Review by Peter Kingdon Booker
This novel is the first of two written by Graves during his stay in England during WW2. After it was written in 1939/40, Graves split the book in two, and the second half is called Proceed Sergeant Lamb.
Among authors of the 20th century, Graves stands tall. He supported himself and his families by his writing, and published more than 140 books but made not nearly so much money as another of my other heroes, Somerset Maugham. Graves had an unconventional life. After service in WW1 in which he received wounds that were nearly fatal, he found that he suffered from shell shock, from which he recovered only gradually and perhaps only ever partially. He married in 1919 after surviving the Spanish flu, and by his wife Nancy Nicholson had four children. He set up a ménage a trois including Laura Riding, and soon his wife left. On a visit to the US, Laura Riding suddenly left him for another married man, and Graves later married for a second time, to Beryl Hodge, the former wife of one of his co-authors, after living with her for some years. With his two wives, he had eight children.
Graves´s reputation rests on his autobiography of WW1 Goodbye to all that (1929), on I Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) (the two books about the Emperor Claudius which were prizewinners), Count Belisarius, The White Goddess and his translations of the Greek Myths. He was a poet of considerable merit and published 55 collections of poetry and was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post he held for one term of five years, and he was succeeded by fellow war poet Edmund Blunden. They are both commemorated in Westminster Abbey´s Poets´ Corner among 14 other soldier poets of WW1.
When they were published, the Sergeant Lamb books were regarded as potboilers. I think that this judgement is unfair, and was made at a period when Anglo-American friendship was at a premium for the prosecution of WW2. The two books are about the rebellion of the North American colonists which is a subject not close to the heart of many British historians, and the British effort to hold on first to Canada and second the immense country now known as United States. In the US this period leading to the birth of the nation is seen as one of struggle through hardship leading to success. In Britain the same story is of failure and loss, of mismanagement and avoidance of responsibility; this side of the story is not nearly so attractive.
The major factor leading to Britain´s loss of the Thirteen Colonies was the way in which the war was managed. George III (1760 – 1820) became very popular in Britain, but even before he succumbed to madness, he was prone to obstinacy and was a poor judge of character. Under the leadership of his Prime Minister Lord North, his chief military men for the war were The Earl of Sandwich as First Lord of the Admiralty (in charge of the Royal Navy) and Lord George Germain as Secretary of State for America (in charge of the army in North America).
Under his birth name of George Sackville, Germain was a veteran of Fontenoy 1745 and he was commander of the cavalry at Minden 1759. At Minden he several times willfully refused to advance the cavalry when ordered. For this insubordination, he was cashiered from the army and in order to explain himself, he insisted on a court-martial and at his court-martial, his dismissal was upheld and the court ruled that he was unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatever. Unusually the court also ordered that this verdict be read to each regiment and entered in the orderly book of every regiment in the army and his name was struck from the rolls of the Privy Council. George III quietly reinstated him to the Privy Council in 1765 and Sackville became Germain when he inherited the Germain estate in 1769.
He was appointed by George III Secretary of State for the American colonies in 1775, and was thus responsible for all army appointments, provisions to the army and strategic planning of the war. His orders during the war were so confused that he must bear large responsibility for the failure of the Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781) campaigns. His insistence in giving detailed orders for campaigns over three thousand miles away coupled with his failure to understand the geography of the colonies must make him a prime candidate for blame for the loss of the war. Sandwich was First Lord 1771- 1782. It was he who insisted that the bulk of the Navy be kept in home waters and giving minimal naval reinforcements to the struggle in America. At the time of the American Rebellion, these two ministers were lampooned as incompetent tinkers.
The novel itself has been drawn from the records left by the actual Sergeant Roger Lamb, a Dubliner who joined the army in 1776 and was nearly immediately sent to North America. Graves suggests in his introduction that this book is an historical novel which does not distort history, since every historical fact he brings to the story is of general record or found in Lamb´s record itself. Lamb´s personal qualities were many and he records his duties and adventures in an intriguing manner. Although Lamb joined the Ninth Regiment (later the Royal Norfolks) he transferred after the disaster at Saratoga to the Twenty-Third, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. And it was while teaching new recruits about the history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1914 that Graves discovered Lamb´s diaries from which he constructed this historical novel.
Graves´s writing style is gentle and accurate and is a pleasure to read. He concentrates on the British contingent leading up to Saratoga, and as far as a Sergeant is able to, he offers criticism of British strategy. This is at the same time a strength and a weakness of the book. A Sergeant may be well enough educated to describe his own theatre of the war and his own experiences, which this book does very well. But it is at the same time not within the sphere of knowledge of a sergeant to appreciate the wider strategy of the war.
Having made this point, the contemporary opinions offered in this novel are well documented, and we come to the realization that even if Britain had won this war against its own colonists, it is quite likely that a similar quarrel would have broken out at a later date. It is not credible that a young nation such as the US could have been kept in a colonial status while the birth rate of its citizens was rising exponentially. Graves has done a good service in this novel because he has made clear that even with the best army in the world, it is not possible to hold down an idea whose time has arrived.