REVIEW: The Lords of War by Mark Barnes

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When I was a much younger me, prone to underthinking and new to so much of the history I now take for granted, I  came across some extracts of some unkind Corelli Barnett thrashings where he was laying into some particular sacred cows of British military canon lore and it simply would not do. It must have been the Desert Generals from 1960, and I would have been reading it a good dozen years after publication in pimply bewilderment.

Forty years and a lifetime of loving books and learning (I like to think for both of us) and I am back with another Correlli Barnett book and the saintly bovines are, once again, on the end of a brutal pigsticking..And that will just about do for thoroughly mixed up metaphors; or the ghost of my Spitfire pilot English teacher will spin in his cockpit.

For me, the most important thing a book can do is educate and not get lost up its own tradesman’s entrance where the author is more intent on selling himself over his message. Rest easy pards.. believe me; what this book has in spades is the power to inform. In some respects it makes a library of books obsolete overnight, but that is the LAST thing you should consider doing with it. You need the older volumes; the stuff by the thinkers, the dreamers, the witnesses, and those downright bloody liars and then bring it all up to date with the cold gut wrenching reality served up here in succinct sabre cuts of analysis. Some of it is painful. Still more of it is bloody obvious, when you open your eyes to the best, or perhaps the even the worst of it, which has been so long overdue and we know will never really become the truth it should be – I am thinking here of Douglas Haig.

He appears in this book along with the men who wronged him, apparently for all time; but we’ll see about that. We also have Abraham Lincoln, who you can now see on film with his greatest general and the man they beat. We have the great captains, the architects of victory and the out and out charlatans. There are men we know by name, those we think we know and probably don’t and some who need refreshing. A few are absolute heroes to me – British to the core, with the exception of Eisenhower, who we must all surely admire. We could do with a man of his quality around today.

I keep getting that bit of Kipling in my head: If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same….and my mind comes to Bill Slim. He’d have a column next to Nelson if I had my way. He turned a beaten “forgotten” army into one that could take on the indomitable Japs and drive them out of Burma. There is Bert Ramsay, the great man who could spirit an army off a continent as carefully as he could deliver armadas on to one. He looks out from Dover Castle, make sure you stop and pay your respects after you’ve bought your ticket.

I love the way Mr Barnett dispatches the myths that stick like blu-tack on your most expensive wallpaper where you should never have put up those posters of Rommel and Napoleon. You can get your head round the gambler Yamamoto, who you have to admire; and Zhukov – who was awesome. I never know what to make of Churchill – he annoys the hell out of me for Gallipoli and his unabashed bullying, his treatment of Douglas Haig after death and his cajoling ignorance as an armchair general. I love him for 1940, he galvanised our country and led it to safety. For his abandonment of Bomber Command in 1945 – I hate him. He was a politician. Don’t even start me on David Lloyd George – Mr Barnett seems much of the same mind. What of Philippe Petain? The man who saved the French army is for one moment re-instated, with one eye on the disastrous decisions he made at another time and another place which ruined him forever without hope of rehabilitation.

There is Bert Harris, the man who picked up the tab for a campaign he didn’t start, but he certainly did his best to finish it. He is forever associated with Dresden, chosen for him from a list he didn’t draw up. Bomber Command got their memorial from a grateful nation last year after most of them had passed from old age. The fifty-five thousand who died taking the war to the Reich during the dark days and darker nights may not sit on the consciences of the politicians who sent them and yet abandoned them in the peace of 1945, but they were forever in the heart of Bert, and he paid with an exile in more ways than one, a shame on the people who made it so.

This page turner just keeps on giving. The joy of it is you can read each chapter separately and come back as it suits you. It made an ideal read for my commute on the train into London. But the important thing to keep in sight is where the appreciation of the subjects comes from. You can’t write books like this overnight, they take years of experience and a strong element of bloody mindedness. So the bloke who offended my naïve sensitivities back in the Seventies would have to carry a great deal of his principles over into the next century. But he hasn’t stood still. The learning goes on. This is a magnificent book and having read a number of reviews by supposedly worthier people than me I can take heart from getting my impressions bang on correct. I got it in the end. I never benefited from a university education and I often think it shows. It gave me a chip on my shoulder, long since lost. But you don’t need one if you just keep reading and get out there and open your mind and eyes to the possibilities of exploring the wonders of military history, its events and people. Books like this are there to propel you – they make it easier. Look at the price of it, before you even check it out on Amazon. I spent that much when my wife and I went to see Lincoln at the Odeon in Southend. The film was fantastic – go see it, but I hope you see the point I am making….

What I like as much as anything is the people left out as those included. And so some of those sacred cows I mentioned at the start are left outside chewing the cud are only mentioned in passing, or not at all. I kind of like that, it puts them in perspective and reminds me of a lecture  I attended which pointed out that one highly exalted British field marshal of the Second World War was just about up to the standard of a good divisional general from the final year of the first, and I have to laugh. He most definitely would not have liked being described in such glowing terms.  So, we come back neatly to where we came in. I couldn’t have read this book when I was fourteen and I suspect Correlli Barnett might not have been able to write it, But here we are, and I have to tell you this is the book of 2012 I would have picked had I done one of those “best of” things before Crimbo. Belated thanks to the author. For this book and for making me want to find things out for myself when I was a lad. I realise now he had something to do with it. There was a literary life beyond the Cornelius Ryan books my dad made me read and although the old hack means the world to me, it has been fantastic finding out so much more along the way from the long list of authors I cherish and the odd howler here and there. It’s all subjective, of course – but that’s the point, isn’t it? The military historian Andrew Robertshaw wants you to get out there and find things out for yourself with a lot less reliance on middle men interpreting it all for you. I’m with him all the way, but you can’t do it without an element of reading and you have to choose your histories wisely. This book will help you place a lot of people and armies in context. It will burst bubbles and I hope it will squash some tired, nasty old myths. You simply have to read it.

Mark Barnes
THE LORDS OF WAR
Supreme Leadership from Lincoln to Churchill
By Correlli Barnett
Published by The Praetorian Press £25.00
ISBN: 978 1 8159 0 935