An Introduction to the Author:
This summer, browsing in a school fete, I found a first edition copy of a book by John Buchan, originally published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1935. Buchan is perhaps best known for his spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915. It introduces the South African engineer and Boer War hero of subsequent novels, Richard Hannay, and has been made into a film four times, first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. Buchan (1875-1940) began writing fiction at the beginning of a long career which included his rise to an Imperial statesman, Member of Parliament, barrister, publisher and soldier. He was born in Perth, a son of the manse of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, his family moving to Fife soon after his birth. They later moved to the Gorbals in Glasgow and it was there that Buchan received his education, attending grammar school and then the University of Glasgow. By the time he went ‘up’ to Brasenose College, Oxford, he had already written articles for periodicals, and while there he published his first novel in 1895. He was called to the bar in 1901, but his first job was as a secretary to the high commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner. Returning to London in 1903, Buchan became a director of Nelson’s, the publishing company, in addition to furthering his career as a barrister, marrying and becoming a father of four. During the First World War, Buchan was a newspaper correspondent in France, an intelligence officer and then Director of Information. He later wrote Nelson’s History of the War and became a keen historian. In 1927 he was elected Conservative MP for the Scottish Universities and, on being made the fifteenth Governor-General of Canada, was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935. In April of this year he published his book, The King’s Grace, celebrating the silver jubilee of George V. As he himself wrote in its preface, this was not intended as a biography of the King, the time for which had happily not yet come, since George died late in that year, but was an attempt to provide a picture – and some slight interpretation – of his reign, with the throne as the continuing thing through an epoch of unprecedented change. He incorporated into his text a few passages from his 1922 History of the War. Like his king, Buchan was an extremely well-liked and respected man, whose own death in 1940 also evoked a great deal of sorrow.
Since we have been commemorating the events of the fateful year of 1916, including the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, I thought it would be interesting to share some extracts from this out-of-print text about the year.
Extracts from the Account of 1916:
” When the year 1916 opened, the main front had been irrevocably fixed in the West. The vast material and mechanical power involved in the new type of war made it impossible to to alter readily the type of campaign which had once been set, or to use the whole world-front to strategic purpose. The unimaginative methods of frontal attack and attrition, as practised in 1915, were the only ones of which the High Command could conceive, since they seemed to follow naturally from the cumbrous mechanism behind them. The fact that they were costly was obscured by the hope that they were still more costly to the enemy. There was perhaps some reason in the view that the German will to conquer could only be broken by a holocaust of suffering, and not by some ingenious strategical triumph which might have given the Allies a victory on points, for we were fighting not only the pride of a monarch and an army but the megalomania of a great people.”
” Nor can much of the blame for the deadlock be laid on the British commanders. They had been compelled to conform to a mode of war which was not of their planning, and fro which they cannot escape. The most that can be said is that, out of a kind of professional loyalty, they had been too ready to defend the indefensible. What could Haig have achieved had he protested against the whole system? A radical change of military policy in the throes of a campaign would be like the uprooting of mandrakes.”
” Only British statesmen could break the bondage of a leaden and ineffective machine. If any charge is to be brought against them, it is not that they interfered unduly with the soldiers, but that they did not interfere enough, and in the right way. In a war of nations it is the civilian who must direct the general strategy… “
” Over Verdun, as over Ypres, there will brood in history a strange aura, the effluence of the sacrifice and fortitude of the tens of thousands who fell before her gates. Her little hills are for ever consecrated by her dead… As the weary French infantry scrambled over the débris of Thiaumont, a hundred miles to the north-west on a broad front the infantry of Britain and France were waiting to cross their parapets… Haig would have preferred an attack in Flanders, and indeed it is hard to see why Joffre chose the Somme area, for the German position there was immensely strong, and success offered no strategic advantage.
” The first day brought only slender results. There was no chance of surprise, the lengthy bombardment, owing to the poor quality of the ammunition, completely failed of its purpose, and the front of assault was too wide and the pressure too uniform. We were attacking a fortress without concentrating on the weak spots. The battle, which continued till it was stopped by the November rains, degenerated into a colossal effort of attrition…
” The Somme was the first great effort of the new armies of Britain, and in it they won much glory and a grave. The ‘tawny ground of Picardy,’ which Shakespeare’s Henry V discoloured with blood, was to become memorable for the English people, since few households in the land had not contributed to it a son. It was the final entry of the manhood of Britain into war… In their ranks were every class and condition – miners from the north, factory hands from the industrial centres, clerks and shopboys, ploughmen and shepherds, Saxon and Celt, college graduates and dock labourers, men who in the wild places of the earth had often faced danger, and men whose chief adventure had been a Sunday bicycle ride. This fighting stuff, which Germany had decried, proved a match for her Guards and Brandenburgers.”
” The Somme became a name of terror, that ‘blood-bath’ to which many journeyed and from which few returned… On the Somme attrition became at last a menace to Germany, for it was acute attrition: not like the slow erosion of cliffs by the sea, but like the steady crumbling of a mountain to which hydraulic engineers have applied a mighty head of water.”