MONTHS into what promises (or threatens) to be more than four
years of Remembrance is a good moment to think about what it is
that we are remembering, and what the First World War meant for
society and culture, for people and communities, and for political
change or continuity.
Many books had been written on aspects of the war, even before
the recent avalanche of titles; and there are great extremes in the
historiography of the Great War. Sir Max Hastings and the late Sir
John Keegan (among many) have offered an overview of the whole war
in its range and reach. Lyn MacDonald focuses on individual lives,
telling the story of a single battle through the eyes of those who
fought it. John Laffin presented a passionate attack on British
generals as butchers and bunglers - charges that Gary Sheffield
rebuts by arguing that the generals were on a steep and successful
learning curve throughout the war.
Gordon Corrigan served in the Royal Gurkha Rifles until his
retirement from the army in 1998. Since then, he has built a
reputation as a historian and lecturer who takes a similar line to
The blurb for Mud, Blood and Poppycock describes it
clearly: "Corrigan . . . re-examines the old myths of incompetence
and unnecessary slaughter that for fifty years have coloured the
popular view of the First World War. . . this is a book to overturn
everything you thought you knew about Britain and the First World
It is a punchy, bold, provocative, and direct book. Corrigan
convincingly argues that the war was necessary, and that many of
the supposed "truths" that everyone knows do not stand up to close
scrutiny, or do not mean exactly what people think they mean.
In his chapter headings, he names the "truths" that he is
dismantling, for example: "The Lost Generation"; "Kangaroo Courts
and Firing Squads"; and "Even More Needless Slaughter". He is not,
however, the only (or even the first) person to argue this case,
and at times his claims are not fully backed up.
Even when the arguments are not new or set out fully, however,
Corrigan brings to them two great attributes. One is his long
military experience. He writes as a soldier, and speaks for the
professional soldier. When the civilian (and this reader) recoils
at the casualty bill, Corrigan reminds us that people die in war.
He argues that the first day of the Somme was inevitable and
necessary; that a new army could not use more complicated tactics;
and that lessons were quickly learned and shared.
His background also makes him more sympathetic than many to the
generals whom Alan Clark suggested were lion-leading donkeys.
Knowing something of the loneliness of command, Corrigan believes
that the British generals were quick to learn from experience and
to adjust to a war that was more complex and demanding than any
that could ever have been planned for.
He is also very good at isolating a powerful "myth", and
deconstructing it with hard evidence. While it might be cold
comfort to know that the death-rate per head of population in
Britain was half that in France or Germany, his work on "the lost
generation" is sensible and persuasive. Because the British Army
recruited geographically, and because the army encouraged people to
sign up with their neighbours or workmates to encourage a feeling
of loyalty and duty, the telegrams often arrived in the same
community on the very same day. The sense of a lost generation
emerges from the deaths of a number of men from the same streets
and factories in the same battle, at the same time. "Of the
Bradford dead, 345 were killed on the opening day of the Somme
offensive, and 217 of these were in the two Bradford Pals
He is clear that it is misleading to speak of a lost generation,
since one in 12 of the men of military age was killed.
CORRIGAN's emphasis on the truism that people die in war, and
his contention that the army learned from its mistakes, do not,
however, entirely account for the list of names read out every
Remembrance Sunday in churches all over the country, nor for the
20,000 men killed on the first day of the Somme. Generals may
indeed become less competent if they are fixated on the casualty
numbers, but mourners, historians, and those who remember are
entitled to do so, and to question whether Corrigan is right that
all of these deaths were necessary and explicable.
Corrigan is excellent at challenging us to make sure that our
assumptions and images of the First World War are rigorous and
grounded. His conviction that the war had to be fought; that it was
fought as well as it could have been by the British Army; that the
army was well led; and that this was the only modern war where the
British Army defeated the main enemy on the main battlefront is all
a powerful corrective to those who see only incompetent stupidity,
futile courage, and pointless patriotism.
It also gives dignity and honour to those who served and to
those who died: it makes their sacrifice more purposeful and less
of an abuse. It returns to those who came home, and to those who
are remembered every year, a sense of agency and of achievement.
That is no mean feat.
Corrigan's assault on cheap assumptions and shallow arguments
also raises real questions for us as Christians: how many of our
religious and cultural beliefs are equally without foundation? We
may have drifted from the reality of who Jesus really is, and
failed to test what we hold to be true against the evidence. That
sense of clarity leaves the reader with an equal question for
Corrigan: has he so bought into his own argument that he loses
sight of individual lives and individual tragedies?
The Revd Richard Lamey is Rector of St Paul's,
Mud, Blood and Poppycock is published by Phoenix at
£9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99 - Use code CT265 );
MUD, BLOOD AND POPPYCOCK - SOME
"The army defends society, but it cannot share its values; for,
if it does, it cannot do its job." Do you agree?
Did the book change your understanding of life in the
Why do so many people seem to claim that the reasons for the
First World War are unclear?
Should Christians aspire to pacifism?
Who is the more sympathetic character: Earl Kitchener of
Khartoum or Prince Louis of Battenberg?
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the "Pals
How effective was the work of the chaplains?
How important was humour to morale?
Should the prevailing cliché of "lions led by donkeys" be more
How do you feel about Sainsbury's Christmas advertisement this
In our next reading-groups page, on 2 January, we will print
extra information about the next book. This is Against the
Odds by Carmel Thomason. It is published by BRF at £8.99
(CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84101-739-6.
This is a collection of true stories about people's experiences
of war, crime, betrayal, terrorism, relationship breakdown, and
other difficult life experiences. It is designed for individual and
group study, and each story is accompanied by a reflection from a
professional person or a church leader, including the Bishop of
Chester, Dr Peter Forster. The book is designed to encourage
readers to think about the act of forgiveness: "How you might make
this gift an everyday part of your life, let go of pain, restore
relationships and live your life to the full."
Carmel Thomason collaborated with the Archbishop of York on his
John Sentamu's Faith Stories (Review, 5 July 2013), and is
the author of Every Moment Counts: A life of Mary
Butterwick (Review, 6 July 2011). She lives in
Books for the next two months:
February: We Are All Completely Beside
Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
March: The Pilgrim's Progress by John