Tag Archives: Western Front

Review: Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (Sheffield)

Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory.

“The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.” The back cover blurbs praise this biography for being “objective and well-rounded” and “a balanced portrait,” but after two full readings of the book, I remain unconvinced that Haig was anything but a very lucky shyster.

The author is very obviously a staunch admirer of the man. What betrays this is that exactly the same kind of behavior that he condones in respect to Haig’s performance as a Corps commander under C-in-C French, he condemns in respect to Rawlinson’s performance as a Corps commander under C-in-C Haig. When he does criticize his hero, it’s mild, and often excuses are made for him, such as in one period when Haig’s shortcomings are justified on the basis of his recently having been afflicted with a diarrheal illness.

While lauding Haig’s supposed adherence to the notion of noblesse oblige on the part of an officer towards his men, Sheffield also cherry-picks the diary entries he quotes, leaving out Haig’s scathing and mean-spirited remarks about the performance of the “PBI.” Haig’s steep learning curve in regard to Rawlinson’s commonsense “bite and hold” is brushed aside, and the fact that towards the end of the war Haig was finally forced to use it – with much better success than in his years of pursuing the evanescent cavalry breakthrough – is camouflaged by calling the methodology a “step-by-step” approach, and insisting it was Haig’s idea all the time.

Haig was a consummate politician. He surrounded himself with people for whom he’d done favors (such as Gough and Rawlinson), so he could depend on them to bail him out when his own poor performance threatened his position – and then, when he was through with them, he sacked or sidelined them. Military men of democratic nations may have been enjoined to be apolitical in regard to the government of their countries, but a highly developed talent for back-scratching and double-dealing served the savvy Haig very well.

In other respects, the book has a deceptive title, because it treats the whole life and times of its subject, not just the period “from the Somme to victory.” The author excuses this because it’s “a revised version of The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army . . . (the change of title reflects the exigencies of commercial publishing)” – in other words, the book wasn’t selling under its original title. There’s a small central glossy section of photographs. Its in-text citations are collated in end notes, it lists “Sources and Select Bibliography,” and it possesses a tolerably useful index. The text has relatively few grammatical glitches, and no obvious typos, indicating fairly good editing and compositor work. It’s a hefty volume that presents well in hardcover with gold leaf printing on the dust jacket.

A reasonably thorough source of information about how Douglas Haig made a name for himself on the necks of his colleagues and the backs of the Poor Bloody Infantry.

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Review: German Posters in Belgium (Davignon)

German Posters in Belgium: Their Value as Evidence.

There are two copies of this book listed at The Internet Archive, but I happen to be fortunate enough to own an original, which I handle only when wearing white gloves. It’s bound in a paper cover, my copy of which is more darkly discolored than the one pictured above, and it has considerable damage to the spine, which has loosened some pages, but otherwise, the interior is in excellent condition, for a century-old publication.

The book features reproductions of posters and other documents relating to the invasion, occupation, and German atrocities committed in Belgium in August, 1914. Some exhibits are reproduced as photographs, which suffer from the limitations of the technology of the day, but still remain valuable research resources. Each poster is accompanied by a translation, as well as transcriptions of related documents and period commentary.

The Foreword by the compiler communicates the depth of feeling experienced by the people who were close to the action, and whose sense of outrage lay behind much of the rationale for the Versailles Treaty. These documents constituted proof positive of German villainy and propaganda during the invasion and violation of Belgium. A detailed table of contents guides the reader to each exhibit.

The collection makes a fine original-research companion to the exhaustive analysis that went into the writing of German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial.


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Review: Private Peaceful (film)

Private Peaceful.

This film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel by the same name may be better critiqued by someone who has read the book and can compare the two. I have not, but having looked up the book and found it to have been classified as being appropriate for ages 8 to 12 (what used to be lumped into the broad classification of “Juvenile Fiction,” but these days could perhaps be shoehorned into “Middle Grade”), I can only surmise that certain liberties may have been taken with the plot to make the story more appealing to an adult audience that expects “adult themes” in its entertainment.

It stretches credulity that a career gamekeeper and forester would have neglected to teach his children never to approach during a shoot, because of the risk of their being mistakenly shot, and the possibility of their scaring away the game; nor to approach him when he was at work felling trees, or failing that, where not to stand when a tree was being felled: a forester of my acquaintance always knew exactly where any tree he chopped down would fall.

The battle scenes leave a little to be desired: the pyrotechnics are not as powerful as in other war films, and the cinematography not as skillful. There is a fine moment of irony in the accusation of “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” when “the enemy” becomes identified with someone not normally described by that term.

The continual jumping back and forth between flashback time periods gets a little wearing on the patience. The accents are sometimes difficult for this North American to decipher. At the end of the movie, a sudden caginess in the dialogue makes the viewer suspect that a plot twist is about to be perpetrated that makes the opening scene in the prison begin to look like a red herring: after the film was over, I replayed the last two segments to make sure that what I thought I’d missed hearing really wasn’t there.

The film does function as an interesting perspective on the primitive nature of the physical and social conditions of life only a hundred years ago, and the hazards appertaining thereto.

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