The General

C.S. Forester

Michael Joseph 1936
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
One of the largely forgotten novels of the Great War, The General follows the career of Herbert Curzon, who rises, through fortuitous success in a Boer War engagement in 1899, survival in the first Flanders fighting and marriage to an Earl's daughter, to command an army corps on the Western Front.

C.S. Forester is best known for his novels about Royal Navy hero Horatio Hornblower and The General, published in 1936 just before the first of those, is in many ways similar. The focus stays with the point-of-view of the central character, but an omniscient narrator comments on his decisions and offers broader background. Curzon is a much less attractive figure than Hornblower: inflexible and unimaginative, not just incapable of elementary mathematics but "simple minded", and both snobbish and fawning at times. His less attractive moments include a refusal to allow a salient to be abandoned to shorten a line, condemning hundreds or thousands to death or injury, and his repudiation of his poor aunt and cousins. But he is also honest, loyal, and hard-working, and attractive enough a figure for a novel centred on him to work.

After the Battle of the Somme, the narrator comments — somewhat optimistically, given the broader portrait:

"It would have only needed for Curzon that night to have discussed the tactical problems with some hard-bitten infantry subaltern for him to have become convinced that the invention of machine-guns and barbed wire, which Napoleon had never heard of, called for a departure from Napoleon's tactical methods, and if Curzon had once been convinced it would have been hard to unconvince him."

As this suggests, The General doesn't describe the trench fighting directly. Through Curzon's career and contacts, however, it illuminates not just the British Army's higher echelons and command structure but also the bureaucracy and political system behind it, the social and institutional forces that drove Britain during the Great War. It is also a tightly written and compelling short novel.

January 2018

Related reviews:
- C.S. Forester - Horatio Hornblower
- books about World War I
- more war fiction
%T The General
%A Forester, C.S.
%I Michael Joseph
%D 1936
%O paperback
%G ISBN 014001117X
%P 191pp