AoH Book Club: Gordon Corrigan on Mud, Blood and Poppycock

On its 20th anniversary Gordon met with our editor to talk about his acclaimed history of the Great War.
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Gordon, your book Mud Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the First World War was filled with facts that contradict the accepted view of the Great War. Presumably the prevailing view of incompetence and tragedy was why you wanted to write it?

I had got increasingly irritated by bald statements, verbal and written, criticising the conduct of the war and those who conducted it without any evidence being provided.  Joan Littlewood’s play and the film made from it ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ encouraged these views (including the ridiculous statement that the average life of a machine gunner on the Western Front was four minutes) and they did not reflect all that I had heard from veterans of that war or much of what I had read.  I wanted to challenge what I considered to be falsehoods, but knowing that there would be many seeking to denigrate anything I said I determined to back up my findings with hard evidence from primary sources. That the only criticisms were that Cassel should not have published the book, without saying why, did show that no one could decry the evidence.  One very senior academic (H Strachan) was vehemently critical, and I wondered why until I discovered that he had a book about the First War published at about the same time which bombed!

Mud, Blood and Poppycock is a glorious title – how did you decide on it?

Originally when working on the book it was what I referred to it as.  When I came to discuss a title with the publisher, we went through all sorts of weighty suggestions until Ian Drury, the commissioning editor, said why not just call it by your working title – Mud, Blood and Poppycock.  And so we did.

One of the elements to the book that makes it so enjoyable is the humour. Was this something that you set out to include, or was it the research and content of the book prompted it?

I didn’t set out to be humorous – it is, after all, a serious subject – but I suppose that after nearly forty years in the infantry I have a strong sense of the ironic, and soldiers do find a humorous side to just about everything – a defence mechanism I suspect –  so inevitably humour crept in, albeit unintentionally.

Were British troops ‘lions led by donkeys’? I had always taken this phrase to refer to the generals drinking claret in comfy chateaux, rather than the officers in the trenches who had a much higher casualty rate than the ranks they commanded.

This statement in regard to the First World War first saw the light of day in Alan Clark’s The Donkeys which was a scathing attack on the British conduct of the war and particularly of the generals, who were accused of sending innocent young men to their deaths by their uncaring and unintelligent performance.  It is a long time since I read Plutarch but I seem to remember he said something similar when he compared an army of deer led by a lion as being superior to an army of lions led by a deer.   Clark was a bounder supreme, a cad to out cad any, and in my view a loss to politics but he was a very careless and idle historian.

In this case Clark attributed the comment to the German  Generalmajor Max Hoffman, chief of staff to Hindenburg and regarded by many as the finest staff officer of his generation in Germany.  When challenged by a number of academics who had been researching the Hoffman papers and could find no such remark, Clark admitted that he had made it up!  It may have been said by a French observer in the Crimean War 1854 – 57 but not in the First World War, where German comment on the British Army is generally respectful (and when the Kaiser referred to the BEF as ‘contemptible’ he was referring to its size, not its capability).  Division commanders and above had to use chateaux or similar buildings as their headquarters because they needed communications (telephone and road) both to their forward units in the line and to their own superior headquarters in rear.  There had to be space for planning, conferences, map displays and administrative functions, none of which could be fulfilled in the forward trenches. It is natural for those in the line to criticise those in the rear.  When I was at regimental duty I fumed that the staff had no idea of the reality of life at the sharp end, and when a staff officer I bemoaned that those in the line had no understanding of the big picture.  In both incarnations I was wrong.

This view was prominent in the 1960s – which historians encouraged it?

In the sixties Mud, Blood and Poppycock would not have been published, so was the grip of Basil Liddell Hart and his followers, including Clark, on military history, particularly that of the First World War.  Liddell Hart had served in the trenches and had been evacuated to England with what was probably a mental breakdown.  My thoughts are that he was trying to rationalise his own inability to cope with the stresses of war and so came to the view that courage is not enough.  As the generals were unquestionably courageous, then they must be incompetent.  To a post-war generation that abhorred the thought of another war, and who found that Britain had not been transformed into ‘a land fit for heroes’ Liddell Hart’s scathing opinions found fertile ground, combined with a government led by Lloyd-George which did not want to spend money on defence and stuck its collective head in the sand at any thought of the possibility of a future war. After the Second World War Liddell Hart became increasingly influential, along with Alan Clark, John Laffin and even my own highly respected mentor John Keegan. They reinforced the accepted view that this was an unnecessary war presided over by butchers and bunglers who cost this nation and the Empire a whole generation killed for no purpose. Those who attempted to challenge this view came in for much opprobrium and for many years John Terraine ploughed a very lonely furrow.  Eventually historical opinion began to turn (although in his later works Terraine did perhaps over egg the pudding slightly), and most current historians – but not yet the public – would lean more to Terraine rather than to Laffin.

The book was published in 2003, to wide acclaim and healthy book sales. We’re 20 years on now, do you think the view of WW1 in the popular imagination has now changed to conform with your own and others (eg Gary Sheffield) view?

Gary Sheffield, John Bourne, Corelli Barnett, Peter Simpkins, Noble Frankland, Andrew Roberts and many others have picked up where John Terraine left off and would describe the First World War as being an episode in our history, not an emotional experience.  We have, I hope, been able to examine that war objectively and by examining the evidence. As I say above, however, I do not think that as yet has percolated down to the general public who do not like their illusions shattered.

How did the British Army change into the highly effective fighting force that was victorious in 1918?

By learning the lessons of each engagement and reacting swiftly to them, by flexibility, by innovation. The British army had to adapt from being an Imperial gendarmerie into a force capable of intensive war against a first class opponent.  The wonder is not that mistakes were not made – there were – but that they were rarely made twice.  Part of this was that unlike all the other players the core of the Brtish army remained the professionals, and even when they were diluted many times over by New Army men and conscripts the standards of a professional regular force remained. The French army mutinied in 1917.  German command and control broke down in 1918.  The Brtish Army never mutinied and it always retained its command and control.

Do you dread being asked about Blackadder – after all it’s the first line in the blurb on Amazon today?

Blackadder is a wonderfully entertaining series, brilliantly acted and with an amazing script.  That said, it bears as much relation to actuality as does Winnie the Pooh (spoiler alert – Winnie the Pooh is a fictional character).

If a new edition were to be produced today, what would you change?

I think the text would stay pretty much as it is, but I would improve some of the plates and add a chapter to show how the army of 1918, the most competent, the best equipped and the best led army of all the players, deteriorated into the army of 1939/40, humiliatingly defeated in Norway, North West Europe, Greece, Crete and North Africa.  That chapter would attempt to sound a warning for today.  We are now at war by proxy.  We are arming and training the Ukrainians and providing them with intelligence.  If Zelensky does not win this war then we may well have to fight it ourselves – and with what?  Successive governments since the Cold War have sought to profit by the ‘peace dividend’. They have continually taken money from defence in order to bribe a greedy and ignorant electorate which wants instant gratification and is only interested in things that directly affect it. The army in particular has been run down and stocks of ammunition and equipment eroded. The Chief of the General Staff has been sacked for saying that the plans to reduce the size of the army still further are perverse. We would be pushed to field a single division now, and then only for a matter of weeks before ammunition runs out. If Trump becomes the next president of the USA, and I think he will, he may well decide that Ukraine is not a vital interest of the USA, and if he pulls out then France and Germany, always wobbly, may well go too.  And that leaves us.

Gordon Corrigan is a former army officer, military historian and the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the Great Warand is a regular guest on the Aspects of History Podcast.