Wednesday, 19 June 2013

achtung schweinehund!

I finished Achtung Schweinehund! by Harry Pearson on Monday. It was pretty good. (A Little, Brown paperback, 2007. Subtitle 'A boy's own story of imaginary combat'.) Autobiographical, with factual/historical diversion, on war comics, toy soldiers, model soldiers and war gaming, man and boy. Lots of resonances, though it did dip rather in the middle when he spent quite a lot of time on the 19th-century history of model soldiers.

A first couple of quotes (more to follow):

'Like most children born in the early 1960s I had many relatives [of father's and grandfather's generation] with military experience. ... This made mine a singular generation in British history. Because, despite a national tendency to crow about our successes on the battlefield, the fact is that Britain is not a land of soldiers and our experience of war is limited.
'Until 1916 there had never been conscription in the United Kingdom; National Service - including the Second World War - had lasted for just twenty-five years. The British Army that fought at Minden, Quebec, Balaclava, Rorke's Drift and even Mons in 1914 was small and professional. During the Napoleonic Wars, when every other nation in Europe introduced conscription, Britain resisted, filling ranks decimated by fifteen years of fighting by increasing the maximum age for volunteers from twenty-eight to thirty-three. ...
'By 1812 France, Russia and Austria were each conscripting one hundred thousand men per year, some of them boys as young as fifteen. 'I could lose the British Army in a single day,' the Duke of Wellington remarked sardonically, but accurately, as he marched about the Peninsula with his sixty thousand men. ... At the start of the Great War Britain's army was the same size as that of Belgium, and only half as big as that of Serbia. In 1914 the Germans had 1.75 million reservists. Britain had one hundred thousand.
'Despite this compulsion (and the fact that the wealthy frequently dodged duties by paying others to do it for them), the Continentals tended to regard their vast amateur armies as exemplars of national pride and patriotism; proof that ordinary folk were prepared to fight to the death to preserve the regime and to shed their blood for the national interest. The Europeans looked down their noses at the British, wondering at the moral fibre of a country that paid men to make a career of fighting. The word mercenaries was often used.'
- p11-13

'In The First World War John Terraine asks why the conflict affected the British quite so dramatically. Other nations, he points out, suffered far worse casualties than Britain without convulsing quite so violently or becoming so, well, damnably emotional about it. Terraine is not terribly sympathetic. In fact, you sense the venerable military historian would like to give everybody he sees sniffling over "Anthem for Doomed Youth" a good slap and the order to jolly well buck up. The traditional make up of the British Army is the answer to Terraine's question. The British had never fought in such large numbers before, and had never done so as naive amateurs.
'The experience of war was new to the British in a way it wasn't for the other nations. To the French, Germans, Belgians and Austrians, whose countryside had been regularly ravaged by hostile armies since the Reformation, war was an ever-present threat, a pestilence of steel and smoke that could sweep through at any time. ...
'In Europe war was one of life's hazards, a natural threat to be avoided like lightning or typhoid. To the British it was something that happened far away and was handled by rough men who were used to that sort of thing. The First and Second World Wars briefly changed all that. There are many reasons why the British are still so fixated on the events of 1939-45 and the sheer novelty is surely one of them.'
- p14