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The General (C. S. Forester novel)

The General
First UK edition
Author C.S. Forester
Language English
Publisher Michael Joseph (UK)
Little, Brown, and Company (US)

Forester is best known for his famous series of Horatio Hornblower novels which he began in 1937; few of his other works are well-known: The General (1936) and The African Queen (1935) are exceptions and remain popular.

The General follows the career of Herbert Curzon from his experiences in the Second Boer War to the happy day when he is given command of his regiment on the outbreak of the Great War. Curzon is unexceptional in every way, an officer like any other officer, and it is the very ordinariness of Forester's character that serves to give the novel power.

As the Great War begins, Curzon takes his part as a major of an unfashionable cavalry regiment. He is given a temporary promotion to regiment command and then quickly a brigade command. At the First Battle of Ypres he manages to keep his head about him and, upon the death of his brigadier, becomes a general. Curzon returns to England while his unit is in Belgium. He makes an advantageous marriage to the daughter of a Duke which gives him political connections to the Opposition "Bude House" set. He is promoted again and again, eventually being placed in command of a hundred thousand men and orders attacks that condemn many of them to mutilation and death amongst the shells and the gas and the machine guns. At the end the Ninety-first is forced to retreat in the March 1918 German offensive. But he decides to "go up the line" on his horse with a sword rather than face defeat and professional failure. The novel implies that he seeks death in battle; he says "We can still go down fighting". He is injured by a shell fragment and loses a leg. His war is over.

Yet Curzon—General Sir Herbert Curzon by this time—is not a brutal man or an uncaring one: simply a brave and honest but stubborn and unimaginative leader. For Forester, the tale of Herbert Curzon's almost inevitable rise to high command, the senseless slaughters he directs and his eventual retirement to the life of an aged cripple in a wheelchair, is not about Curzon—it is about the attitudes and mores of the British Army and of British society more generally, the attitudes that (in Forester's view) led to the appalling casualties and the horrors of the First World War.

For Forester, to understand Herbert Curzon's simple courage and determination to do his duty is to understand how men like Curzon, who were not by nature evil, were led to order the cream of their country's manhood to sacrifice themselves in the pointless bloody slaughter of the Somme or Verdun or Gallipoli.

Curzon is promoted to command, initially because by “adventitious circumstance” when he is in the right place, not because of any intrigue. At the beginning of the war he is a Major in a cavalry regiment, the Twenty-second Lancers. He replaces his elderly Colonel, who is shunted off to a training position. Later he replaces Coppinger-Brown of the Ninety-First Division who is "on the verge of senile decay" and "no more fit to be trusted with a division than to darn the Alhambra chorus’s tights." Curzon is sent to stiffen-up the Ninety-First, which has two brigadiers, Watson and Webb. "I know they’re no good but where am I going to get three hundred good brigadiers from?" says Mackenzie. Coppinger-Brown and Watson both go, and because he is junior to Webb as brigadier Curzon is promoted to Major-General.

He accepts transfer to infantry command in Kitchener’s new army. Knowing little of the infantry he first inspects the cooking-facilities of his new division, which are the same as in the cavalry. He is appalled by their filth and squalor, and he puts new heart into the dispirited men. As the novel says several times, he was eventually to command "four divisions .... something like a hundred thousand men in battle – as many men (or more men) than Wellington or Marlborough ever commanded in the field" He proves to be "one of the best generals of the new armies"

He distrusts theorists, and is not part of the "blood-brotherhood of Camberley" (the staff college) Like his seniors he believes in "Attrition" and the "Big Push" with brute force; more men, more guns. Forester compares them to a group of savages who try and extract a screw from a piece of wood by applying more "main force" rather than by rotating it which would require far less effort. Hence he is startled by the tank victory at Cambrai.

The War Office

The novel has an episode in the War Office with a Field-Marshal, a General and a Major-General when they promote Curzon, which is not due to any scheming but because though there were a hundred possible officers "an adventitious circumstance had singled him out for particular notice". Mackenzie laments .. “where am I to get three hundred good brigadiers from?”.

Major-General Mackenzie is the Director-General of Tactical Services, and when the Liberal Government admitted some of the Opposition to government: "while men in high position fell right and left, General Mackenzie remained Director-General of Tactical Services. Others greater than he – among them the greatest Minister of War that England ever had – were flung out of office, but Mackenzie remained despite his very unsound attitude in the Ulster crisis. Perhaps that is the most important contribution Curzon ever made to the history of England" Curzon has urged his father-in-law the Duke to keep Mackenzie.

The Field Marshal and Minister of War was Sirdar of the Egyptian Army when he was forty-one (Curzon’s age), so is similar to Kitchener. But in the novel he is forced from office, not drowned at sea. He is replaced by another cavalry-man, Scottish instead of Irish, named as Haig.

Effect of the novel

The General has been widely praised as being an excellent and very realistic account of the mindset of the British Officer Corps in times of war and as such many veterans are surprised to learn that the author himself never actually served in the armed forces. In fact, a persistent yet unsubstantiated rumor states that Adolf Hitler was so impressed with the novel that he made it required reading for his top field commanders and general staff, in the hopes that it would allow prominent German officers to be able to understand how their British counterparts thought. This rumor is referred to as fact by Forester in a foreword to a later edition of the novel.