*** DEBUG END ***

Old soldier overturns wartime ‘truths’

05 December 2014

Richard Lamey reads Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

Punchy and provocative: the author and former soldier Gordon Corrigan

Punchy and provocative: the author and former soldier Gordon Corrigan

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 Professor Sheffield's.

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 War."

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 battalions."

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, Wokingham

Mud, Blood and Poppycock is published by Phoenix at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99 - Use code CT265 ); 978-0-304-36659-0.



"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 trenches? 

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 Battalions"?

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 widely challenged? 

How do you feel about Sainsbury's Christmas advertisement this year?

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. 

Book notes

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."

Author notes

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 Manchester. 

Books for the next two months:

February: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

March: The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four* articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)

*Until the end of June: we’re doubling the number of free articles to eight, to celebrate the publication of our Platinum Jubilee double issue.