The General – Book Review

In a slight departure from normal wargaming fare, I’m going to take a look at a book that grabbed my attention and what I’ve taken away from it. Please bear with me if I ramble.

The General was published in 1936, penned by the great C.S Forester of Hornblower fame. Apocryphally purchased by Adolf Hitler for his generals and hangers-on, this book serves as an object lesson for the perils of high command. It follows the meteoric rise of one Herbert Curzon from humble subaltern to lieutenant-general, taking in the bloodiest battles of the first world war along the way.

Curzon is a cavalryman, born and bred – deeply mistrustful of anything that deviates from the strategies laid down by the great worthies of the Napoleonic period. He is a man out of time, wholly unsuited for warfare involving magazine-fed rifles, machine guns and quick-fire artillery.

As he rises through the illustrious ranks of the British general staff, he becomes more and more detached from the reality at the front. He becomes obsessed with the application of even greater forces, convinced that each new offensive will shatter the German lines and pave the way to victory.

The book provides an interesting portrait of staff officers in the 20th century – something that I was wholly unfamiliar with prior to reading. This world of map tables and field telephones is wholly detached from the brutal realities of the front line, where shot and shell fall like spring rain.

It paints a picture of the prevailing opinions of the time, and the assumptions made by senior officers untroubled by the relentless march of technology, and the impacts that it would have on their profession.

When it was first published in 1936, the message of this book was obvious – those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. While explicitly stated as a work of fiction, with no greater aspirations than to entertain the readership of a popular author, the General gives us a chilling insight into the mindset of the British high command and their unsuitability for the travails of mechanized warfare.

I found the insights into high command particularly compelling – and while not necessarily directly applicable to game design, the book gave an interesting perspective on the rigours of command and control at a divisional and army group level.

Most wargames give players some degree of omniscience and does very little to model the difficulty of transmitting orders between units, and the transfer of accurate information up and down the chain of command.

Making an effort to represent the fog of war and the problems of command in a wargame may add an interesting dynamic to play – introducing an element of unpredictability and presenting new challenges for players to overcome.

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