I am going to assume that Gordon Corrigan is a nice man. In this 2003 Cassell edition of Mud, Blood, and Poppycock he shares with us that he is married and a church-goer, so this is a reasonable assumption. I genuinely do not want to spend ages telling you why this book is terrible – it’s not a particularly good use of your time or mine. I know I have said this before, but it is not really the purpose of this blog to self censor and only write nice, glowing reviews of wonderful books. So in the unlikely event that this spoils a nice person’s day then I am genuinely sorry, but this was one of the weakest, worst written history books I have read in a very long time.

It is not without its redeeming features – there are several passages of mildly interesting, if unoriginal, description of the structure of the British Army in 1914-18. I also learnt something I hadn’t known before about the role of horses in the war. If the author had just exercised some self control this would have been such a better book. I suspect he knows that, and decided to include the offending content, which I am getting to, to boost sales.

 

Just to be completely clear, revisionist history is a good thing. It is absolutely right that the assumptions we make about what we think we know about the past are challenged in the light of new evidence as it emerges. Lazy stereotypes need to be confronted, even when on examination they turn out to be broadly correct. So I have no problem that Corrigan decides that everything ever written about the Great War is wrong, that it was not a bloodbath, that life in the trenches was usually jolly good fun, and that we beat the Boche through force of character and a jolly good British stiff upper lip. Although of course this is parody, Corrigan really does write like this. The British Army was and is the best in the world, and anyone who suggests otherwise is unpatriotic. Oh, and by the way, Blackadder 4 wasn’t historically accurate.

The technique here is simple and very badly done.
Step 1 – make a general observation, unsupported by any reference or evidence whatsoever, about the popular perception of the Great War – for example that the trenches were full of very large rats.
Step 2 – claim with little or no evidence to the contrary that they weren’t
Step 3 – claim that there may in fact have been some true in the popular perception after all – but argue that the rabbits were larger in the French trenches, that the Tommies enjoyed the company of the rats, and who minds the odd rat anyway other than lefty pinkoes?

Just to emphasise – this is Corrigan’s approach, chapter after chapter, not a parody. Take one example. In chapter 3 he says that “The perception of soldering in the Great War is of a young patriot enlisting in 1914 to do his bit…Arriving at one of the Channel Ports he marches to all the way up to the front, singing “Tipperary” and smoking his pipe.” (Page 74).

I am not aware of anyone every suggesting that soldiers marched all the way from the Channel Ports to the front line. Nor apparently is Corrigan, because this perception is not evidenced in any way. Nevertheless, having set up this straw man, he points out that trains, motor vehicles, mules and horses were all in abundance in 1914 Belgium. Point made, straw man demolished. Yet a sense of honesty compels him to admit only a few lines later that “The pre-war army was …well accustomed to marching. The reservists were not so lucky. Reservists sitting by the side of the road, boots off, and feet bleeding were a common sight (75). Again, no authority is provided, but it is hardly surprising if the common perception of soldiers having to march an unreasonably long way grew up if this was a common sight on the roadsides of Northern France and Belgium.
There is an opportunity here for some serious historical investigation to be done. The Army stands accused of not looking after its solders very well, of making them march long distances in uncomfortable footwear, and of not providing enough motor and equine transport. So is that true? What does the evidence say? What did other armies do with regard to moving their troops about, in the circumstances where transport was limited and the need to move troops around urgent? Was transport taken seriously as a military discipline? I don’t know, but neither, apparently, does the author.

The First World War was a terrible, shocking bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands of men marched to their deaths in circumstances that remain distressing to this day. I have written elsewhere about the “thankful villages” – Corrigan references these as evidence that not every community lost someone during the war, missing the point that so very few did so. In denying the enormity of the shock of the war – there was no lost generation, not that many people died compared to other conflicts, that the only people with a problem were poets “who wrote for money” (!!!! – the monsters) – he insults the memory of those that fought and died, and denies them a voice. There are so many powerful records – diaries, letters, etc. – of the time telling us what the war was like, but Corrigan ignores these voices and relies on distorted statistics and a relentless refusal to accept that any concern about the war and its conduct could possibly be wrong.

Finally, Corrigan is at pains to let the reader know he is a retired soldier. If the numerous reminders of this are not sufficient, he uses playground language – “wedding tackle”, “willy”, and “dirty water” – at times in a way that is utterly inappropriate in a serious work of historical inquiry. But perhaps that is the point.

 
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