Thursday, April 6, 2023

The General (#poem)


The General

"Good morning, good morning!", the General said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

-Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) fought heroically in the first world war, a war he came to actively oppose even as he was fighting it. But he survived. He was friends with Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, and was instrumental in seeing Owen's poetry into print after the war. He's a major figure in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy.

And what brought to mind a poem on the incompetence of generals? Hmm, a mystery, I'm sure. Though none of the current suspects particularly strike me as cheery.


  1. Packs quite the punch for being such a short poem.

  2. Barker's Billy Prior Trilogy is incredible: Sarah Lumb feels confidence and new sense of agency women find in WWI, but the chemicals in the munitions factory turn her yellow. RE “general as donkey." John Keegan, though, asserts that generals did not have the benefit of radio communication that generals enjoyed during WWII. WWI generals could do little more than wait until they heard how their plans were working out. Generals simply did not know during Gallipoli, the Somme, and Passchendaele how effed up things were on the ground. Subordinates felt no choice but to follow the plan, even while realities changed on the battlefield by the half-hour. Keegan, to his credit, wonders why infantry and civilians tolerated mass loss as long as they did. Still a mystery, resisting easy answers.

    1. Oh, Sassoon is probably not being fair; still there was definitely some bad generalship in WWI even without modern communications. Frontal assaults against entrenched positions (uphill at Gallipoli!) were never very bright but became even deadlier with the advent of the machine gun. Strategists hadn't paid close enough attention to the Russo-Japanese war or even the closing years of the American Civil War. And there were officers who saw the problem: Liddell Hart's writings come after the war, but apparently he starting thinking about solutions even during its last years.

      I loved the Regeneration trilogy as well. So good.