This reviewer first saw Mud, Blood and Poppycock in 2003 at Heathrow Airport (Terminal 4) while on his way to Sweden on a media junket. At the time he thought he would pick it up on his way home or in South Africa. This was not to be. To his delight the book was still at WH Smith when he recently passed through and the previous error was not repeated.
The book’s author Gordon Corrigan was a career Ghurkha officer before turning historian on his retirement in 1998. Although one does not want to repeat other reviewers, this book warrants that. I quote with approval Andrew Roberts of the Mail on Sunday who said “Corrigan peppers his book with statements that read outrageously at first but which he then backs up with devastating statistics.” This stands with one modification, the substitution of facts for statistics.
George Kerevan of the Scotsman is also spot-on in his assertion that this is “no mere hagiography or turgid, blow-by-blow account of battles, which frankly, often seem repetitive. Corrigan`s book is a fascinating read because he sets it up as a trial by jury. Each chapter (and they can be read in what order you please) takes a specific ‘myth` of the Great War and subjects it to the test of evidence.”
Let`s take a closer look at these. The first myth Corrigan seeks to dispel (read the book for yourself to see if, in your opinion, he does) is that the war was unnecessary and a waste of Commonwealth life, time and treasure. While all wars are exactly that from a point of view, Corrigan argues that once Germany convinced itself to reorder Europe through violence, Britain had no alternative.
He then tackles the issue of the “lost generation”, finding that there wasn`t any. “looking at census data from 1901, 1911, 1921 and 1931 he notes that “the casual observer would be forgiven for failing to notice that between the census of 1911 and that of 1921 the greatest bloodletting in British military history took place. Despite the war deaths the overall male population … actually rose…” he then notes that one in seven officers were killed and one in eight other ranks. “Whether the removal of one in seven of the obvious potential leaders really did lead to a dearth of national direction after the war is doubtful; enough returned unscathed to ensure life went on.”
Corrigan next tackles the horrors of the trenches, principally the rats, the mud and the disease. There was some of this, he concedes, but that ‘saving shot and shell, the Western Front was a remarkably healthy place throughout the war.”
One of the few assertions the reviewer disagrees with is the state of training of the troops that took part in the fateful and fatal attack on the Somme on July 1, 1916. The author avers the tactics used that day were the best possible under the circumstances.
He adds that fire and movement, used with success in 1917 and known to the British in 1916 was too difficult for soldier and officer to master. The claim is made several times. As far as the reviewer can tell it is one of the few claims made in this fine book not supported by data. There are no tables to indicate the length of training the officers and men had undergone or showing how long it would take to master fire and movement and the challenge of command-and-control.
The reviewer`s experience suggests the principles of fire-and-movement can be grasped in seconds, the associated drills in minutes and the practice can become automatic after a few hours of exercise. The men involved in the attack were from Kitchener`s New Armies and most had been under training, if not under arms, since early 1915, up to 18 months before they went “over the top.”
Despite this disagreement the reviewer indeed heartily recommends this book as an essential read about a conflict that will shortly see its centenary. If we are to heed its many lessons, it will be useful to establish the facts. Much of what today passes as fact about that conflict is indeed Poppycock.
Mud, Blood and Poppycock – Britain and the First World War