a historian but i have read a lot of reports
    With he exception of the Generals excuse memoirs Haig,Rawlinson etc people said,including Loyd George,that it was unnecessary slaughter to walk uphill in full pack into wire and machine guns and so it was.
    We fought for 4 years and left 750,000 Military dead abroad still if Seaweed thinks that's a successful way to win a war then that's his opinion.
    I started this with praise of a book for some to read I'll finish with a quote.
    Sarcastic CSM to an Officer he doesn't get on with
    "When we go over the top I'm staying near to you!"
    Officer,coldly,"Pray why is that CSM?"
    CSM "Because I like your watch Sir!"
    it's the book I was recommending not the old hash of leadership,I mentioned their failings because they were the facts and young Officers also despised them perhaps wrongly in some cases not seeing the full picture but I cannot still read the book "The Somme" without being full of fury at the stupidity of Haig and Rawlinson,60,000 in a morning,is that good planning at the top?
    the only saving grace was the Germans had as many inept Generals as we had,even then we nearly lost it at the end.
    We won at great cost and advanced a few miles!Success?
  8. Just out of interest Seafarer but have you read Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan. It's a good read for myth busting. I've also read a lot on WW1 as my paternal Grandfather fought at Ypres and in the Balkans, he would never talk about it so I researched it myself.
  9. Corrigan's good, but he's so gung ho about everything that unless you approach the book with a totally open mind you're likely to get quite antagonisedas he relentlessly busts every myth about WW1 going and leaves you with the feeling that either you know nothing about something you thought you knew a lot about, or that every First World War historian writing between about 1938 and 1990 has wilfully misled you and ought to give you a refund. To be honest, there's something in the latter argument IMHO...

    For something slightly less mindblowing as a starter for ten, try Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, or anything recent by Hugh Strachan.

    For an investigation of quite how WW1 has ended up being the most misrepresented and political of any episode in British history, you want at least "Blighty" by Gerard J DeGroot, or, better still, "The Great War and Modern Memory" by Paul Fussell.

    Lynne Macdonald and Martin Middlebrook wrote excellent popular histories, and were amongst the first to get really down in the weeds with interviews with survivors (of which, obviously, there were quite a few in the seventies and eighties). However, a serious professional historian would heavily caveat any conclusions to be drawn from people talking about events from seventy years in their own past. I'm afraid, anything written or recalled by a survivor past about 1939 really is unreliable. The events of the 1930s, and the rise of fascism allowed events to acquire a retrospective colour that they certainly didn't have at the time.

    Just as an aside, there are certain historians, very well known (eg AJP Taylor), who wrote a lot of what entire generations have been taught to believe about WW1, that get laughed out of court these days if even mentioned in passing by undergraduates.

    Anyway, I'll come down off the hobbyhorse now (can you tell I used to teach this?)

    But go steady with Corrigan is all I would reiterate - it's good, and entertaining, but strong stuff!
  10. Just on this point specifically, Haig thought that the New Army wouldn't be battle ready until 1917, and planned against that assumption. However, reality got in the way in the shape of the French nightmare at Verdun (and, elsewhere). The need to do something to take the pressure off the French dictated summer 1916 and the planners worked on the probably correct assumption that the British troops were not good enough at that point, to try anything more advanced than a "walkover." The whole preliminary bombardment was expressly designed to mitigate the fact that the troops were enthusiastic, but not very good, yet had to be used pretty much immediately. Which is always a nice dilemma for an armchair general. What do you do in those circumstances?

    That 20,000 were killed on the first morning is terrible, but probably in its own terms the Somme was a success, because it did prevent the collapse of the entire French army, which would have been game over for everyone....

    In short, if you think the Great War needed to be fought, then the Somme needs to be seen within that context, as a milestone (albeit a black one) on the long road to victory (if there hadn't been an Armistice we really would have been in Berlin by Christmas 1918; the BEF was "romping to victory" with more movement in the final weeks than in the whole war on the Western Front to that point). Not for nothing has the British Army of 1918 been described as the finest fighting force ever put into the field by anyone in the 20th century.

    If you don't think the war needed to be fought then it was an appalling waste of life, but even the Germans recognised that their army was being bled white on the Somme front to a greater extent than ours, and it was them that had the overextended supply lines and consequently them that suffered more from the battle. It was mass, industrialised warfare on a scale never before seen, and hopefully/probably never again. Therefore, arguably, the rules were utterly different....
  11. If the British aped the other armies in WW1 and used 'Attrition' as a strategy, then donkeys is pretty apt to describe the mental inertia of the 'brass hats'. Though by the wars end, the British reputedly had refined their act enough that attacks where 'all arms' affairs incorporating 'air', creeping barrages and 'armour'.

    But that was 'staff' officers, the other type... the 'line' version generally identified with their men. Indeed sabalterns were given a good bolxxxing if they looked after their own needs before their mens!

    I might be being unfair on staff officers with the above. After all, they are learning how to fight a world war along a front the length of several countries with new weapons and tactics. A battlefield like that is too big for 1 man to alter using big strides. So they taught the army incrematally with small steps.

    I've heard it said an army needs to learn it's own lessons.
  12. Gold star, they were learning on the job and trying to get several million men under arms to learn from those learnings - it doesn't happen overnight. Unfortunately, people get killed in the meantime...
  13. I'm not saying Corrigan has uncovered the truth but threw him into the mix as a counter to the popularly held mis-conception that the generals sat back and mindlessly ordered the troops over the the top (although that can apply in a few cases before the historical quotes start) aka Blackadder Goes Forth which (whilst funny) popularised the notion. The British had their hands forced on many occasions, notably the Somme to relieve pressure on Verdun as has already been stated.

    I think something that gets missed is that no nation had fought a war over such a large area and employing what were (in those days) weapons of mass destruction, no-one could have foreseen the stalemate and trench warfare and the horrors that brought. you could write a book on the military innovations used such as the machine gun, tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire or even the submarine. None of which had been used in combat (standfast primitive machine guns) and therefore no effective counters.

    I've read a few of Lynn Mcdonalds works and I'll look out for the others seeing as I got a kindle for Chrimbo.
  14. Seaweed

    Seaweed War Hero Book Reviewer

    I'm still waiting for Seafarer's alternative method of winning the war.

    The strategic (as opposed to tactical) objective of the Somme battle was to hold German forces on our front and stop them being moved sideways to walk over the collapsing French. In that it succeeded. Any analysis has to take into account the artillery ammuniton supply situation, and the pre-war experience of our generals in handling formations of the size with which they were now entrusted, and the level of tactical training of the troops themselves.

    I wasn't going to bring this up myself, but Seafarer's family does not have a monopoly of WW1 casualties.
  15. Purple_twiglet

    Purple_twiglet War Hero Moderator

    Another point about the Somme - we forget that it was seen in the German army as a catastrophe of epic proportions. They took enormous casualties, and it led to the real end of the pre war army, and instead began the countdown to victory as Germany had to draw on ever younger and more inexperienced reserves to sustain their manpower.
  16. Precisely - so if we're going to go down the road of calling peoples' autobiographies "excuse memoirs," let's have a look at what may have motivated the "slaughter" comments of disinterested and utterly reliable witness Mr David Lloyd George shall we?

    It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that as Minister of Munitions he presided over an appalling shell procurement regime that effectively ensured that many of the explosives used in the Somme preliminary bombardments were duds - meaning that the insufficiently trained troops were mown down in their thousands on day one would it?

    Talk about expiating your own guilt - or getting your defence in early and making someone else carry the can...

    The politicians were the ones cheerleading for the attack "to help our French allies," the generals were responsible for making it happen. The whole point about planning for the Somme was that it was designed to save lives - that it didn't is terrible. But how many hundreds of thousands of lives did it save in the long run by hastening the collapse of the Germans and propping up the French? This was a war that was scoped out until at least 1920 by 1917, but we won, won, it in 1918. Arguably, if we had refused the surrender and chased them all the way back to the Kaiser's capital it might have been better for the world - at least then there would have been no danger of the "stab in the back myth" gaining traction in 1920s Bavaria....
  17. Some Stats on Generals of The Great war for you:-

    Of the 78 Generals who were killed in action, died of wounds or died as a result of active service:

    34 Generals were killed by shellfire = 43%
    22 Generals were killed by small arms fire = 28% (of which at least 12 were killed by snipers)
    3 Generals were drowned - 1 accidently, 1 inadvertently poisoned himself, 1 died from cholera,
    1 died as a result of a flying accident and 1 died from accidental injuries.
    Of the remaining 15, no direct cause of death is known - likely that the majority would have been killed by either shell fire or small arms fire.
    So, they weren't all full of "brave by being out of range".
  18. thanks I'll do that.
  19. What an idiotic phrase that was from Seaweed! My family had no monopoly of WW1, it's what sparked my interest in it because I had lost family members.
    I had mentioned that but some seem to skim over things in their effort to try and score points.
    It's a stupid remark.
  20. Did it save lives? From what I can see, both world wars have only ended when 1 side (it happens to have been the germans in both wars) has been bled dry of men. So to look at the big picture, the wars only ended when 1 side couldn't fight anymore. The quantity of death to get to that point, I suggest, would have been the same had it taken 2 yrs of intense conflict or 10 of a lesser form.

    I say this as from looking at the death tolls from the various battles, the totals for each side are always near enough 1:1. Verdun was 330,000 versus about 370,000. (forget which way it went) The Somme was allies 6x0,000 V 4x0,000 German. Although the latter disproves my point a bit, I still recall death tolls as being about equal per battle.

    In fact, wasn't the death toll of 'both' sides near enough 1:1?

    I'll happily be corrected.

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