The Cavalry Went Through
Posted by Nick Milne on February 24, 2011
[Cross-posted from There Are Real Things; yes, this means I'm regularly writing again - and with colleagues, at that! More stuff will gradually be posted here, too, as I get back into the swing of it.]
The Cavalry Went Through
Gollancz; 1930 .
288p. First reading.
While poring over Cyril Falls’ immensely useful War Books: A Critical Guide, a 1930 index of what Falls considered to have been the most important or interesting books about the Great War that had yet been written, I stumbled across an entry in the “Fiction” section that immediately caught my eye. Everything else had been in the familiar line of short stories illustrating “slices of life”, or somewhat fictionalized memoirs, or novels drenched in painstaking verisimilitude. Those who spend a lot of time studying the War will be familiar with the problem. Anyway, The Cavalry Went Through, a book of which I had never heard written by an author of whom I had also never heard, stood out from the rest of them like fire on a mountaintop. All the other books were focused on coming to grips with what happened, or with complaining about what happened, or with even just, in whatever sense, expressing what happened; The Cavalry Went Through is purposefully about what did not happen.
The field of speculative historical fiction is an especially rich one, albeit one often populated by second-tier (if prolific) writers. Harry Turtledove is a prime example of this trend, though there are others. For his own part, Bernard Newman was more at home in the espionage and counter-espionage genre, writing some hundred books (both fictional and non-fictional) on the subject while maintaining a lively career as a lecturer and public intellectual. His first novel, though, was The Cavalry Went Through, and it was informed as much by Newman’s own very real experiences during the Great War as it was by whatever mischievous impulse tends to motivate those determined to unsettle history with their prose.
The concept of The Cavalry Went Through is simple enough: a brilliant, charismatic and entirely fictitious British general arrives on the Western Front in 1915 after astonishing successes in the African theatre and, through a mixture of unorthodox methods and an abandonment of the unofficial British “spirit of the defensive”, brings the War to a conclusion with the rout of the German army in Summer of 1917. The way in which this happens is militarily sound but narratively difficult; it relies on coincidences and such that are, as Falls puts it, “wildly improbably and [which] could hardly stand detailed criticism.” The fact that our victorious general never loses an engagement – never even comes close – is significant, but the ideas in play are nevertheless amazing.
For it is not just in some conventional manner that Gen. Henry Berrington Duncan establishes himself as the most famous man in the world. Very far from it. He is an intriguing mixture of Jan Smuts and Napoleon Bonaparte – beloved by his men, respected by his enemies, and never willing to let the established canons of military propriety get in the way of exploiting any weakness his opponents happen to offer. His men wear any old uniform, and speak familiarly to one another regardless of rank. Their parades and inspections are a disgrace. More importantly, though, there is no respecting of persons: good ideas are good even if they come from a subaltern. Every man under his command has been taught intermediate German – to expedite interrogations and the deciphering of captured documents – and instead of idling away with chess or checkers or cards in their leisure time they play a game of Duncan’s own devising, in which the practical possibilities of Western Front trench warfare are replicated on game boards constructed to be accurate topographical representations of the stretch of lines upon which the soldiers find themselves.
In short, General Duncan has no interest in merely holding on to the territory behind him. He’ll never gain it for Britain even if he wins. It’s not his territory: it belongs to Belgium and France. There is no conceivable reason for him to be content with a stalemate, and he pushes for complete victory at all times.
The methods he employs in doing this are fascinating. Realizing quickly that the tentative, cautious quality of British operations in general has been keeping them from making any significant gains (while also preventing them from incurring any significant losses), Duncan instead opts for bold strokes at unexpected points. His means of achieving these bold strokes are notable. Rather than sending the entire line forward in an attempt to take and hold the German trenches opposite them, he instead employs a squad of incredibly stealthy African scouts to go ahead in silence, kill everyone in the initial German trench for a hundred yards or so in both directions (again in complete silence), and then sends a single-file stream of highly-trained commandos through the gap – and this always in the dead of night. This procedure is repeated at each successive support line, and more and more men pour through the aperture. Some of them attack the German lines from the rear, acutely aware of how intolerable a night attack from that direction can be, but most of them disperse into the countryside behind the lines in groups of two or three to wreak as much havoc as they possibly can before being captured or killed. Some of them return to tell the tale, but not many.
Duncan – and, by necessity, Bernard Newman – anticipates the absolutely essential nature of small, squad-based combat when it comes to modern warfare, but that isn’t all. When the time comes to finish the fight and send the Germans rushing back to Berlin, the methods he employs are of a sort that seem more modern than the time in which he was writing would allow. It comes down to this: to win the War in 1917, General Duncan employs a mixture of what we now call Blitzkrieg (which had not yet been really articulated by anyone), suicidal intelligence measures (which were then thought to be intolerably unsporting and are even now quite iffy), and the terror-bombing of Berlin from the air (which did not happen at all during the War, for any reason, so far as I’ve been able to discover). He willingly gives up strategically useless territory regardless of its political significance, valuing the potential for pincer movements more highly. He rejects utterly the interference of cabinet ministers and other nuisances, articulating (in some cases quite literally and not without anger) a vision of the successful general as being by necessity a sort of unaccountable dictator. It succeeds in this case because Henry Berrington Duncan is a good man, but we must wonder at its universal applicability.
There’s lots more here to like. While the book is not what I would call high literature when it comes to its depth or tone, there are numerous completely enjoyable vignettes in which the bolder exploits of certain minor characters are described. Another source of fun (for those inclined towards such things) can be found in thinly-disguised historical figures under suggestive false names (Lord Kitchener becomes Lord Khartner, after his popular sobriquet, “Kitchener of Khartoum;” the two successive British commanders-in-chief, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig, are collapsed into Sir John Douglas; Worton Spender, one of the main characters, is apparently Winston Churchill; and so on). Another high point is a thrilling section in which the 1915 failure at Gallipoli is avenged by the successful invasion of the Dardanelles and the fall of Constantinople.
Some criticisms must be offered, however. Apart from the narrative implausibility of it all, as noted above, there’s a certain tendency towards under-description of action throughout the piece. This often presents itself in the form of an annoying tic of Newman’s; I lost count very quickly of the number of times he resorts to describing something as “indescribable” or “beyond description” – once thrice on a single page. The under-descriptive problem manifests itself most notably when it comes to the cavalry to which the book’s very title alludes. It really is a thrilling and beautiful moment when the gap in the German lines is consolidated and the great wave roars in, but we don’t really hear much more about it afterward, unfortunately. This is the moment towards which the book – and the actual war – had been working all along, but it’s all we can do to hear even a hint of what the cavalry actually accomplishes once the breakthrough is achieved. That’s fine, I guess, because we can well imagine it, but still… come on, Newman.
There are also moral concerns. Though Duncan takes a very sympathetic view of how soldiers with shellshock or other nervous problems should be treated (indeed, his position on this is exemplary), he is much less interested in questions of dignity and humane treatment when it comes the enemy. At several points throughout their shared adventures Duncan and Newman-as-narrator complain bitterly about having had to take actual prisoners, preferring it immensely when the enemy is either caught by surprise before he can throw down his arms or else simply refuses to do so. The tactics of the commando teams sent behind the German lines also warrant caution; while they are undoubtedly effective, there’s a monstrousness to them that cannot easily be vindicated in Just War terms. Newman’s response to this problem in a footnote is hardly satisfactory: “Certain critics have condemned the methods of the [commando] troops as brutal: of course they were, but so is all war. There is no differentiation in degrees of brutality.” We cannot easily agree.
All in all, it’s a fast, basically satisfying read. Those with a pronounced interest in speculative militaria generally or the Great War particularly will likely be better served by The Cavalry Went Through than most, but just because a book is narrow in application doesn’t mean it can’t be a success. I doubt very much that it’s still appreciably in print, so you’ll probably have to consult a library (and likely inter-library loan, at that) to secure a copy, but it’s well worth the effort.