Of course, we’ve all seen Blackadder Goes Forth. The Allied generals used to just throw men at things, not care how many casualties there were, and kept on doing that until… somehow, the Allies won the war. Neillands’ main topic – in fact the whole reason for this book – is to answer the question: if the generals on the Western Front really were so incompetent and didn’t care about casualties, then how did they win the war in the first place?
It’s an interesting question, and he takes 500+ pages to answer it. It’s actually a fascinating read, covering not the what or the how (there are soul-crushing accounts of Passchendaele or the Somme that will haunt you forever, should you choose to read them) but instead asking ‘why’ – why did they choose to attack here, or there, why didn’t they think of x or y or z?
Generally speaking, there’s a number of factors. The first is that most of the things we’re familiar with from the second world war – many of which we grew up seeing on tv and radio in innumerable war films – just simply weren’t invented at this point. In fact, watching an episode of the aforementioned Blackadder while reading this book, I realised that it must have been set just before the Somme, as the reference to “new tanks” and, specifically, 40 of them arriving from England, dated it specifically. On the subject of tanks, Neillands credits them with a great part of the winning of the war, and Churchill with being a big supporter of them. But also, people had to learn the tactics to use them – and that’s another thing that contributed: the whole “trench warfare” idea was new, tanks were new, aeroplanes were new, and most people were still stuck with the idea that cavalry would be the weapon that won them the war (cavalry are always, in my head, men in bearskin hats riding horses while waving swords about, which is surely not a good idea while galloping at umpteen miles per hour, which shows how little I know I suppose).
The truth is that this is a grim, grim book. After about a third of the way through I started to wince, reading the details of any plan, as by that point I’d realised that if the author laid out a plan in great detail, it was going to go wrong. When he skated over what was going to happen, it went pretty well. It’s only later on in the book that that pattern got broken.
This is a fascinating read if you’re into military history, or – like me a few weeks ago – you really do know very little about the First World War other than what you’ve seen in Blackadder. Neillands’ writing style is clear, straightforward, perhaps a little bit academic, but readable. Everything is handled sensitively and carefully. Above all, he goes by evidence, not feeling. The conclusions he reaches you may not agree with, but they’re not based on speculation or wild theorising but arise naturally from evidence.
So were the generals, really, as popular myth would have it, inept? Neillands doesn’t totally agree. Some were better than others, but most of all, there were generally a limited set of options they could have taken. If anything, that’s the real tragedy of the first world war – however bad the generals were, they were, for the most part, doing the best that could be expected under the circumstances. And that’s somehow a much darker truth than I was ever expecting.