Book Review – Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-18

Christopher Moore-Bick, Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-18. Solihull: Helion & Company Ltd. 2011. viii, 327 pp. £25.00 (Cloth)

Christopher Moore-Bick studied at Cambridge and now works for the Ministry of Defence. Playing the Game is his first book. Work on British officers and the Western Front is hardly sparse, but Moore-Bick has nevertheless managed to make a worthwhile contribution.

As the title indicates, he stakes out comparatively fresh ground for himself by ignoring the generals and instead writing about Lieutenants and Captains. The book offers good coverage of a wide range of subjects, including coverage of officers’ social lives in the trenches, the process of adjustment to a life of soldiering and violence, their relationships with their colleagues and superiors, and their responses to the heavy and sometimes exciting responsibilities of their new lives. As well as allowing Moore-Bick to construct a remarkably three-dimensional portrait of the officers, his holistic approach draws together in one book a series of otherwise often disparate threads of research.

He handles these different themes well and highlights the conclusions of others working in each particular field (citing Joanna Bourke’s work on killing, for example) in tandem with his own research before highlighting the interconnections between the various facets of officers’ lives. Very detailed studies do, of course, contribute greatly to increased understanding, but it is still necessary for their findings to be brought back and included in the wider picture, and Playing the Game handles this overarching narrative very well.

Moore-Bick is equally good with details, and has a good eye for a telling quotation or a memorable moment. His discussion of officers’ social lives and their efforts to recreate at least some aspects of their civilian lives in the trenches, as far as logistics and the vagaries of war would allow, was made that much livelier by the inclusion of a menu for a seven-course dinner which was eaten in a front-line dugout, which included lobster and duck among various other courses! His research evidently turned up a number of telling details like this, and the book is both richer and more enjoyable because of it.

Some of the chapters are on familiar subjects (the chapter ‘Education and Upbringing,’ covering public school ethos, is a case in point) and come to familiar conclusions, although of course this is nearly impossible to avoid given the number of works which have been written in the field. Leaving such topics out, familiar though they are, would make the book much less accessible and reduce the likely readership to a purely academic audience. The strength of Moore-Bick’s work that it is accessible to the enthusiast as well as to the academic; thankfully, the familiar subjects are covered succinctly and freshly, including a lot of original research alongside discussion of the conclusions that other researchers have drawn.

It is a pity that Moore-Bick confines his efforts to the officers of the infantry alone; too much can be made of the differences between different arms, and considering artillery and cavalry officers would allow scope for comparative study. However, it is only fair to note that he confines his study to infantry officers because they were the ones who spent the most time in the trenches. He emphasises that officers viewed the front line as the most valid place for their service, and entering the trenches for the first time as a seminal moment in their lives as soldiers. Officers in other branches could also have this experience, but it was not central in the way that it was for infantrymen. In particular, he highlights the way that staff officers, who were often far from the trenches, were often looked down upon by infantry officers, and here he gives some consideration to the relations between officers of different branches of the army.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way that Moore-Bick approaches his subject. The ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ school is refreshingly conspicuous by its absence, and is barely mentioned in passing. This doesn’t mean that it is ignored—rather, Moore-Bick notes in his introduction that many works address either strategic and tactical competence of British leadership or the war experiences of the enlisted man, but says “This book is not about either.” He does address the professionalism of junior officers, and their development of skills useful in their new military life, and indeed devotes a chapter to these two topics, but he does not seek to pass judgement on their military efficiency, and the book is stronger for it.

He treats the officers as rounded individuals, and explores their social lives, their efforts and desire not to be separated from at least some of the comforts and familiarity of home, their hopes and fears, and their different reactions to death and killing. It is refreshing to read something which takes such a broad and inclusive view of officers, and steers conspicuously clear of the stereotypes. Some people might object that the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ idea is so firmly entrenched in public perceptions of the war and of the army’s officers that vigorous efforts to unstick it must be made at every opportunity. But there must be some space in the literature for other worthy subjects, and in any case, part of that myth is founded on very two-dimensional, almost cartoonish conceptions of officers, and the broad and multi-faceted approach of this work will serve to underline that officers were human beings and not a series of Colonel Blimp figures.

Thanks to Casemate Publishing for providing the review copy.

By Andrew Duncan, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Printable version can be downloaded here.

One response to “Book Review – Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-18

  1. Pingback: Get your Book Reviewed! « Birmingham "On War"·

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