Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.
But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.
In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?
It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.
A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.
The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.
This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.