He Did His Duty

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I have read most of C. S. Forester’s books, but had never come across The General until I found a copy last year in a second-hand shop. It nestled next to a biography of Winston Churchill written in 1940 (which was also fascinating). This was something of a coincidence, because in 1941, as he crossed the Atlantic in the battleship Prince of Wales for his first meeting with Roosevelt, Churchill read three of Forester’s Hornblower novels. Hornblower – hardworking, audacious, full of initiative, demanding but careful of his men – would have been for Churchill the perfect model of what a military man should be.

However, I feel the Prime Minister should have been reading The General. This would better have prepared him for the many disappointments which the British Army, and in particular its leaders, brought him throughout the course of the war, and might have given him an understanding of why our armies so often underperformed.

Lieutenant-General Herbert Curzon, KCMG, CB, DSO, is presented to us in his bath chair on the seafront at Bournemouth, where newcomers hear from locals about his brilliant career. ‘He wears his position with dignity, and is generous with his smiles, so that his popularity is great although he plays a bad hand of bridge.’ It is a brief but endearing introduction to a much-loved and respected old soldier. Forester then tells the story of the man, how he acquired his position and his fame, and at what cost.

We first meet the young Curzon as a lieutenant commanding a squadron of cavalry in the Boer War. He is only in command because senior officers have fallen ill and his immediate superior is lying dead at his feet. His squadron is dismounted and under fire, but he cannot tell from which of the many rocky outcrops the fire is coming. He does not know what the squadron’s orders are, is unsure where the rema

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About the contributor

Dick Russell is a semi-retired lawyer who now has time to catch up on the books he should have read. His reading of history has taught him that, even in civilian life, battles are usually won by the other’s failings rather than one’s own brilliance.

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