Book Review 384: The Donkeys

THE DONKEYS, by Alan Clark. 216 pages, illustrated. Pimlico paperback

Looking back from its publication date in 1961, and again from today, it is hard to see why Alan Clark’s “The Donkeys” caused and continues to cause such consternation.

Its argument is briefly told: the British Expeditionary Force in 1915 was ruined by incompetent commanders: lions led by donkeys.

Setting aside the coloration of patriotism and optimism that distorted British public opinion, it is difficult to see why anyone, even in 1915, would have expected anything better. Clark, reflecting the continuing attitude that survived for half a century, notes that the reputation of the Royal Army was that it “always won the last battle.”

This is not only not true — think of New Orleans — it also implies what was true, which was that for the century before 1915, the officers of the British armies had uniformly been incompetents. The list of disasters was unrelenting: Balaclava, Kabul, Isandlwana, Khartoum; and it wasn’t just that the armies were led into ignominious defeats but that they were led on corrupt and stupid campaigns.

After each disaster, reforms were imposed to be followed by fresh disasters, suggesting that something fundamental was amiss. The one thing that never changed over the century was the officer corps.

That the ranks were, often, steady and sometimes superb soldiers only reinforces the point. Kipling did not become famous for his poems about officers.

What 1915 brought was disaster on scales not seen before. Clark, who was described by an English reviewer in 1961 as a writer of venom, adopts the methods of Lytton Strachey, who read through the tedious memoirs and double-decker life-and-letters volumes of the people he intended to impugn and lampoon and skewered them mercilessly with their own words.

Clark is the only English writer I know of who comes close to Strachey in the blandness of his wicked sentences: “adulation . . . deluded the commanders with notions of their own ability” or Haig “became respected for his conventional opinions.”

One example of direct quotation will suffice: General Henry Wilson told his diary as the weather warmed and dried in 1915, after a winter in the waterlogged trenches (not by Wilson personally, of course), that the English officers would welcome the more comfortable conditions, although “the men do not mind so much.”

Clark looks in detail at three battles: Neuve Chappelle, Aubers Ridge and Loos. Conditions were such that even competent commanders could not have managed; the field was so large that, without radios, there was no way to control the battle.

However the indifference to even trying stands out.

Though Clark does not say it, the attitude of the generals was of a piece with those so common among businessmen of the time; concern for the workers was never a factor.

In 1894, at the Battle of the Yalu River, hundreds of brave Chinese sailors were roasted alive because British contractors had sold the Imperial navy shells filled with charcoal instead of gunpowder. At Loos, thousands of British soldiers were mowed down by machine guns because American contractors had sold the British army shells filled with sawdust instead of lyddite.

During the second day of Loos, when the assault had been completely defeated, the donkeys insisted that a fresh attempt be made. Twelve battalions, nearly 10,000 men, went forward. “In the three and a half hours of the actual battle, their casualties were 385 officers and 7,861 men. The Germans suffered no casualties at all.”

Much worse was to come in 1916. Different men, same donkeys.

The reason to continue to read “The Donkeys” is that America in 2017 is in the same case as Britain in 1915. Our military commanders have not won a war in 70 years, and the reasons have everything to with incompetent leadership, military and civilian. (Clark lambastes the civilians of 1915 as well.) We can tell ourselves that we have the best military in the world, and if we do we are likely to use it, but thinking it so does not make it so.