An insider´s view of G.H.Q. review by Professor Gary Sheffield

Professor Gary Sheffield

‘Gary Sheffield has established himself as one of the foremost authorities on the British Army of the First World War’
Professor Saul David, University of Buckingham

‘Gary Sheffield is one of Britain’s foremost historians of the First World War – insightful, original, and superbly informed’
Sir Max Hastings, military historian

AN INSIDER’S VIEW OF GHQ- Review by Professor Gary Sheffield

G.H.Q. (Montreuil-sur-Mer) by SIR FRANK FOX

London: Beaumont Fox, 2015
216pp., hardback, many illustrations, foldout chart, ,ISBN 978-0-9928901-2-4

G.H.Q., first published in 1920, is something of a hidden gem.It is a long time since I first read this book, and I had forgotten how interesting and useful it is. Written by Sir Frank Fox, originally under the pseudonym ‘G.S.O’, it is an account of what went on at the BEF’s General Headquarters written by a staff officer who served there.

It serves as an excellent introduction to some vital aspects of the BEF’s war. Administration, logistics and staff work are not numbered among the glamourous aspects of warfare, and so, far too often, are overlooked. Tellingly, the one part of this book which may be familiar to readers focuses on the human element. Fox mentions that Haig was rarely seen, and when he did appear, staff officers rushed to a window ‘to catch a glimpse of him’. This annoyed Haig, who crossly annotated his copy of the book, perhaps sensitive to the accusations of remoteness from the rest of GHQ.

Fox wrote the book to defend GHQ against its critics, by explaining what went on there. He takes us through the various branches of GHQ, covering such matters as munitions, salvage, and the medical services, enlivening what might have been a rather dry account with anecdotes.

Lieutenant-General Sir Travers Clarke, the relatively youthful Quartermaster-General from 1917, emerges as one of the unsung heroes of the British army. All of this repays reading, but needs to be supplemented by recent works, such as Craig Gibson on relations with French civilians. Fox wrote as an outsider; an Australian and a journalist, not a professional soldier.

So, he was well placed to see the extent to which GHQ became civilianised, and this is one of his most interesting themes. In his view, the prejudice against New Army officers, which was strong in 1916, had largely vanished by the end of the war. These citizen-soldiers had not only brought their civilian skills into the army, but had made GHQ more interesting, with the Mess a far less stuffy place: ‘I was struck by the general good temper with which the Trade Union of Officers ultimately took its “dilutees”’ (p.133).

Both as a memoir and a history, G.H.Q. is valuable, and it is very good to see this new edition in print. It has a foreword from the author’s great grandson, Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, a former MP, and, as a bonus, the ‘Game Book’, a statistical annex compiled by Travers Clarke for King George V.

Gary Sheffield

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